What's That Sound?

On Classical Music and National Identity

Browse practically any orchestra season—when they’re happening!—and you’ll find concerts with themes like “A Russian Connection” or “French Romance.” They’re everywhere, and I often wonder why slapping together a few composers from the same country is so appealing to concert programmers. My hunch: It’s easy.

Although it’s right there in the title, these concerts rarely address national identity in a meaningful way. That’s too bad, because the topic can provide some of the most compelling human interest stories for listeners of any background.

Why waste such a golden opportunity?

lazy dog GIF by Cheezburger

Fair Warning: You Might Get Shadled

Vanderbilt faculty login IDs are lastname + first initial, which makes mine “shadled.” Whenever I log on to one of the classroom computers for the first time, my students always chuckle because mine looks like a verb. “You’ve been Shadled.”

I joke that every class gets to decide what the word will mean for them. In my seminar called “Music and the Construction of National Identity,” they inevitably choose “throwing national identity into a conversation when no one was expecting it.”

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As I explained in my post about Aubrey Bergauer’s visit to one of my classes in January, I introduce first-year students to the complexities of Western music history with a basic four-part model of the “Western music ecosystem.”

|Composer (C)| — |Work (W)| — |Performer (P)| — |Listener (L)|

To quote myself:

The idea here is that musical activity in standard Western frameworks involves social relationships among several interconnected parts, all of which contribute to the “meaning” of the experience. Sometimes these parts are physically separated from each other by centuries or oceans, but they are always present. (Or if you improvise a song for yourself in the shower, you’re all four parts at once!)

My upper-level seminars add new variables, and one of the most salient is national identity. It affects every dimension of the model and can dramatically shape our understanding of a given musical situation. Trust me: If you ever meet me in person, there’s a very good chance I will Shadle you if we start talking about classical music.


What is a National “Sound”?

“This music sounds Russian.” Or French. Or American. Pick your nationality. People say this sort of thing all the time without thinking too much about it. We get the impulse, I think, because conventional music history pedagogy emphasizes composers and works—Parts 1 and 2 of the model—at the expense of everything else.

To conclude that something “sounds Russian,” we sum up a bunch of pieces by Russian composers, try to find the common stylistic denominators, and then see if Piece X or Piece Y fits into that general category. If so—ta da!—Russian.

If only it were that simple!

To be more rigorous about it, we’d first have to make a determination of who “counts” as Russian. Someone born in Russia? Someone living there? Someone ethnically Russian (as opposed to Tatars)? Making that determination has political and social consequences, as I’ll explain later.

Once we finish with the “whos,” then we’d have to compare styles to figure out commonalities. This process would look something like genomics research, in which we’d backtrace musically persistent elements while discarding those that seem to come from outside sources. But is this type of analysis even possible? Where would we find the ur-Russian music “unmixed” with something else? The German musicologist Bernd Sponheuer has argued that national musical identity is not “an empirically demonstrable musical trait derived from style criticism.” I agree 100%.

If you want to see this approach in action, look no further than the infamously bad analysis of “the chord that makes Christmas sound so Christmassy.”

This sort of thing doesn’t pass the smell test in the case of Christmas music, and it shouldn’t for national identity, either.

“But Doug, don’t reinvent the wheel. We all know Russian composers borrowed ideas from folk music traditions.” Well, some did, some didn’t. And even if it were all, what about incorporating folk songs into an otherwise “classical” idiom makes the piece inherently Russian? Beethoven did this very thing in the third movement of his Op. 59, No. 2 string quartet. Should we consider this piece Russian by that metric?

(The passage starts at 27:29.)

Someone asking about a national “sound” is already making fundamental assumptions about the nature of national identity and how it might be translated into musical expression without considering other aspects of the model. A piece (“W”) can only ever “sound Russian” to you (“L”), given what you believe about Russian-ness and its potential musical manifestations. What you really mean is, “This piece shares some qualities with some other pieces I know.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Essentialism vs. Social Constructionism

The belief underpinning statements like, “This music sounds X,” is what philosophers call essentialism: the idea that the inner essence of a thing remains fixed across all its outward, real-world manifestations—that all men share an essence, for example, or all Americans, and that this very essence is what defines them as men or Americans.

Musical essentialism follows the same logic. If this musical work contains “X, Y, and Z in a specific combination,” it’s Russian. If it contains “A, B, and C in another combination,” it’s American. To extend the metaphor of genomics, musical essentialism feels very much like biological taxonomy.

Standard nation-themed programming feeds directly into essentialism by implicitly encouraging listeners to find detailed stylistic commonalities. As we saw, this is hard enough for experts. Never mind people listening for the first time!

An alternative to essentialism is what we call social constructionism: the idea that facets of our identity are always in flux while they are co-constructed in relation to others. We often encounter this concept in discussions about gender, because it helps explain the extraordinarily wide variety of gender expressions throughout the world.

(And just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t real!)

In music, my four-part heuristic device is a rough way to understand how musical meaning is socially constructed and depends on factors that may only be loosely related to the “W.” As I suggested above, I don’t think musical essentialism matches our lived experience of music. It doesn’t account for the “P” and “L” aspects of the model, or even the “C,” as we saw with Beethoven. These are the human elements!

Essentialism constrains the infinite variety of potential musical experiences.

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What is National Identity?

If a musical work doesn’t express an “inner national essence,” then what is national identity in the first place? As with gender, certain people throughout history have believed in an essentialist (e.g., empirical or scientific) definition of national identity. But many contemporary theorists find that our lived experiences of national identity emerge in relation to other people—that it’s socially constructed.

In fact, nationhood binds people together who might have no other reason to feel a connection with one another. It’s social by nature. And it’s so powerful that it has the potential to cut across virtually every other facet of our identities: race, gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc. Only religion makes similarly comprehensive claims.

Whereas the “connective tissue” of religion relies on certain cosmological and spiritual beliefs, the “connective tissue” of nationhood has historically been more concrete. Sociologist Montserrat Guibernaut has identified five dimensions of national identity that articulate its social formation:

  1. “Psychological” - Feelings of being “ancestrally related” to fellow-nationals (whether by blood or by culture);

  2. “Cultural” - Shared “values, beliefs, customs, conventions, habits, languages, and practices” that are “transmitted to new members;”

  3. “Historical” - A collective memory (e.g., history, myths, and heroes);

  4. “Territorial” - The notion of a sacred and/or ancestral homeland;

  5. “Political” - The belief that “the nation” is the “source of legitimacy for state power.”

This five-dimensional approach is very useful for analysis, because claims of national identity throughout history have deployed all five in variable proportions.

The recent “1619 Project” hosted by the New York Times, for example, reframes all five dimensions of American national identity, especially #3, which has conventionally emphasized white male “mythical heroes” like Washington and Lincoln. Many people are feeling #1 and #3 very acutely right now, too, as we experience the loss of our ancestors amid a collective national trauma.

The territorial (#4) and political (#5) dimensions are perhaps the most visible in the contemporary world, because they continue to be a source of bitter regional conflict across the globe—along the USA-Mexico border, for example, and throughout the Middle East (which also includes complex dimensions of religious identity—#2).

Before moving back to music, I want to clarify a few other terms:

  • A “state” (or “country”) is a territory with clearly defined geopolitical borders and a central governing authority.

  • “Nation” is not synonymous with “state,” precisely because nations can exist without states. Kurdistan is a good contemporary example.

  • “Patriotism” is loyalty to the state, whereas “nationalism” is an expression of dimension #5 that includes a drive toward political autonomy.

(Also, have you ever wondered why college sports are so successful? Apply the five dimensions, and you’ll find your answer!—Get a barf bag ready for the next GIF.)

cameron crazies GIF by Duke Men's Basketball

What is National Musical Identity?

Since music is a cultural practice, musicians typically participate in Guibernot’s dimension #2—the shared “values, beliefs, customs, conventions, habits, languages, and practices” that are “transmitted to new members.” But we’d be mistaken if we limit musical activity to this dimension.

Musical participants (whether composer, performer, or listener) experience the five dimensions of national identity as they make their way through the world—just like everyone else. Consequently, a person’s sense of national identity will always shape their musical experiences, regardless of their specific role.

The best explanation of this phenomenon I’ve encountered appears in a terrific article on Russian opera by musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker. Although she focuses on Russia, her work suggests that within conventional Western paradigms, claims about national musical identity tend to arise in one or more of the following six scenarios:

  1. By “composer’s intention” - The composer (“C”) claims either directly or indirectly that a given composition (“W”) has a specific national identity (dimension #2). Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s opera Margaret Garner, for example, is subtitled, “A New American Opera in Two Acts.” Does this make it American? No—only that they claim it’s American.

  2. By “reception” - Performers (“P”) or audiences (“L”) ascribe a national identity to a piece of music (“W”) regardless of what the composer thought—or what musicologists/critics think. A classic example of this situation is Verdi’s Nabucco, which many people perceive as quintessentially Italian (via #5) despite scholarly challenges.

  3. By “interpretation” - People (“P” or “L”) who encounter a work (“W”) well after its premiere read new meanings into it, often for specific political or social purposes. Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert called “What is American Music?” is a good example of this process, because he creates a distinct lineage of “increasingly American” musical works (#1 and #2 at the service of #3).

  4. By “association” - People (“C,” “P,” and/or “L”) believe a work (“W”) has certain national resonances because it’s associated with some other national theme, topic, or artwork (#3 or #4). Bedřich Smetana’s Má Vlast is a good example, as is William Henry Fry’s Niagara symphony. (You’ve gotta check that one out!)

  5. By “blood or culture” - In this scenario, only the composer’s national identity (#1), not the composition, matters. Virgil Thomson once quipped that to write American music, all one needs to do is be American and write music. As Frolova-Walker explains, though, people take this approach most often as “a way of closing off debate” rather than expanding the field (e.g. antisemitism).

  6. By “belonging to a school” - In this scenario, composers (“C”) work together to create works (“W”) with a specific national identity, while performers (“P”) and listeners (“L”) accept the group’s national “authenticity.” The classic case here, as Frolova-Walker notes, is the Mighty Handful. She explains that when other Russian composers used similar stylistic methods, “these attempts were rejected by [Vladimir] Stasov and his followers.”

What’s important to take away here is that none of these scenarios relies exclusively on specific musical techniques. (#3 comes closest.) Rather, they’re all tied to claims about works made by one or more individuals in the ecosystem. The person(s) making the claim and the piece of music itself are participating in processes of national identity formation together. It’s always a dynamic relationship—never static.

Consequently, claims about national musical identity are not empirically verifiable with an examination of a score. They are loaded ideological statements that expose the speaker’s attitudes toward their social surroundings. That’s really juicy stuff! And it makes tying music history to the here-and-now very easy. We are always tangled up in webs of national identity whether we realize it or not. Tell these stories!

Let’s tackle a quick example: Using Frolova-Walker’s matrix, how would we interpret a 2010 performance of Verdi’s Nabucco (an “Italian” opera about captive Israelites) at Masada, a national site in Israel? I warned you this could get complicated!

just kidding GIF

(Hahaha! — Someone already wrote that article!)


So What?

I opened by introducing the common strategy of putting a few composers from the same country on a program and giving it a theme like “A Russian Connection” or “French Romance.” Hopefully it’s clear that this approach is the very least a programmer can do to invoke the highly potent concept of national identity. The gesture may seem innocuous in a case like France. But is it, really?

What about an “American Journey” that features George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Roy Harris—white men all of the same generation? Don’t you think this concert would convey a message about how the programmer perceives “America,” especially given the rich variety of composers, styles, and eras available?

And why don’t we see concerts like “A Japanese Connection”? Organizations probably fear empty seats from not having a “big name” anchoring the program. What does that say about how organizations tend to value composers from outside the West?

Why not “German Romance”? In this case, we’re so accustomed to the presence of music by Austro-German composers on any program that it’s almost startling to mention. German music, like whiteness, is the “unmarked” category in classical music that seems to belong anywhere, even in a room by itself. What message does that send?

Everybodylovesraymond GIF by TV Land

If performance organizations need to focus on content and context, as leading thinkers like Aubrey Bergauer and Anne Midgette have argued, there is perhaps no greater storehouse of compelling material than the wealth of transnational encounters that have shaped Western classical music for centuries. So. Much. Human. Interest.

Why not stage a concert called “A French Connection” with music by Aaron Copland, Julia Perry, and Philip Glass? Or Igor Stravinsky, Tōru Takemitsu, and Louise Farrenc? How might organizations think about including the stories of composers who don’t fit neatly into Western national categories? Given the histories and current demographics of these cities, how might an organization in San Francisco approach questions of national identity differently from one in New Orleans?

I could tell you, but then I’d have to Shadle you.


Music City Spotlight: Check out composer-pianist Cristina Spinei’s new album, Ex Voto!

In the queue: A follow-up post about national musical identity in the USA

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