Nationalism Today

Nationalism in European music, as in European thinking and culture in general, originally is a phenomenon of the 19th century and closely related to subordinated nations becoming aware of themselves and longing for political independence. The idea of a nation-state became a leading force in political history, as it is once more today, due to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. As Western European countries simultaneously are tightening their co-operation in European Community, questions have been asked, whether and to what extent it will be possible for these nations to preserve their political self-determination, cultural identity and traditional forms of life as the integration proceeds. With both developments in mind, it is not surprising that a renewed and intense interest in nationalism and national culture is to be observed in various parts of Europe today. What actually defines national culture? Language gives rise to literature, and literature in the widest sense is probably the most important single factor in building up an organized and developed society: it conveys and spreads the knowledge and the norms necessary to the proper functioning of a nation-state, as well as the feeling of togetherness and common fate, essential to the identity and self-consciousness of a nation. Language, on the other hand, and particularly a small language, effectively isolates the culture of a nation from neighbouring cultures, since an adequate command of foreign languages remains a privilege of the well-educated minority.

Functionally and substantially national

What, then, is the role of music in the nation’s awareness of itself? Music, obviously, can be national in a variety of meanings. A first distinction should be made between music that is national by function and music that is national by substance. These two categories do not necessarily presuppose each other. Functionally national music might be but does not have to be substantially national, as can be shown at various types of nationally important music, both official and unofficial: national anthems, honorary marches and some particular works of art music having got a symbolic meaning and being associated with an important event or moment in a nation’s history. The national anthem, for example, belongs to the same set of national emblems as the nation’s flag, court of arms and currency. To be adopted as such, it must meet a certain number of criteria like melodic, harmonic and structural simplicity, a solemn character, and a positive and optimistic mood, but, ultimately, its acceptance and identification as a national symbol depends more on the receptive behaviour of people than on inherent qualities of the melody and its origin. There is nothing surprising about the fact that the composer of Finland’s anthem was German-born and that the tune itself is based on a German folk tune. When Fredrik Pacius (1809–1891) composed the tune in 1848, Finnish folk music was not only relatively unknown but also utterly exotic to the well-educated, culturally and politically active upper class, to whom the establishing of a national anthem concerned. German folk music and German musical style in general, on the contrary, were familiar and well-known.

The receptive behaviour may change in time due to changing historical conditions. At the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, Frenchmen realized that the militant words of their Marseillaise were in sharp contradiction with the peaceful spirit of the Olympic idea. A lively debate on the issue started in the media, and critics required that either the words should be changed or the anthem replaced. The structure of this discussion reminds of what happened to the Latin chant in Northern European countries during the Reformation. First, text passages referring to the worship of saints were altered and the name of the saint replaced by that of Jesus Christ, later the Latin texts were translated into vernacular and, finally, Gregorian tunes were replaced by Protestant choral tunes. New historical conditions forced the abandoning of an old tradition the content of which had become obsolete.

As opposed to music that is national by function, substantially national music is often identified with folk music or folk music influences. As is well known, almost every major composer of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century — except the composers of the New Vienna School — has used folk music material in his works. Sometimes they used it in purely abstract works, sometimes in programmatic symphonic music and opera, and in both cases, it may have had different meanings. Bartók’s use of Hungarian folk music originally had a national and patriotic reason but was later motivated by a purely musical interest in rural melodies and their characteristics. Later he even used folk music of politically hostile nations, like Romania, and was accused of unpatriotic behaviour.

Sometimes folk music is used together with a national subject, as often is the case in symphonic poems and operatic works. One such case, among many others, in Finnish music is the opera The Ostrobothnians by Leevi Madetoja, one of Finland’s prominent national romantic composers, in 1923. The music is set to a play by Artturi Järviluoma dating from 1914. At this time Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian Empire, and it had become, at the turn of the century, a target of oppressive measures with the purpose of depriving the Finnish people of their constitutional rights. From the very beginning, Järviluoma’s play incorporated music as an essential element. Some folk melodies were published as an appendix to it and meant to be used in the performance. Madetoja, an Ostrobothnian himself, instantly realized the inherent possibilities of the play for an opera with allegorical patriotic content. He prepared the libretto himself by making cuts in the play and adjusting it to his own purposes, and he also decided to use some of the folk tunes originally associated with the play as material in his music. One of these folk melodies, Tuuli se taivutti koivun larvan (Ex.1a), is used as the central melodic idea of the introduction and it almost assumes the role of a leitmotiv in the opera. In the consciousness of the Finnish audience, The Ostrobothnians became something of a national opera. Although Finland was already independent, the opera gave expression to the feelings of threat, anxiety, injustice and political oppression that were still alive in the minds of people who had experienced the difficult times of Russian oppression. A variant of the same melody was also used in another nationally important composition, Sibelius’s March of the Finnish Jaeger Battalion (Ex. 1b). The march was written in October 1917 for the Finnish Jaeger Battalion, trained in Germany and playing an important role in Finland’s fight for independence, also known as civil war.

The national substance of music, understood as reference to folk music sources, may thus be bound with nationalist or patriotic ideas. But there are also examples of folk music influence, in which no such connection can be detected. Reference was already made to Bartók’s use of rural melodies for purely musical interest in their characteristics: modal scales that made abandoning of the petrified major-minor system possible, the parlando rubato style of treating rhythm and tempo, the use of glissandi and microtones, asymmetric, non-architectonic structures and the like more. One could claim that using of folk music for nationalist or patriotic purposes is a romantic phenomenon expressing awareness of one’s ethnic and national roots, whereas modern (as well as more ancient) ways of using it may serve a variety of purposes. Take, e.g., the famous ‘Allegretto con indifferenza’ episode in the final movement of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, which, in its surroundings, makes an alienating effect (Ex.2).

What Bartók actually did with this strange ‘barrel-organ episode’, was that he inverted the procedure familiar from theme and variations form by placing the theme, of which the entire thematic material of the movement is drawn, at the end of it. A spiritually related way of quoting folk music is the funeral march in Aulis Sallinen’s Third Quartet, where the tune is starting point for a set of variations (Ex.3). This music may sound ‘Finnish’ in foreign ears, because of the gloomy and melancholic character of the folk tune, but it has nothing to do with nationalism or patriotic feelings. The national and the nationalist character of music are two different aesthetic categories. They may both rely on folk music influences and national subjects, but are functionally worlds apart.

‘Emic’ and ‘etic’ approach to national music

The national character of music is a more general and complex phenomenon than the nationalist one, and there seems to be a difference in aesthetic response to them depending on, whether they are evaluated from inside or outside the culture to which they belong. Ethnomusicologists often speak of ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ approaches when referring to the way in which cultural phenomena are perceived and understood by members of the culture and by scholarly observers, respectively. Nationalist music has a full meaning only to members of the nation concerned, and its chauvinistic nature, which often has the purpose of heightening the morals of a nation, may have a forbidding impact on outsiders, unless — and this is not always the case — it has superior aesthetic qualities as well. The problem of nationalist art — just compare it to socialist realism — is that it forces the audience to take sides. Aesthetic response doesn’t tolerate violence. National — not only nationalist — music seems to prompt different aesthetic responses from inside and from outside the culture. What seems national to outsiders may seem only natural and universal to members of a certain culture. Germans—and not only laymen but musicians and musicologists as well—have often difficulties to discern anything particularly German in the music of, say, Brahms or Richard Strauss. Their compositions are just music, whereas music by composers of other nationalities—even if it belongs to the German tradition—is national music. Schumann’s piano concerto is ‘music’, but Grieg’s is ‘Norwegian music’. Although the charm and picturesque character of national styles are not denied, they are considered inferior to ‘pure’ and ‘universal’ music. This receptive behaviour is comparable to the ethnocentric attitude towards non-European music, well-known from criticism and historiography of the late 19th century.

The structurally national

Folk music stylization and national subjects in programmatic or operatic works are not alone responsible for the national character of music, although they were among its favourite arsenal in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The national character of music rather seems to be a result of a large number of cultural characteristics, including the educational system, local musical traditions, international contacts, favoured repertory, musical institutions and the like more. If we take, for example, Finnish composers born in the 1950s (Jouni Kaipainen, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, to name a few), composers who are now between 30 and 40 years of age and enjoy a certain international recognition, the following (somewhat simplified) profile can be drawn. Their basic training in composition is more or less similar because they studied at the same school of music at the same time. Most of them have attended composition courses abroad, particularly in Italy and Germany. They share a musical taste that tends to value more Italian and French than German, British or American contemporary music. They have all written works for—and sometimes with a collaboration of—certain musicians of their own age. Their works are mostly orchestral music and instrumental chamber music, occasionally with instrumentally treated vocal parts. None of them has ever used Finnish or any other folk music in their works. In other words, this generation of Finnish composers has a more or less similar musical culture that penetrates their music. Yet, they are different personalities, and they don’t form a ‘school’. But their compositions, as different as they are by themselves, cannot be mistaken for, say, Swedish or Danish music, at least not from inside, by anybody acquainted with the present musical scene in these neighbouring Nordic countries, which, nevertheless, have a unique tradition of cooperation that goes back for several decades. We may conclude that national music today is not national by function or by substance anymore. If it is national at all, it can be described as structurally national, if by structure we mean the entire set of features characteristic to the music of a particular region in multinational Europe. This means that the national will be replaced by the regional when the Europe of nations becomes a Europe of regions. We should hope that the regions remain strong musically. Otherwise, the music of the continent will become uniform Euro-Music that nobody recognizes as his own.

(Paper presented at a Greco-Finnish symposium on ‘Nationalism in Music’, Athens, May 1992. Unpublished.)


About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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