Music – Politics – Semiotics: Aspects of the Legacy of David Osmond-Smith (1946–2007)
The 9th volume of Twentieth-Century Music is a special double issue entitled ‘Music – Politics – Semiotics: Aspects of the Legacy of David Osmond-Smith (1946–2007).’ This volume was guest-edited by Björn Heile, a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Glasgow. In the following extracts from his Editorial, Dr Heile discusses the importance of Osmond-Smith’s contribution to twentieth-century music research.
This special issue of Twentieth-Century Music is not so much ‘in memoriam’ David Osmond-Smith or a ‘celebration’, but rather a reassessment of his work and its significance for twentieth-century music studies.
Born in Worthing (West Sussex) in 1946, Osmond-Smith read music at Cambridge and undertook doctoral studies at York, followed by stints in Milan to work with Umberto Eco and Paris to study with Roland Barthes. In 1973 he joined the fledgling Music Department at the University of Sussex, which he did much to shape intellectually, acceding to a Chair in 1994. Having suffered from AIDS-related illnesses for many years, he took early retirement in 2004. Since his condition had stabilized, his death in 2007 came unexpectedly.
At the core of this volume are two articles that remained unpublished at the time of his death, ‘Masculine Semiotics’ and ‘Voicing the Labyrinth.’ These are complemented with drafts for his planned monograph on Luciano Berio and one of his earliest publications. These texts illustrate both continuity and change in Osmond-Smith’s work throughout his career. The continuities are expressed in the title of this volume, which introduces semiotics and politics alongside music.
While his theoretical interest in semiotics is well documented, this was complemented by a less overt but nonetheless crucial indebtedness to Adorno and the work of the Frankfurt School. Although he perhaps contributed more directly to the former in his publications, at least in later years he leant more in the opposite direction in his teaching and in conversation.
In Osmond-Smith’s thinking semiotics and critical theory must have been interrelated. If I may speculate on the nature of this connection, semiotics allowed him to analyse the mechanics of what Ben Curry in his contribution to this issue calls ‘external signification’ with some rigour, while critical theory provided him with a clearer idea of the content of that signification. To put it the other way around, it is its social function, analysed by means of critical theory, that gives music meaning, but how that meaning is concretely embodied or expressed by the music is a matter for semiotics to investigate.
Alongside these continuities, there were also changes in his interests. Although Osmond-Smith started out as a theorist, he gradually became more interested in what one may call practical criticism. Whereas, as Ben Curry details, his early articles in music semiotics seemed designed to put that new subject on a firmer footing, he soon became absorbed by the desire to arrive at a better understanding of specific pieces of music or the music of a particular composer, a change of emphasis which is accompanied by a commensurately more essayistic writing style. The dazzling combination of historical scholarship, cultural critique, theoretical insight, and analytical close-reading exhibited in ‘Masculine Semiotics’ probably best encapsulates his mature work. It can hardly be claimed that the essay lacks theoretical ambition, but this is now decidedly a means to an end, not an end in itself.
If, whether justly or unjustly, his influence as a theorist remains limited, it is as a critic that Osmond-Smith’s work remains exemplary. Balancing the demands of analytical close reading, cultural theory, and historical scholarship is an ideal that is rarely reached at the best of times; combining all this with lucid and engaging writing is well-nigh unique. And yet, Osmond-Smith achieved this arguably before music analysis had developed a canon of ‘approved’ methods and before the ‘new musicology’ made the reference to cultural theory mainstream. It is his ability to remain attentive to the specificity of the work at hand, while at the same time bringing to it the full awareness of its historical and cultural contexts and relevant theoretical insights that has still a lot to teach us. It is therefore extremely gratifying to witness Osmond-Smith’s writings finally seeing the light of day in an appropriate form, even more so in the company of work by younger scholars, who respond to some of the issues brought up in Osmond-Smith’s work and, in doing so, exhibit some of the same qualities just mentioned.
To access Dr Heile’s Editorial and the special issue, click here.