One of the less appealing musical legacies that the now defunct 20th century has left us with may well be the loss of national identity. After the European dominance of Wagner which was, like Debussy some time later, a stylistic infection or affliction from which some composers found it extremely difficult to extricate themselves, there was a quite plausible enthusiasm, in part enhanced no doubt by political pride, to absorb national folklore not only into texts and titles, but into the music itself. The impact was generally benign and attractive.
At the turn of the last century European audiences had already acknowledged the national spirit in Glinka and Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt, Smetana and Dvorák, but there was some intellectual scorn cast upon those who later chose to further their folklore interest with more exacting research. So it was that the nationalistic zeal of Grieg, Sibelius, Bartók, Holst, Falla, Copland, Villa-Lobos and many others became, in quite a large number of often unjustly influential academic opinions, a reason to denigrate a commodity that lacked the intellectual rigidity of original invention and robust symphonic argument.
Stringing together folksongs or mimicking the rhythms and forms of folk dances seemed to be an easy way out, despite the wealth of evidence that composers far back into the fifteenth century would do just that. It was assumed that composers with their head and feet in their own countryside were not able to contend with the rugged architecture of symphonic forms. They built their sonata structures from little rustic tunes and developed their pieces by either repeating them more loudly or moving on to another one. Among these more academically orientated dons seemed to be a marked reluctance to tolerate in their concert halls what could be described as the farmers' and Morris-men's weighty boots or the heavy taint of real ale on the singers' breath.
These symptoms, unattractive perhaps to cerebral enthusiasts, were however a bold statement of belonging. They signified origins not to be forgotten, roots to be nourished, the addition of links to chains still held firmly by ancestors to whom respect and loyalty were due, and indeed given with care and affection. The folklore is preserved by those whose technical skills may far exceed those of their rustic predecessors who had created it, but for whom there remains a reverence that is kept sacred. How soon the new tower block crumbles and the cathedral of five centuries still stands. The loss of musical national identity is a sacrifice to self indulgence, opportunism and egotism.
Copyright © 29 June 2006 Patric Standford,
West Yorkshire, UK