Details of Thesis

Title The Most Divine Of All Arts: Neoplatonism, Anglo-Catholicism and Music in the Published Writings of A E H Nickson
Author Crichton, Ian Kieran
Institution Australian Catholic University
Date 2004
Abstract This thesis examines the life and thought of the influential Melbourne organist, teacher and music critic, Arthur Ernest Howard Nickson (1876-1964). Born in Melbourne, Nickson studied in England on the Clarke Scholarship at the Royal College of Music (1895-1899). During his studies in England, Nickson experienced the Catholic revival in the Church of England at its height. On his return to Australia in 1901 Nickson’s activities as a church musician, and later, as a teacher provided the platform for him to articulate views that were formed as a result of these influences. Beginning in 1904, Nickson’s 56-year career as a lecturer at the University Of Melbourne Conservatorium Of Music is important, as every student had to pass through his lectures at some point in their course. As music critic at the Age from 1927, Nickson played a decisive role in shaping public taste at the time of the establishment of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Heinze, who was also Ormond Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne (1926-57).  Nickson’s essays form a distinct group of writings that are probably unique in Australia. The main published essays cover a forty-year period beginning in 1905, and show the development of Nickson’s thinking about the moral basis and spiritual nature of music, his views on the nature of the Church, and his worldview, based on Neoplatonic philosophy, which shaped his thinking about the process of creation. While Nickson’s view of the created order was shaped by Neoplatonic influences, his view of the redemptive function of art was expressed in terms of sacramental theology, and was related very closely to his Anglo-Catholicism. In his essays and lectures Nickson frequently worked with an abstracted concept of ‘Art’, rather than specific art objects. While reference was made to art objects, it is not clear how Nickson defined the term ‘artist’. Nickson’s attention in his discussions of ‘Art’ tended to focus on the artist, rather than the object. This was a result of his world view, which saw art objects as an emanation from the personality of the artist; this necessitated the cultivation of a disposition of mind, which was enabled by the acquisition of mystical intuition. While his description of the fine arts as consisting of architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry and music was in line with older views of art, his views on the artist are difficult to discern, which raises the question of whether Nickson saw himself as an artist. Clearly his vocation was not as a composer, as the discussion of his mass settings in Chapter 3 will demonstrate, while as an organ teacher he was more interested in interpretation than in the mechanics of playing the instrument. This thesis falls into two broad sections. The first three chapters seek to provide an adequate biography of Nickson, which has never previously been done. The fourth chapter examines Nickson’s worldview and the implications this had for his thinking about music, and falls into two parts. The first part follows Nickson’s worldview as it was expressed in his essays, and focuses attention on the concept of art as a process of sign making. The manner in which this sign making is understood is essential to its function, and in Nickson’s writings three understandings emerge: symbol, metaphor and sacrament. The second part of the discussion examines Nickson’s articulation of his worldview in relation to music, which he considered to be the most divine of the arts, drawing on lecture notes, student reminiscences and Nickson’s own. Nickson’s central claim was that art is a sacrament. This can be seen in relation to his faith, where the regular use of the Church’s sacraments was central. This claim is challenged by statements Nickson made about the faith of composers such as Beethoven and Bach. This raises questions about sacramental efficacy when applied to art, and some limitations implicit in viewing art as a sacrament. It will be argued that Nickson conceived of artistic creation as fundamentally a process of sign making. The sign may be regarded as a symbol, metaphor or sacrament, and the process of creating the sign reflects God’s own creative activity in human creative acts. Nickson conceived of human creative action as having a redemptive character, bringing the artist into closer unity with the godhead. This union was the ultimate aim of art, being the act of redemption that paralleled the union brought about by such sacraments as the Eucharist. This term also points to some tensions in Nickson’s worldview, where he expressed a view of the creation of the material world as being both a dynamic, continuing activity of emanation from God, and a single action of the will of God, such as the creation account of Genesis.
Thesis 01front.pdf  136Kb
02whole.pdf 1,200Kb

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