Musical nationalism

Donald Grout and Claude Palissca in their ‘History of Western Music’ (Norton 1996) have some interesting reflections on musical nationalism, and there is some material on the same theme in Grove. How a people represent, honour and celebrate their life in music is part of the history of a country. In the nineteenth and on into the twentieth century, folk songs, native rhythms and heroic myths inspired European music, but in some cases gave expression to a political struggle for independence and freedom as well. That is true of Finland, where the music of Sibelius spoke of and for the heart of a nation, which so often in the past has been a vassal to another country. Sadly, Wagner was used by the Nazi’s to propagate the nonsense of white racial purity.

There had been something of the same deliberate commitment – though without the political dimension – in Russia. Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) is regarded as the founder of a specific national school of music. We have an interesting connection here with the basic interest of these postings, for during his European travels where he met Berlioz in Paris, Glinka moved on to Spain and became fascinated by the country’s folk-dance rhythms.

In turn he influenced the group that became known as The Mighty Five – Borodin (1833-87), Mussorgsky(1839-81), Balakirev (1837-1910), Cui (91835-1918) and Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), all of whom in varying degrees pursued a conscious nationalistic path in the subject as well as the style of their work. And Tchaikovsky (1840-93)? Well, he was enthused by the Five, but never became one of them. By their standards he was considered cosmopolitan rather than truly Russian!

All the time I have been researching Spanish music I have had at the back of my mind the English tradition with which I am more familiar. Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the first British composer in more than 200 years to gain international recognition.

Although he was not touched by the growing interest in folk song, his ‘Englishness’, Grout and Palissca suggest, is implicit in his typical melodic line (wide leaps and a falling trend) which mirror the intonations of English speech. It could be so. Although his music has sometimes been compared to Brahms and Bruckner, the Enigma Variations, the Symphonies and the Pomp and Circumstance marches (which he came to loathe) could have come from nowhere else but Edwardian England.

B.R.…more next time.