Ritual and trauma: Towards a theory of music and war

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Keynote at the conference ‘Music and Conflict in Austrian and German Contexts: The Politics and Escapism of Wartime Culture’, Institute for Austrian and German Music Research.

Wars are mass producers of traumatic events; and, as anthropologists of war have long noted, this may help explain the surfeit of ritual practices that accompany war. Such rituals do not simply respond to war: they are integral to how war functions, a means of resistance to the horrors of war which, paradoxical as it may seem, enables the continuing recourse to war in martial cultures, including our own. Even in modern secularised societies, the military remains one of the most ritualised of all institutions — on a par with, or even exceeding, many religious institutions. And where there is ritual, there is so often music.

My case study for this lecture is older, however: the Thirty Years War. I have chosen to focus on this conflict given its importance in the historiography of modern warfare and its significance in German cultural memory, but also because of many gaps in our knowledge of musical practices of war in this period. Basing my discussion largely on existing secondary literature, supplemented by some primary sources, I will begin by exploring how we can map different areas of musical practice of war in terms of proximity to, or distance from, the moment of violence itself. Such a mapping has many benefits, including helping to clarify the ritual nature and function of many musical practices of war. Theories of trauma, in turn, can help us understand such rituals as a strategy to try and contain the traumatic encounters that lie at the heart of warfare.
Period19 May 2023
Held atInstitute of Austrian and German Music Research