Musical Nationalism, Swanee River, Russian Peasants, and a Cool Israeli Online Journal

Ralph Locke

Musical nationalism is one of those looming problems in the history of music that generations of scholars have tended to avoid dealing with.

Sure, there are standard ways in which we bring nationalism into the picture.  We tend to acknowledge the impact of German nationalism (in its negative and even racist aspects) upon the music dramas and prose writings of Wagner.  Anti-Wagnerianism and anti-German sentiment are main themes in discussions of French musical life in the late nineteenth century (as, for example, when the classic textbook by Grout et al. reaches Vincent d'Indy and the Société Nationale de Musique).  And nationalism is a box into which critics and teachers (I plead guilty) have comfortably consigned lots of interesting, distinctive, and important composers from regions deemed peripheral (Smetana and Dvorak, Glinka and the Mighty Handful, Grieg, Albeniz, and so on).

Still, it took Richard Taruskin to bring the topic front and center, in his astonishing, insightful, broadly sweeping entry on the topic in Grove (2001), and, more recently, in vol. 3 of his Oxford History of Western Music.  One of Taruskin's main points is that cultural nationalism is, in many ways, a German invention.  The Germans simply (well, nothing is simple, but…) persuaded themselves and the rest of the musical world (I don't know about literature, visual art, etc.) that the German way of composing was the best, the norm, the highest–in short, universal in its message and means.  These writers and practitioners (e.g., composition teachers in Leipzig) succeeded, to the extent that composers in other countries often adopted a German musical manner.  To write a Germanic-style symphony (as Saint-Sae"ns did several times, superbly; or as late nineteenth-century composers in England and the United States did, at least capably) was to attempt to matter on the international musical map, as well as on the musical map back home.

The topic of musical nationalism, though, is a lot broader than just faux-German symphonies.  I was delighted and challenged to stumble recently on the current issue of an online journal published by some of the leading musicologists in Israel (with contributions from outside Israel as well): Min-Ad Israel Studies in Musicology Online.  Currently edited by Adena Portowitz, an American-born musicologist who teaches at Bar-Ilan University (in Ramat-Gan), Min-Ad devotes much of its latest issue to articles about nationalism and music.  Portowitz summarizes all the articles in her helpful editorial, so I'll just discuss a few that I found valuable for my own thinking about the issue of music and nationalism.  (Your mileage may vary….)

The most surprising of the lot for me is by David Z. Kushner, about debates and policies in the state of Florida during nearly a hundred years concerning what the official state song should be.  (I figure that "Floridaness" is a kind of nationalism.  Certainly Texanness is!)  A song about this "bright sunkissed land"–so that's where the citrus-fruit brand name Sunkist comes from!–was knocked off its pedestal by the state legislators in 1913 in favor of Stephen Foster's song "Way Down upon the Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)," whose standard words declare that the protagonist is "still longing for the old plantation."

I'll let you read all the details, but, by the year 2007, plantation longings were coming to seem distasteful to many.  The Florida state legislature ran a contest for a song to replace Foster's well-known song.  A new song (which focuses on the beauty of the sawgrass and the sky) got voted in as state . . . anthem.  Foster's "Swanee River" ended up keeping its some-pigs-are-more-equal-than-others status as official state song, and will continue to be sung at official state functions.  Its words, though, have been revised to "still longing for my childhood's station."  The latter phrase is apparently drawn from some version published long ago.  I fear it may today suggest nostalgia for choo-choo trains.

The Florida debate is mostly about words, of course, though words fraught with major tensions deriving from America's history as a slave-holding nation.

Other articles in this Min-Ad issue have more to do with musical style and genre.  Marina Ritzarev writes a long article about changing trends in musical nationalism in Russia, from the use of a polonaise as the czarist anthem ca. 1800 to the insistence on "the singing peasant" and Russian Orthodox sacred choral music as the only two models of acceptable Russian musical nationalism in the late nineteenth century.  These two models then got blended (and secularized), during the Soviet era, into the government's policy of sponsoring choral arrangements of rural folksongs.  I particularly liked Ritzarev's reminder at the end that "the same symptom" (i.e., a given musical style or piece) "can indicate different diseases" (e.g., progressive policies or reactionary ones).

Two fine articles focus, intriguingly, on lack of national style.  Jehoash Hirshberg discovers six pieces that Paul Ben-Haim composed before settling in what would become the State of Israel.  They give some indication of Ben-Haim's original compositional orientation, in contrast to his later role as a self-appointed determiner of the compositional style appropriate to a Jewish state in the Levant.  (Four of these six early pieces are Heine lieder, one is a piece for violin, and the sixth is a Libera me for chorus.)

Ronit Seter describes the problems that Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky encountered because of her disinclination to adopt the "Mediterranean" (i.e., Arab-influenced) style that Ben-Haim and others had established as normative.

Essica Marks gives a helpful overview of a major book co-authored by two well-known Israeli scholars: the authority on pop music Motti Regev and the ethnomusicologist Edwin Seroussi.  The book, published by University of California Press, is entitled Popular Music and National Culture in Israel.  Marks notes one of its intriguing main points: "Popular music is the most prominent symbol of 'Israeliness,' and is the most convincing proof of Israel's existence as an 'indigenous,' or authentic, entity."

Of course, the question of who is "indigenous" to various countries in the Middle East has raged on and off for centuries.  So, in this review (and book), the question again arises about how "Middle Eastern"-sounding Israeli music (but now in the popular sphere) has become and should be.  This question was further complicated (or enriched) by the influx of Jews from various Arab states (e.g., Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen) during the first decades of the State of Israel (1950s-60s).

This question about music's importance as national symbol has, I think, a broad resonance elsewhere.  Is the pop music that any country/region produces one of the most accepted marks of its authentic (i.e., taken-as-authentic) identity?  Is the USA defined (to itself, to the larger world) by its pop music–and maybe by its movies, fast food, and clothing styles–almost more than by anything else, except, obviously, its foreign policy?   Maybe there should be some debates here in the USA–in scholarly circles, in the mainstream media–about what our various musics (Bruce Springsteen? GreenDay? Shania Twain? 50 Cent?) say about who we are as a nation.  That is, if we can manage to debate such matters without (I hope) calling for censorship of things we don't like….

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Musical Nationalism, Swanee River, Russian Peasants, and a Cool Israeli Online Journal

  1. squashed says:

    great.
    But popular music is very much controlled by very few conglomerate. (the last 4 major labels control 80% of music sale and almost all of top 40 chart)
    It’s very much several key A&R people backed by massive mass media.
    Global pop chart is more representative of music industry than culture of a nation. (yeah, one can pretty much shape public taste with enough media exposure and marketing.)
    Spice girls, Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton.

  2. Ralph Locke says:

    Good point! I suspect that one cannot squeeze much deep meaning out of the aural wares–you mention some examples–that the big recording companies foist on the listening public. I intentionally mentioned (in my last paragraph) some pop artists/groups that are less bland/innocuous and that, nonetheless, have achieved great commercial success and have won the devotion of millions of avid listeners across the USA.

  3. Michael says:

    squashed’s trump card is played commonly enough–that industry suits shape musical nationalism more than “culture of a nation” or its foreign policy. The point is well taken, but it also ignores the (foreign and) domestic policy-driven framework in which “the industry” and commerce operate. A 1968 presidential task force on communication policy, for example, reported from at least one step above business: “The wisdom of government policy in telecommunications will have a great deal to do with the capacity of the private sector to realize its full potential.” Following from this, I guess I feel that ignoring the FCC or its radio policies cheapens our understanding of popular music.

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