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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.

Women Composers – A Reflection on Cultural Expectation

Composer: A person who writes music especially as a professional occupation

The history of music is rich with composers, experimental, creative, daring, dashing, often with fascinating personal lives, and each still receiving regular concert billing. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Ives, Britten – in 2015, music exam board Edexcel featured 63 such composers in its A-Level syllabus.

In 2015, however, it was also pointed out via a change.org petition set up by student Jessy McCabe, that the syllabus was notably missing the inclusion of a single female composer.

This is not an unusual admission. We are used to the same names recurring. Concert societies look for music that will draw audiences, preferring to stick with safe, in-budget programming of Mozart and Beethoven quartets, and composers we’ve all heard of.

Meanwhile double standards and censorship abound. In the wake of the #metoo campaign (which saw Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs removed from display at the Manchester Art Gallery to supposedly prompt conversation about the way images of women’s bodies are displayed), singer R Kelly has been removed from Spotify playlists due to sexual abuse allegations (which the singer has denied). Spotify’s new ‘hate policy’ states that:

When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.

Meanwhile the music of Don Carlo Gesualdo is currently celebrated on the streaming platform. Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover, and allegedly also the baby, but it was 400 years ago after all, so we can enjoy articles about him that wittily talk about ‘killer harmonies’ and bow to the description ‘irrefutably badass’ given him by the BBC’s Clemency Burton-Hill without so much as a wince in the direction of gender politics, or perhaps taste.

Any gender issue tends to spark heated debate. Claims that resurfaced on social media recently that Bach’s wife may have written some of his work met with anger, particularly from men who are beginning, understandably, to feel a bit browbeaten by current events.

But it’s a genuine question. Where are all the female composers? Why do we not hear their work? Why are they not simply referred to as ‘composers’ in the neutral way that actresses have become ‘actors’ in modern parlance?

Notable women include Lili Boulanger, who was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome at the age of 19, (Debussy won the 1884 prize at the age of 21 or 22) but her output was limited by ill health and early death at the age of 24. Her older sister Nadia is often spoken of more by association with her male pupils. Nadia Boulanger taught composition to some of the 20th Century’s most prominent composers: including Astor Piazzolla, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, İdil Biret, Daniel Barenboim and Philip Glass. She was also the first woman to conduct many of the major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras, and conducted several world premieres, including works by Copland and Stravinsky.

Nadia Boulanger, Chanson:

Scottish born Thea Musgrave is one living female composer who is recognised for her incredible output, and actively celebrated. Her work saw significant premieres at the Proms and the Royal Festival Hall in London in the 1960s, since when she has continued to produce work on a large scale, including commissions for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a collaboration with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. She’s written a work called The Seasons that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in conversations comparing composers’ responses to nature that regularly site Vivaldi’s work of the same name.

Thea Musgrave, Winter from The Seasons:

 

It’s rather heartbreaking to read how Clara Schumann (1819-1896), who is generally spoken of in association with her more famous husband (generally just known as Schumann!), felt about the societal pressure placed upon her at a time when creative women were often suspected to be witches, or had to present as angelic to avoid implications of prostitution:

I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to?

And Alexandra Coghlan writes in the Spectator,

It’s even more frustrating to learn that, nearly 100 years later, when Elizabeth Maconchy was denied a prestigious Royal College of Music scholarship, the excuse given was, ‘If we’d given it to you, you’d only have got married and never written another note!’

To return to Edexcel, the exam board initially countered complaints about their all-male syllabus saying that female composers were not prominent in the Western Classical Tradition. But as the Independent reported, while this is to some extent true, it should not go unremarked.

Students should be taught about the women whose music we have been denied, because they in their turn were denied the opportunities they needed to succeed….

Students should also be taught about the women who did succeed in reaching prominence in their own time, only to be subsequently forgotten… while there were of course fewer women who managed to beat the odds, the International Encyclopedia of Women Composers nevertheless has more than 6,000 entries.

Despite this surprising number, an attempt to redress the balance by Classic FM can offer a list of only 10 Female Composers You Should Know, and even this list rather gauchely describes Ruth Crawford Seeger as “a woman who could ‘sling dissonances like a man,’” a quote ascribed to critics in the 1920’s but presented out-of-context here as though it were a reasonable comment on Seeger’s work.

In the wake of the Edexcel complaint, publisher, Rhinegold, produced a guide to the new syllabus by David Ashworth, who explains in his introduction:

It’s important that we now build on this initial momentum by showcasing the work of even more women composers. The ones included by Edexcel and the other boards are only the tip of a very large iceberg.

However, in this resource I want to go beyond just raising awareness. I want to help teachers and students get ‘under the bonnet’ by looking at some of the rich and diverse composing approaches and strategies used by some these women composers, not only to understand these ideas but also to guide students into trying some of them out for themselves.

Emily E Hogstad sums it up in her satirical blog, In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers:

I’m not saying to chuck out Beethoven and Brahms….But once in a while, the boys could be gentlemanly enough to slide over at the table and let the ladies sit down for a bit.

Programmers are beginning to listen. In a move prompted by another gender row, this time within the music world – acclaimed conductor Mariss Jansons’ ill-timed and ill-judged comment that “seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea” – the BBC has promised to gender-balance its Proms programming, pledging that half of all new commissions will go to women by 2020.

This plan builds a new balance for the future without trying to reinvent the past. Let’s hope it is viewed in a more positive light than the Tate’s current survey of 20th Century art, All Too Human, which was dismissed in the Financial Times as narrowing to gender politics with the inclusion of certain women artists in preference to male artists the writer considered to be more pivotal to art history.

Meanwhile Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance is promoting the importance of women composers with a new initiative, Venus Blazing. Venus Blazing represents an unprecedented commitment by a music college to the music of women composers. Trinity Laban will ensure that at least half of the music it chooses for the multitude of varied public performances it mounts on its landmark Greenwich campus and in venues across London in 2018/19 will be by women composers.

[Image: Gnissah]

This encompasses over 50 concerts and opera performances given each year by the conservatoire’s large-scale student performing groups, with a particular focus on 20th and 21st century British composers, including Trinity Laban students, alumni and staff.

Performances will include a new production of Thea Musgrave’s opera A Christmas Carol, symphonies by Louise Farrenc and Grace Williams performed by the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra, an exploration of the music of Trinity Laban alumna Avril Coleridge-Taylor, and music by current Trinity Laban composition students and staff, including Errollyn Wallen, Soosan Lolavar, Laura Jurd and Deirdre Gribbin.

The title Venus Blazing is taken from the title of a violin concerto by composition professor Deirdre Gribbin, who also runs the Venus Blazing Charitable Trust.

Trinity’s Chair, Harriet Harman, says:

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance is strongly committed to diversity in all elements and it has a mission to constantly challenge the status quo. Venus Blazing is a great example of just how it can do this.

This celebration will encourage and inspire its students – many of whom will go on to shape the future of the performing arts – to engage with the historic issue of gender imbalance in music by women, and ensure that it does not continue into the next generation.

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.


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