• Contact us!

  • Follow us on Facebook

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,087 other followers

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

    No Copyright Music on The Female Trailblazers : Wome…
    The Symphonist on 2020 – the year of Beetho…
    Jo on Women Composers – A Reflection…
    Bionica (@bionicaban… on Women Composers – A Reflection…
    Mary Cooke on Sol-Fa – Singing Through…
  • Archives

Poetry and the Joy of Human Expression

World Poetry Day falls on March 21st 2020. The annual celebration, which was adopted by UNESCO in 1999, is an opportunity to revive oral traditions, promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry, and foster the convergence between poetry and other arts, including music. Poetry can act as a uniting force, expressing common human experiences – a vital force for connection in difficult times – and so UNESCO extends the invitation to everyone to take part.

In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.

UNESCO

Music and poetry are compatible – rhythmically, expressively and emotionally. Song lyrics have elements of poetry – some are even poems set to music – and many works of classical music are based on poems. There are even pieces called ‘poems’. Tone poems or symphonic poems are single-movement orchestral works, normally from the Romantic period, that illustrate or evoke the content of a poem or other non-musical source. Their descriptive power is clear from the use of tone poems like Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in pop culture. The awe in the opening notes of Strauss’s tone poem hold a common human experience that speaks of the vast emptiness of space in Kubrick’s 2001 and the rising of the sun in its original context.

In popular music, some of the most notable songwriters have either been celebrated as poets or published books of poetry. Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

In his acceptance speech, Dylan explained:

If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.

Bob Dylan

Leonard Cohen, a contemporary of Dylan’s was a poet first and a songwriter second. A post on BBC 6 Music’s social media asking people to list their favourite Cohen lyrics attracted hundreds of varied replies. Such was his command of language and the extraordinary feelings he could evoke with a simple twist of words. Cohen had his opinions on fellow artists. After Bob Dylan was awarded with his Nobel Prize, Cohen commented,

To me,” he said, “[the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.

Leonard Cohen

In March 2015, Cohen wrote a poem in reply to comments made by rapper Kanye West in a talk at Oxford University. In the talk, West had expressed a wish that he’d studied art, saying:

My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater. That always sounds so funny to people, comparing yourself to someone who has done so much, and that’s a mentality that suppresses humanity.

Kanye West

In response, Cohen wrote this poem:

Kanye West is not Picasso

I am Picasso

Kanye West is not Edison

I am Edison

I am Tesla

Jay-Z is not the Dylan of Anything

I am the Dylan of anything

I am the Kanye West of Kanye West

The Kanye West

Of the great bogus shift of bull**** culture

From one boutique to another

I am Tesla

I am his coil

The coil that made electricity soft as a bed

I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is

When he shoves your ass off the stage

I am the real Kanye West

I don’t get around much anymore

I never have

I only come alive after a war

And we have not had it yet

For many, poetry may seem irrelevant, romantic, difficult and inaccessible. But Dylan wrote about war, politics, ecological concerns and protest, and Cohen penned lyrics full of irony, love, joy and intense agony.

In difficult and conflicting times, perhaps it’s time to delve deeper, to explore the incredible wealth of poetry that exists within the world of musical compositions and song writing and to express our anger with poems as well as placards.

Featured Image by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Nationalism in Music: A Grand Expression of Political Turbulence

The Eduqas A-level music syllabus includes study of Western Classical music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The syllabus asks students to explore this era, which “witnessed a fading romanticism and looked forward to new directions and musical challenges”.

This was a period of change and emancipation. No single composer led the way in terms of style, and artistic creativity was expressed with compositional devices including explorations in instrumental sonority and harmony, including increased use of dissonance and chromaticism. Nationalism, the use of cultural and patriotic references including the integration of elements of folk songs and folklore (often as programmatic forms and ideas) became an important feature.

However, alongside the stylistic emancipation, which has to some extent become romanticised in itself in the music history texts, this was a period of significant upheaval and in some areas of the world, restriction, dictatorship and death camps.

What Prompted the Rise of Nationalism?

Nationalism in music did not exist out of context. Rather topically to today’s political events, it was an ideological movement that provided an important factor in the development of Europe. In the late 19th century (1871), both Germany and Italy were newly unified, created from their various regional states and given a common ‘national identity’. Other countries, including Serbia, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, were formed in uprisings against the Ottoman Empire and Russia. At a time of social and political upheaval, romantic nationalism purportedly represented a general optimism for self-determined rule by newly formed government in place of the traditional monarchies and foreign control of territories. 

The Dark Side of Nationalism

It is common for nationalism in music to be superficially explained as the patriotic exploration of a nation’s folk music in the high cultural field, which makes sense in light of the new feeling of identity. However, if nationalism can be described as calling on people “to identify with the interests of their national group and to support the creation of a state – a nation-state – to support those interests,” (Professor Leon Baradat) music could also be used as a propaganda tool. It is interesting that when current politics demonstrate the dangers of nationalism, or of strong national identity without inclusion or integration, this element is often romanticised as a positive expression in the context of classical music

The truth is, composers were not always exploring nationalist ideas out of sheer creative and patriotic inspiration. This was demonstrated with the discovery of a Suite on Finnish Themesby Dmitri Shostakovich, which was written in 1939 but only discovered in 2001. The composer had never claimed authorship of the suite, it was never performed in his lifetime, and only one reference is made to it in his letters. Why?

The Winter War began on November 30th 1939, when the Red Army invaded Finland. Research shows that the Soviet government commissioned Shostakovich to write a suite based on Finnish melodies. The commission was instigated between November 23rd and 25th 1939, with a completion date of December 2nd, representing the timeframe of the invasion and the proposed date of occupation. 

A Finnish machine gun station during the Winter War

This was a propaganda tool. If the invasion had succeeded, Shostakovich’s suite would have been performed by Red Army marching bands in the streets of Helsinki, either with the intention to demonstrate the Soviet commitment to nurturing Finnish culture and prevent dissent, or to further humiliate the Finnish people after their defeat.

Shostakovich had a notably difficult relationship with the Soviet state throughout his life. He was one of the few composers who did not flee Russia when the revolution took place, and he was kept under close scrutiny. The Finnish commission of 1939 came some time after the composer’s first denouncement by the Communist Party, and these condemnations of Shostakovich’s music were not insignificant.

In fear for his life, Shostakovic was forced to take a more conservative and patriotic approach, as heard in particular in his 1937 Fifth Symphony. His acceptance of the commission to write the Suite on Finnish Themes demonstrates this forced patriotism. Shostakovich needed to escape the Communist Party backlash and return to Stalin’s favour. His alternative, the consequence for dissention, the Gulags. 

Further Examples of Nationalism in Music

Edvard Grieg – Norway

Grieg combined elements of traditional Norwegian folk songs with the Romantic style, often using poems by Norwegian poets such as Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson to set to his vocal songs.

His Opus 25, a set of six songs all set to poems by Ibsen, is a good example of his compositional style, demonstrating his feelings about nationalism through his synthesis of compositional elements and text. The form, harmony and melody of his works reflect his close relationship with the landscape of his home country. 

Bela Bartók – Hungary

Bartók is often painted as a highly nationalist composter, but study of his music shows how his idea of nationalism developed throughout his career and actually became diluted by social awareness.

In his late teens, in allegiance to the divisive politics of Hungarian nationalism he was attracted to what was known as the Hungarian popular music, often performed by Gypsy musicians. One of his early works, the 1903 symphonic poem Kossuth, tells the story of one of the heroes of the 1848-9 revolution.

This work employs characteristic features of the urban Gypsy music, which is also heard in the music of Franz Liszt. Musical devices include the use of a minor key scale with a sharpened fourth note, a short-long rhythmic figure (much like the Scotch-snap found in Scottish folk music) derived from the stress pattern of Hungarian speech, and the emulation of the performance style of indigenous instruments. These included the hammered dulcimer or cimbalom, the sound of which was later made famous in Anton Karas’s score for The Third Man.

However, through the influence of his friend Zoltán Kodály, Bartók was to discover a very different type of Hungarian popular music – music from the countryside. Much like Cecil Sharpe who built up the English folk song and dance collection, Bartók subsequently spent much of his life collecting, editing and cataloguing these folk songs, which he recorded in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, North Africa, and Turkey. Along with 2700 Hungarian melodies, Bartók collected 3500 Romanian and 3400 Slovakian tunes, and 10,000 other melodies from field workers.

Gypsy musicians in Budapest, May 1946, image source: http://www.fortepan.hu

One notable aspect of Bartók’s research was that he attempted to be properly systematic and scientific, making use of the recently developed phonograph rather than transcribing by ear. He refined the approach thoughout his life, creating ever more detailed transcriptions and seeking out points of correspondence between the music he had sourced from people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Through this ethnomusicological study he effectively reorientated himself. What had begun in his youth as a narrow Hungarian nationalist outlook became a much broader and more inclusive view. He came to see an essential unity between the rural working people of Hungary and its neighbouring states. In compositional terms this led to a musical style with a firm base in Hungary but which was permeated by elements derived from other cultures.

The Influence of African Musicians on Classical Music

Western classical music, by its very definition, is rooted in the sacred and secular traditions of the western world, centred around Europe. Although the genre has been influenced throughout history by folk song, jazz and music from other continents such as America and China, it rarely diverges far from its Western identity.

Much like Western music outside the ‘classical’ box, African music is incredibly diverse, varying greatly by region. There is lots of opportunity for creative inspiration.

In his 2006 book, Listening to Artifacts: Music Culture in Ancient Israel/Palestine, Theodore Burgh suggests that classical music ultimately has its roots in North Africa, in the art music of Ancient Egypt, as well as other ancient cultures such as Greece. However, there seems, at first glance, little evidence of African influence in classical music. When it is found, for example in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, it is generally Afro-American in origin, interpreted in a western-dominated form of music.

When explored, the contribution of black composers and musicians, and the influence of African music, forms a fascinating part of classical music history.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Probably the first and perhaps best-known classical composer of African descent, Saint-Georges was the illegitimate son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner, Bologne de Saint-Georges, and his mistress, an African slave girl of probable Senegalese birth called Nanon.

A contemporary of Mozart, Saint-Georges was barred from sharing his father’s French noble status because he was black, but his father ensured he was educated as an aristocrat. He studied fencing with a famous swordsman, becoming a champion fencer. He learned harpsichord, and he studied violin with one of the famous French virtuosi, Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder. His success both as a musician and athlete made him famous, but while religious leaders were agitating for an end to slavery, interracial marriages were still forbidden, and his skin colour built him an ambivalent status in society.

Although close to Queen Marie Antoinette, Saint-Georges was refused the prestigious post of director of the Paris Opéra, for which he was considered in 1775, because two of the company’s leading sopranos objected and successfully petitioned the Queen against his appointment on the ground of his race. Even so, he was a major star in Paris in the 1770s, nicknamed “Le Mozart Noir” on concert posters, often sharing equal billing with Mozart.

The later part of Saint-Georges’ life was disrupted by the French Revolution. Although he had been active in campaigning against slavery and sympathised with the democratic aims of the revolution, his aristocratic background meant he was not trusted.

He continued performing and directing up to his death, and he was remained famous enough to attract large crowds. However, living alone, he contracted a bladder infection and died on June 10, 1799.

Commemorative editions of his music were published, but within a short time, new restrictions on blacks came into force across France and its empire. Slavery had been abolished in 1794, but was re-imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Under Bonaparte’s regime, Saint-George and his music were removed from orchestra repertoires, wiping him from the history books for nearly 200 years.

His profile has risen in recent years thanks to concerts by ensembles including the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, but he has not yet regained the equal footing he held with Mozart among classical music fans.

Embracing Ideas in the Romantic Period and Beyond

Towards the end of the 19th century, composers were looking towards different cultures for inspiration. Antonín Dvořák’s interest in themes from the ‘new world’ is well documented. His move to New York brought him directly into contact with Afro-American music.

In fact, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, From the New World, written in 1893, contains some of the most famous examples of Afro-American themes in classical music. But Dvořák’s themes are not actually of Afro-American origin. The composer wrote accurate imitations of the pentatonic melodies, a technique which he also used in his American string quartet.

Interestingly, these compositions were pretty much contemporaneous with an emerging style of music in North America called ragtime.

Ragtime descended from the jigs and marching music played by African American bands, referred to as “jig piano” or “piano thumping”. Rags by Scott Joplin such as The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag are still instantly recognisable, and Ragtime had a lasting influence on classical composers. Igor Stravinsky wrote a solo piano work called Piano-Rag-Music, while ragtime is evident in the works of Erik Satie, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and the other members of The Group of Six in Paris.

In 1930, William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony marked the first symphony by an African-American man. The work marries conventional classical forms with popular African styles, also referencing the blues. The bass line of the final movement moves from an F to a D-flat, resembling Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

The following epigraph, from African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 work, Ode to Ethiopia, appears with the fourth movement:

Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,

Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll

In characters of fire.

High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,

Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is considered to be the only black composer to have broken through from the Romantic era. Born to a Sierra Leonean father, Coleridge-Taylor was from Holborn, London. He incorporated black traditional music with classical music, with such compositions as African Suite, African Romances and Twenty Four Negro Melodies. The first performance of his work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was described by the principal of the Royal College of Music as, “One of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” Despite this success, Coleridge-Taylor’s music is out of fashion and all-but out of print.

Accepted to the Royal College of Music aged 15, despite concerns about his skin colour, he swapped violin studies for composition. His tutor was Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford challenged his student to write a clarinet quintet without showing the influence of his favourite composer, Brahms. Coleridge-Taylor wrote the piece, and when this work was revived in 1973, the New York Times critic called it, “Something of an eye opener…an assured piece of writing in the post-Romantic tradition…sweetly melodic.”

Despite little modern recognition, his influence lives on: From 1903 to his death in 1912, he was professor of composition at the Trinity College of Music in London. However, violinist Philippe Graffin performed the violin concerto at the Proms in 2005, and the Nash Ensemble have recorded the composer’s piano quintet.

Modern Times

Modern classical music has been more influenced by African culture. John Cage’s 1940 work, Bacchanale was the first significant modern synthesis of African and Western music. It was also instrumental in the development of the prepared piano, as the composer sought out African sounds with only room on stage for a grand piano.

Other composers such as George Crumb, Ligeti and Steve Reich have explored African influences, while composers born in Africa include Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe. A member of the Igbo ethnic group, many of Uzoigwe’s works draw on the traditional music of his people.

Classical music is far from reaching the limits of inspiration from African music, and it is far from incorporating the work of black composers on a level playing field. However, for centuries, composers and the curiosity of the creative mind have shown us that the more the classical music world stretches its knowledge beyond the boundaries of its own traditional culture, the more unique voices will be found.


If you would like to speak to the Music Workshop Company about booking a workshop inspired by African music, contact us today:

%d bloggers like this: