Sunday, November 2, 2008

Listening to "Nationalist" Music

From time to time I write about my good fortune in living in a building in which I have neighbors who take listening to music as seriously as I do, some of them out of professional commitment but some just out of personal feelings about the performance of music. Today's post owes a great debt to two of them. The first is one with whom I have been exploring the four-hand piano repertoire for several months. Over the last few weeks we have begun work on the Opus 59 of Antonín Dvořák, his set of ten Legends. Before our last session this past Friday afternoon, she happened to remark that there seemed to be a revived interest in "nationalist" composers, who had tended to be out of favor for much of the latter half of the twentieth century. This is where my other neighbor enters the picture, because she has provided me with the benefit of pointers to useful Internet-based resources to compensate for the way I tend to use the Internet in highly focused ways. Recently she directed my attention to the "Art & Music" section of the Articles and Databases page on the Web site for the San Francisco Public Library. This is the perfect example of the shortcomings of my own tunnel vision. I visit this page frequently, but only when I am trying to get a copy of a reprint of some scholarly publication. So I have never really browsed it and needed someone else to encourage that browsing. While my neighbor was interested in the abundance of classical music she could now hear online, after checking out the site she had encouraged me to visit, I discovered that there was a link to Oxford Music Online, to which the Library was a subscriber. Thus, by using my library card number for authentication, I could pass through a gateway to read the text of the 2002 edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, along with Web sites for Grove Music Online and The Oxford Dictionary of Music.

This is where the influences of my two neighbors came to converge. I was more than a little curious about what this wealth of resources would have to say about the influence of nationalism, if not about recent prevailing attitudes towards so-called nationalist composers and their works. All three sources had appropriate subject entries; but I decided that the best place to start would be with the Dictionary, where the entry was entitled "Nationalism in Music." The basic "dictionary definition" was given as follows:

A mus. movement which began during the 19th cent. and was marked by emphasis on nat. elements in mus. such as folksongs, folk dances, folk rhythms or on subjects for operas and symphonic poems which reflected nat. life or history.

Ironically, the first example given in the entry was the eighteenth-century composer Joseph Haydn, who often drew upon folk sources. The remaining examples represent both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are sorted geographically as follows:

  • Poland: Frédéric Chopin
  • Russian: Mikhail Glinka, listed as the "founder" of the movement in Russia, followed by César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and an "etc.," which presumably accounts for Alexander Borodin as the remaining member of the Russian "Five."
  • Hungary: Franz Liszt, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály
  • Bohemia (which I am not sure was ever, strictly speaking, a nation): Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, and Leoš Janáček
  • Norway: Edvard Grieg
  • Finland: Jean Sibelius
  • Spain: Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, and Enrique Granados
  • England: Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • United States: Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Charles Ives, and Leonard Bernstein
  • Brazil: Heitor Villa-Lobos

I take some comfort in having enough experience to be familiar with all of the names on this list, not to mention the background to pick that nit over the Russian "Five." However, while I would not dispute the composition of this list, it leads me to wonder to what extent nationalism actually constitutes what I like to call a "perceptual category."

For example, when my four-hand partner and I were running through different examples of "national bases," we thought of Russia more in terms of the twentieth-century Soviet Union than in terms of the nineteenth-century "Five." My own bias was probably the result of my exposure to Robert Mann through a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which I had invoked in a review I wrote last March:

Nevertheless, last night's Annual Subscriber Gift Concert, organized by San Francisco Performances, could be listened to as a reflection on Robert Mann's comment at the end of his San Francisco Conservatory Master Class to the effect that the best way to get to know a composer is through the music to which that composer was exposed. (Mann actually said "folk music;" but I have used Ives as an example of an "experience base" that extends far beyond what we would call folk music.)

The specific composer Mann had in mind was Dmitri Shostakovich, who, regardless of the political climate, was probably exposed to the same basic source material as "The Five," but, by virtue of a radical change in his "social[ist?] environment," probably heard that material in equally radically different ways. Thus, what was sentimental for Glinka became ironic (if not sardonic) for Shostakovich; but both were clearly drawing upon a social "experience base." More important, however, is that, as I have tried to demonstrate with Ives, the experience base encompasses more than the "folk" sources.

The underlying truism is that, except for that period of the middle of the twentieth century when composers seemed more occupied with "systems" than with music (which was also the time when "nationalist" composers were taking the greatest rap from the academics who had become enamored of such "systems"), composition has always been grounded in personal listening experience. Put another way, while most of us struggle to describe the experience of listening to music with words, composers summon their own powers of description through music itself. This is why I feel it is so important to develop that "theory of listening to music." Such a theory should, by all rights, inform us not only with respect to what we hear (thus, following Igor Stravinsky's admonition, turning the experience of hearing into one of listening) but it should also inform our understanding of the composers to whom we listen in terms of their motives for composing in the first place. After all, composition is not only an action (to be understood in terms of the dynamics of the process, rather than just the outcome) but also a motivated action (meaning that those dynamics have less to do with the objectivity of physics and more to do with the subjectivity of the composer as a "social animal"); and, as a result, listening is influenced by not only the music itself but also the social network in which its composer is embedded.

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