Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Music and Nationalism
Part One: Cultural/Liberal/Triumphal


Is having lousy musical taste a necessary precondition for being a nationalist? Maybe it depends on what kind of nationalism you are referring to.

Historically speaking, the development of nationalist-flavored music has tended to follow the same lines in different countries. Generally a "cultural nationalism" gives way to a more politicised "liberal nationalism," before leading in many cases to an exclusivist "triumphal nationalism."

Some of the greatest music of the Romantic period grew out of romantic exaltations of national "feeling" and "identity" and the liberal notion that statehood be based on "the people" rather than religion or imperialism. This nationalism was the most successful political force of the 19th century.

Since early nationalists shared the assumption that their nation existed in some "natural" sense, composers understandably created a national identity through the evocation of landscape. Sibelius' Finlandia suite or Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) are beautiful examples.

My favorite piece in this vein is probably Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia. It evokes the quiet majesty of landscape in the most moving musical language you can imagine.

I can easily appreciate that kind of cultural nationalism. But things start to get dodgy when the politicisation of nationalism leads to a triumphalist tone. Oftentimes such musical reaction becomes formalized or state-sanctioned. The Nazis' Reichsmusikkammer promoted music approved by Hitler's regime, while suppressing any music which conflicted with it, including jazz and anything else with a modernist flavour. Japan's militarist leaders also outlawed western music and dance in the 1930s.

We British certainly haven't been immune to such reactionary impulses, as shown in works like Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory or Thomas Arne's Rule Britannia – both still wheeled out every year at The Proms concert series for an audience singalong.

Context is everything, and Elgar and Arne made more sense in the days of empire than in these politically correct days of multicultural awareness. Though undeniably rousing, their militaristic flavor sounds hokey to me and reignites my distrust of patriotism and dogma.

Don't get me wrong; to a large degree I am proud to be British. After all, we gave the world Shakespeare, The Sex Pistols and Yorkshire Pudding. But were I ever to attend The Proms, I'd need to be completely off my trolley to join in with clunkers like Rule Britannia.

Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia:

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