The Accents of National Music

As we listen to music, even if we don’t know the piece or composer, we can sometimes identify the national origin of a work.  ‘That’s French!’, we might declare, or Russian, or English, Nordic, Bohemian, Eastern European, American, or whatever else.  As a scholar, a musicologist, a recurring theme that is of interest to some, in talks or notes, is how that sense of nationalism is created.  What is it that allows us to identify that national origin?  What is it that defines a national voice?  How can we identify what it is that make those nationalist differences in music, and what they are?  More fundamentally, do these boundaries truly exist?

After the question of national identity in music arose in a discussion panel at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song in 2017, composer Martin Bussey remarked that he doesn’t set out to write ‘English music’.  Nor do I.  It is the last thing on our minds.  I don’t believe any composer sets out upon their career, or indeed a work, thinking, ‘I must write music as befits my nationality!’  In writing an idea, we don’t think, ‘I can’t write that: it just isn’t representative of the national voice and music to which I am contributing and belong!’  In the case of several composers I have spoken to, we write the music that we want to hear.  Even when a composer is part of a movement that consciously seeks to create, or rationalise, a national cultural voice, they cannot ‘create’ that identity.  Such movements (think Finland, and their 19th century movement towards independence) draw upon traditional cultures: folklore, folk-songs, the reclamation of native language where it has been suppressed — elements of their national, non-occupationist, culture that have survived on the fringes.  Beyond that, a composer or writer cannot truly create a national voice.  It comes from somewhere deeper.

While personal musical style can be a conscious, or half-conscious thing that a composer refines and hones with practice and writing, any sense of a national cultural identity that might be perceived in that music is a subconscious, if not indeed wholly unconscious, act.  So what is it that underpins that unconscious, or half-subconscious, yet tangible sense of ‘national music’?

Much has been written of landscape and music, particularly in Britain with the perceived pastoralism of composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and the late-19th–early-20th century school.  Is it the landscape that shapes it?  Is there something of the elemental rock of Iceland, unsoftened by green, in Jon Liefs, as one might say of the green pastures of England’s pastoralism?  Can we differentiate between the urban and rural?  Perhaps we can, but Vaughan Williams, as an adoptive Londoner, wrote many of his apparently pastoral works in that metropole (although I think landscapes reside within us more than without — but that is an essay for another day).  A more fundamental and constant part of our environment I think does have some bearing on national style: the climate; the heat of Spain, the more temperate variance of Britain, and the cool Nordic climes, such as the quality of light in those places is evident in visual art.  Also of bearing, is our national cultural distinction, the nature of our characters.  Of this, I believe one aspect is crucial and fundamental: our language; our voices.  Language is, I believe, the true key to that sense of national identity in music; something ingrained in us from even before we leave our mother’s body, hearing the shape and sound of that which is spoken around us.  In Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ (the Gaelic question is a subject for yet another essay, perhaps), a line stands out in this respect: ‘It wasn’t a factory that made your language — it made you.’  It is likely a factory of men of which he writes (‘Keep / out of the factory, O man, you are not a robot.’), but it is true also of the language: it, the language, made you.

Our language is at the root of our cultural identity and of our music making.  The most basic and innate instrument we have is our voice.  Composing is a singing (a truth I have only discovered this last few years, as the balance between my singing and composing has shifted), and the origin of the sounds that we sing come from the well practised art of speech: from the shape and sound of the vowels in our language and accent, the lie of the consonants and their placing and prominence, the construction of the language, the character of the line, the cadences, and the wider tonal level, range and natural lyrical shape of that speech.  All of this impacts upon how we shape sound in music as we compose.  While it would likely benefit from some scientific surety — a deeper, metalinguistic study, for which I am not qualified — from my standpoint as a writer, a composer, a singer, and a musicologist, there seem to be some extraordinarily strong links between language, accent, and national musics.

At a very crude level, think of Mussorgsky’s extraordinary Boris Godunov.  The Russian language, from my experience of attempting to sing the language, with its verbal placing of sounds towards the rear of the tongue rather than at its tip.  This deep production, and unique sound, seems to resound in the aural quality of Boris (think of the motto theme of that work).  The impressionistic qualities of French music seem to me to echo something of spoken French; the openness of American speech gives something of that quality to their music.  Linguistically, do the formal aspects  of Teutonic music that have came to dominate Western Music for so long have their foundation in the formal, compound-construction of the German language?  Perhaps I imposing these ideas on these national musics, seeing something that isn’t really there; but I don’t think I am. It requires, however, a linguistic analysis — however that might work — with defined parameters that don’t risk resortion to, or definition by, malperceived stereotypes.

But these are hugely cosmopolitan times.  With the ease of international travel (for better or for worse), and the cross-fertilisation and enriching of cultures that arises with the movement of peoples and forming of immigrant communities, with the changes and collaborations that might be possible in that movement (something which has been present in our various nations’ societies and cultures for thousands of years); and with the dilution of parochialism in the centralisation of businesses and services in international centres, are we at risk of losing our national identities?  Are we losing that aural sense of origin, of place, morphing into a homogenous individualism (if that isn’t a too great an apparently-irreconcilable contradiction) devoid of national locus?  No, I don’t think we are, nor will we ever do so.  We will always be true to that native language of our upbringing, be it bilingual or otherwise, in whatever place that upbringing takes place.  It is part of our uniqueness in belonging to a nation (or more than one), and our individual voices.

Thinking further on the national identity of music makes me wonder further whether there is any way of identifying ultra-localism in the music, from the dialects and accents within a nation.  Even though the language is the same, can we identify something of the midland drawl, the harsher tones of English-speaking Glaswegians, or the more song-like tone of the English-speaking Welsh, in music written by composers of these places?  I should love to know.

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