NATIONALISM IN MUSIC
The monumental Greek philosopher Plato once aptly remarked – ‘Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.’
Over the centuries, music has gone hand in hand with the spirit of nationalism. The middle of the nineteenth century witnessed the genesis of a movement all over Europe, particularly in Bohemia, Spain, Scandinavia and Poland, that sought to encourage and revitalise native music and composers and to emphasise themes drawn from natural history, legend and folklore. As new nations emerged in Europe, nationalism in music marked a reaction against the dominance of the mainstream European classical traditions as native composers aspired to break away from the shackles of Italian, French and German traditionalism. All over Europe, there was the cry of ‘Back to the Land’ or ‘Back to our Land’, leading to a fresh and blooming contact with the soil. National schools and national musical dialects arose to give a new variety and vibrancy in the field of music.
The National School of Bohemia, centering around Prague, was founded by Bedřich Smetana, regarded as the father of Czech musical nationalism. He pioneered the establishment of a native theatre for opera and a national operatic repertory. Smetana’s best known orchestral work is his cycle of six symphonic poems entitled ‘Má Vlast’ or ‘My Homeland’. The cycle is based on subjects derived from Czech history, legend and topography. The favourite single work from this cycle is the second of the poems – ‘The Vltava’ which traces the course of the ‘Czech national river’ from its very source to the capital city of Prague. Smetana’s younger colleague Antonín Leopold Dvořák completed his work in establishing the Bohemian School and strove to re-ignite the Bohemian flame in a magnificent manner. The use of national themes, native dances and melodies based on folk song styles gave Dvořák’s works a specific national character. His ‘Slavonic Dances’ composed in 1878 and 1886, originally written for the piano, comprised a series of 16 orchestral pieces composed and published in two sets. The pieces are full of life and national character and are today considered among the composer’s most memorable works. Dvořák also wrote nine operas, which, other than his first, have librettos in Czech and were intended to convey the ardour of the Czech national spirit, as were some of his choral works.
Spain, with its distinctive musical traits, which can be traced back in time to the Byzantine church, the Moorish invasion and the gypsy settlers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, shared the common European fate of an Italian domination in music. Spanish nationalism in music started with Felipe Pedrell Sabaté, the well known Spanish composer, guitarist and musicologist, who collected folk tunes and studied the works of the great Spanish composers of the Renaissance like Francisco Tárrega. In February 1880, he settled in Barcelona as a music teacher and composer, where he came in close contact with the young and energetic Spanish composers Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual and Enrique Granados Campiña who became his first pupils. In 1889, Pedrell passionately considered setting up of an ‘escuela nacional de música’ (national school of music), combining elements of Spanish traditional music with the classical art music of his time. The first result was the opera ‘Els Pirineus’ in 1891, accentuating his concept hypothetically with the publication ‘Por nuestra música’ (To Our Music) in 1891, which made composers and guitarists of his time appreciative of Spanish folk lore. Between 1891 and 1904, Pedrell lived in Madrid where he became a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in 1895 and held a professorship in musical aesthetics and music history at the famed Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid. In 1894, the first volume of his ‘Hispaniae schoa musica sacra’ appeared, which encapsulated a series of edited scores of renaissance and baroque church music from Spain, including the keyboard works of the blind Spanish renaissance composer and organist Antonio de Cabezón and the complete works of the most respected sixteenth century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. As a musicologist, Pedrell worked particularly in the early music field and edited Victoria’s opera ‘omnia’ and the requiem of the Catalian Spanish composer Joan Brudieu. These writings fostered a keen renewed interest in the early music of Spain. He returned to Barcelona in 1904, when his opera ‘Els Pirineus’ was eventually performed at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the iconic opera house on La Rambla in Barcelona. The best known of Pedrell’s pupils was Manuael de Falla y Matheu. Falla’s music is rich in poetic beauty and evocative of the colourful personality of Spain. His instrumental music is based on the Spanish dance with its conflicting rhythms and characteristic syncopations, on effects derived from the guitar style and on the melodic phrases of folk music. It was from Pedrell that Falla gained his interest in native Andalusian music, particularly Andalusian flamenco music. One of his best known works is the pantomime ballet ‘El Amor Brujo’ or ‘Bewitched by Love’ set to a libretto by the celebrated Spanish writer, poet, dramatist and theatre director Gregorio Martínez Sierra. The work is distinctively Andalusian in character with songs in the Andalusian Spanish dialect of the gypsies. The kernel of the whole ballet is the ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ which graphically depicts the weird and uncanny atmosphere of a torch lit cave in which every shadow seems laden with witchcraft. Albéniz was a child prodigy who first performed on the piano at the age of four with astonishing elan. He is best known for his piano works based on Spanish folk music idioms. Pedrell inspired Albéniz to write Spanish music such as the ‘Suite española’, noted for its delicate, intricate melody and abrupt zestful changes, and the ‘Chants d’Espagne’. The first movement (Prelude) of the ‘Chants d’Espagne’, later re-titled after the composer’s death as ‘Asturias (Leyenda)’, is significantly most favoured today as part of the classical guitar repertoire, even though it was originally composed for the piano. In his book ‘The Music of Spain’, the reputed American music historian, critic and author Gilbert Chase describes Pedrell’s influence on Albéniz – ‘What Albéniz derived from Pedrell was above all a spiritual orientation, the realization of the wonderful values inherent in Spanish music.’ Granados’ music bears a uniquely Spanish style and, as such, is representative of musical nationalism. His most renowned work is the suite for piano ‘Goyescas’, which was premiered in 1911. It is a set of six pieces based on paintings of the legendary Spanish romantic painter and printmaker Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.
In the resurgent surge of nationalism in music, the Scandinavian countries originated their own breed of composers, penning music full of Nordic influence. Amongst their subjects were the Gods, elves and monsters of Nordic paganism. The fabled Norwegian composer Edvard Hagerup Grieg drew from all of that and expanded that in his music with superlative prowess and dexterity. His ‘Peer Gynt’ Suites, based on the Norwegian realist poet Henrik Johan Ibsen’s play, with the ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ and ‘Anitra’s Dance’, have earned a worldwide reputation. He wrote incidental music to nationalistic plays and wrote songs full of Norwegian patriotism. His music, in his words, had the ‘taste of codfish’. The titanic Finnish composer and violinist Jean Sibelius is widely recognized as his country’s greatest composer and, through his music, is often credited with having helped Finland to fashion a national identity during its indomitable struggle for independence from Russia. Throughout his career, Sibelius found inspiration in Nordic mythology, especially the heroic legends of the Kalevala, a 19th century Finnish national epic of poetry compiled by the illustrious Finnish physician and philologist Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. Sibelius loved nature and portrayed the picturesque Finnish landscape in his music with magical effect. His enormous repertoire includes seven symphonies, thirteen symphonic poems, the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, the Violin Concerto, the choral symphony Kullervo, The Swan of Tuonela (from the Lemminkäinen Suite), over a hundred songs for voice and piano, chamber music, piano music and 21 publications of choral music. The tone poem ‘Finlandia’ is undoubtedly Sibelius’ best admired work. It is a highly patriotic piece which was first performed on 4th November,1899 at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki as one of the tableaux showcasing scenes from Finnish history at the Finnish Press Celebrations. The piece depicts rousing and turbulent music, evoking the momentous struggle of the Finnish people under the oppressive Russian heel, but towards the conclusion a tranquilising calm prevails and the serenely melodic ‘Finlandia Hymn’ is heard. Sibelius later reworked the ‘Finlandia Hymn’ into a distinct and separate piece. This hymn, with words written in 1941 by the legendary Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, is one of the most important national songs of Finland.
The greatest national composer of Poland was Frédéric François Chopin whose ‘poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation’. In Chopin’s majestic works, numbering over 230, we find the dawn of Polish nationalism in music. Though he spent most of his life in Paris, there never was an exile with such a headache for his native land as Chopin. And the heart that so ached was not buried in France but was sent back to Poland where it now rests in the ancient Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. Chopin’s music resounds with a deep concern for his native land which had been conquered and dismembered by her neighbours and whose identity as a nation had been lost. The distinguished Polish composer Karol Szymanowski rightly observed, ‘The “Polish character” of Chopin’s work is unquestionable..as a Pole he reflected in his work the very essence of the tragic break in the history of the people and instinctively aspired to give the deepest expression of his nation. For he understood that he could invest his music with the most enduring and truly Polish qualities only by liberating art from the confines of dramatic and historical contents. This attitude toward the question of “national music” – an inspired solution to his art – was the reason why Chopin’s works have come to be understood everywhere outside of Poland. Therein lies the strange riddle of his eternal vigour.’ Chopin’s intense patriotism and his almost mystic faith in Poland is best expressed in his Polonaises – a traditional Polish dance form which had long been associated with court ceremonials. According to Casimir Wierzynsnski, the outstanding Polish poet and author of the incisive biography of Chopin entitled ‘The Life and Death of Chopin’ – ‘Chopin’s Polonaises are songs of triumph and defeat, of pride and despair. They resound with bold fanfares and despairing calls for help, with the thundering of galloping cavalcades of warriors and with the din of battlefields.’ His ‘Heroic’ Polonaise has become extremely popular through its breathtaking brilliance and dashing virtuosity. A short introduction leads straight into a scene of waving plumes and colourful uniforms which is followed by a cavalry charge of tremendous force at which point the electrifying Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is said to have remarked – ‘I can hear the hooves of the Polish Cavalry’.
In recent times, new concepts of nationalism in music have greatly expanded the perceived spheres of nationalism in music. In addition, the realms of popular and amateur music, as well as musical journalism and scholarship, are now emerging steadily as important facets of nationalism in music. But then nationalism in music does not end there. It will end perhaps one day when national aspirations and ideals die out, racial differences in temperament disappear and the entire world becomes one big family. But till then, there’s nothing to stop the unceasing flow of nationalism in music.
Supreme Court of India