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Nation and Classical Music: From Handel to Copland.

Nation and Classical Music: From Handel to Copland. By Matthew Riley and Anthony D. Smith. (Music in Society and Culture.) Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2016. [245 p. ISBN 978-178327-142-9. $34.95]

A central topic within the discipline of musicology, the interrelationship between nationalism and music looms large over classical music written from the outset of the nineteenth century through at least World War II. It rears its head in music appreciation classes just after midterm with the first mention of Wagner and Verdi (or earlier) and from there it never really goes away for the rest of one's scholarly career. In Nation and Classical Music we have a new survey of the topic co-authored on the one hand by a musicologist specialising in Elgar (Matthew Riley) and on the other by an eminent sociologist responsible for the field of nationalism studies (Anthony D. Smith).

The degree to which one will view this book as successful seems to me to be determined by assessing its intended audience. As I see it, the book can find a home with both music historians and "regular" historians and sociologists, though each group will get quite different things from it. Cultural historians and sociologists without a background in musical matters will appreciate the thoroughness of the authors' surveys. They address a wide spectrum of works and present them with an eagle's eye. Musicologists with less experience outside of musical matters will gain an introductory understanding of the broader field of nationalism studies and a framework for attuning their discourse to other disciplines. Given my background as a musicologist and this journal's focus on a musical audience, the remainder of this review will proceed exclusively with that perspective in mind.

The authors struggle from the outset to define nationalism in a way meaningful to musical expression. Their overall definition (p. 6-11) eventually evolves into a view that music functions as a language, as a symbol of national identity, and as an outgrowth of national autonomy and self-expression. There is little controversy here, of course, except that their definition of "nation" itself evolves into something markedly restrictive in practice. As the book progresses it becomes clear that "nation" does not refer to cultural or ethnic groups in the (admittedly) sometimes haphazard way employed by musicologists; rather it is for the authors a union of cultural factors with national political entities. A related issue, itself not unproblematic in my opinion, is that Riley and Smith view nationalist music not as a binary position--where a work either is or is not nationalist--but as a continuum where works can be more or less nationalist. Such a viewpoint, which is implied by their analyses but never stated, leads to some unusual (to me at least) assertions, as will be seen.

To be fully national in the authors' sense, a composer should write in a distinctive national style for a specific audience who hears those works in a way differently than they do for composers of other nationalities. And, if that were not a high enough standard, the music somehow needs to foster a sense of nationhood or national identity. Ideally this all needs to happen in close proximity to the date of composition too, as the authors give little credence to the significance of later revivals. Taken in total, Riley and Smith set the bar far higher than musicology as a field has, which provokes some interesting questions for those with a musicological background. For instance, the composer's intention--whether stated in a program, their public essays, or private correspondence--rarely seems to be a factor in their survey. They defend this position by invoking Axel Korner and others: "The historians' only concern should be to find sources revealing the work's original reading at the time" (p. 159; Axel Korner, "The Risorgimento's Literary Canon and the Aesthetics of Reception: Some Methodological Considerations", Nations and Nationalism 15, no. 3 [2009]: 412.) As might be expected then, popular reception history plays an outsized role in the authors' approach, while critical reception and posthumous popular reception are rarely, if ever, a factor for them. The authors admit to restricting their study strictly to "classical music", in part because of the difficulties of separating cultural groups from national groups--folk or popular music residing more in the cultural sphere than the national sphere. The irony is that classical music, in the most limited sense used here, exerted ever-diminishing power as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed. An uphill battle ensues in which the authors' work to demonstrate that a given composition encouraged a national consciousness, made especially tough since only contemporaneous works are considered. In any case, a figure like John Philip Sousa, of clear national importance but who exists for scholars on the periphery of the classical music world (despite his own self-image) does not even receive a mention: not classical in the strictest sense. The Landler of Josef Lanner and the waltzes of Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr. are equally, and more surprisingly, absent: Austria apparently being either too small or too German to count as a nation in its own right or those dance types being too rooted in folk culture to count as classical.

By narrowing the focus to only classical music in its highest, most artistic form and by treating the term nationalism in similarly strict fashion, the authors have painted themselves into the proverbial corner. There is no clear instance in the book where the authors discuss a composer's oeuvre without qualifying in a way that questions its status as national, even in cases where the works are of the clearest import to nationalistic sentiment. From this vantage point there are no fully nationalist works, only works with varying degrees of nationalist content and reception. Take, for example Chopin, who by any measure referenced Polish music for his Parisian audiences and used his Polish background to present himself as exotic. As the authors see it "he was hardly a 'national artist' " because his "personal stance on Polish nationalism was ambivalent", his patrons "were not associated with the Polish cause", and "there is little evidence of national feeling in the public reception of the mazurkas in Chopin's lifetime, in Poland or elsewhere" (p. 56). But why would he write mazurkas then? Did his listeners not think of Poland when they heard them? What about in the twentieth century when Poles did hear him and construct a national identity around his music? Unfortunately, we never get to hear from Chopin himself or his patrons or later audiences. It is odd in a way that Riley and Smith should limit their scope to Chopin's lifetime. Music exists in both the act of composition as well as the act of performance; later performers used Chopin to foster a sense of nationalism after all, so posthumous reputation and usage would seem to be a key factor in "Nation and Classical Music". A classical work designed to foster national identity and instantly recognised as national without qualification would be a rare find indeed.

Most of the other composers examined have an equally strenuous time under the analytic microscope. Sibelius and the Russians seem to be the authors' strongest cases in the affirmative and are given the most space. The section

"Wagner and German myth" receives five pages of treatment, proceeding much as one might expect until suddenly Wagner is barely German at all: "The Ring is full of Germanic motifs, but is organized as a tetraology on the model of Aeschylus' Oresteia ... and reflects Wagner's hopes for a revival of the (supposedly 'universal') spirit of ancient Greece" (p. 154). Wagner then finds himself under fire because Siegfried "stands for humanity not just a single nation" and Wagner's style "does not draw on folk music or archaic idioms" (p. 155). The authors conclude that the Wagner tuba was something "uniquely German", but not so much the music dramas for which they were designed. Critical reception is again absent: did the critics find the works to be Germanic or national? Certainly Wagner argued for the inherent Germanness of his compositions and he and Hanslick fought bitterly over it! One might make a compelling case that when Wagner was arguing for the universal nature of his works he thought the German perspective was the universal ideal. To emphasise non-German aspects of Wagner's ideas somewhat misses the proverbial forest for the trees--if Wagner cannot stand as a paradigm of the synthesis between nation and classical music, then who can?

The book settles into a well-organised pattern. Each chapter introduces some element of nationalism (folk music, the "homeland", myths and memories, commemoration, and canonisation) before going into a survey of works pertaining to that subtopic. No work or composer manages to avoid the dreaded "but" that limits either the nationalism or impact of their compositions. Verdi's role in national music, "whatever his personal national sentiments, was minimal" (p. 157), though eventually there is the concession that he "undoubtedly created in his early operas a national music" (p. 160). Ives's compositions fail to foster nationalism because "on account of their elusive musical idiom, their message has been available to relatively few listeners" (p. 190). Bach's Lutheran cantatas were Protestant, not German; Mendelssohn's revival of Bach was equally too religious to be national in nature.

In summation, musicologists will find the opening chapters enlightening in that the authors detail the varied non-musical approaches to nationalism and national studies in a way that should deepen their understanding of those usually and unfortunately distinctly separated fields. Those areas in which disagreement still exists should provide for fruitful discussion and future enquiry that will hopefully bring the fields of musicology and national studies into closer contact and communication.

Bryan Proksch

Lamar University
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Author:Proksch, Bryan
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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