S·P·I·N - Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms

Announcing a new project: National Music

“Classical” music before 1800 was by and large a pan-European cultural field. The diatonic musical system, the use of counterpoint and harmony and even the instruments and orchestral organization followed patterns which were universally distributed, with only minor national or local variations. Composers could effortlessly adopt techniques and stylistic  influences across country boundaries, and frequently pursue an international career; forms like the fugue, sonata, concerto, cantata and opera, as well as instrumental combinations such as the string quartet, were Europe-wide in their distribution.

In the course of the nineteenth century and in the wake of Romanticism, we see a growing tendency among composers to turn to “national” topics and styles for inspiration. Demotic dance meters and modalities such as verbunkos (Hungarian) or mazurka (Polish) are taken up, composers like Beethoven of Mendelssohn make grateful use of (recently printed/published) folk tunes (e.g. from Scotland) as themes for their compositions, and operas begin increasingly to thematize “national” themes (alongside the long-established classical/ancient ones) for their libretti.

The tendency to compose in a “national” manner sweeps all of Europe in the Romantic Century, which stretches well into the twentieth century in composers such as Bartók, Vaughan Williams and De Falla. Its rise was made possible to some exent by the fact that  the ticket-paying middle classes became the prime financiers of composers and of orchestral music, and that public opera houses, music theatres and conservatoires were established for these audiences in alle the major cities of Europe. But there were cultural (intellectual/artistic) factors at work as well as social ones: “National music” reflects the Romantic idea that national enthusiasm is a particularly strong source for artistic inspiration, and that the artist’s inspiration is purest and most “authentic” when it is driven by national ties.

“National” in this context can mean various things: either the use of non-elite, demotic, “folk” modes and rhythms (Spanish for Albéniz, Hungarian for Liszt); programmatic usage of nationally specific themes, be it in the stylistic evocations of landscapes (Smetana’s Má Vlast,  Sibelius’s Karelia Suite); or referencing national-historical or national-mythical subjects (many opera libretti, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture).

Although each composer affected by this trend turned inward to channel his/her “own” nationality, the trend itself is an outward, expansive, Europe-wide phenomenon (also affecting non-European countries from Armenia to the Americas), and a prime example of “cultural transfer”.  Isolated instances in this trend towards national music have been studied, but the transfer pattern still poses a challenge. To study nineteenth-century music from the perspective of intellectual history; to do so in a Europe-wide comparative scope; to align the discursive and historical environment in which the musical pieces were conceived, composed and performed; and to trace the influences and the spread of this vogue from composer to composer and from country to country: all that remains an exciting task which can only be tackled by a project group of dedicated researchers with expertise in various parts of Europe.

The project will be launched in early 2011 and is expected to run to five years. Funding has been made available by the Royal Netherlands’ Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), through their grant of an Academy Professorship to Joep Leerssen. The Department of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam will coordinate the project.

Interested scholars are warmly invited to make themselves known to SPIN.