Hidden from small

For Love of Nation - This Season The Philadelphia Orchestra Explores National Pride

November 02, 2015

The explosion of nationalism in the mid-19th century fostered a love of one’s region and the history and traditions of the civilizations that emerged there, as well as a sense of self-determination—of taking that history and tradition in hand to build something greater. And its artistic yield was considerable: Artists in all disciplines, and musicians particularly, worked hard to identify the distinct ways their people perceived the world. For composers, the job at hand was discovering the elements of melody, rhythm, and instrumental color that most vividly captured their national accents and sensibilities.

Photo by Jessica Griffin

The styles those composers created took root, and the composers who followed in their footsteps moved them in directions of their own. Yet they have become so pervasive, that listeners today can spot, say, the Russianness of composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, or the Americanness of Gershwin, Copland, and Ives.

This season, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is exploring some of this music with The Philadelphia Orchestra, and guest conductors are joining in as well. And as the season unfolds, it is worth considering how some of those distinctive national styles were born, and how they have developed.

Often, it was not simply a matter of finding a national voice. It was also a sort of rebellion. Norwegian, Czech, Russian, Finnish, Spanish, and eventually American and Latin-American composers were seeking ways to break away from the influences of Europe’s dominant musical powers. At the time, that mainly meant Germany, but German composers themselves had only recently overcome the dominance of the Italian and, to a lesser degree, French styles.

Composer Béla Bartók found new ways to incorporate the folk music heritage of his native Hungary, either by using melodies he collected himself or by inventing entirely new ones that sound as if they’d been around for a long time. Here he is in 1907 (center, profile) on one of his fieldtrips recording folk songs.

How did those three countries come to dominate Europe’s musical culture? For many decades, extending back to the Renaissance, Italy was the direction toward which most composers looked, and young Flemish, German, and English composers traveled to Italy to learn it, and taught it to their students upon their return, while also fashioning works in modified versions of the Italian style that took in elements germane to their own regions. While on one hand, composers were tailoring works for exalted precincts like aristocratic courts and cathedrals, on the other, they were paying close attention to their regions’ folk styles.

Musicians at street level had always created works with local characteristics. Their melodies were shaped by the vernacular rather than the languages of the court (French) or the church (Latin), and their rhythms were often those of popular dances. As these influences found their way into the concert works, sacred settings and operas by composers who wrote in more formal styles, those styles moved apart from their Italianate models. French composers—some of them actually Italian expatriates, like Lully—found their own accent first, creating the double-dotted rhythms of the French overture, for starters, and numerous distinctly Gallic dance forms. And you can hear Germanic folk influences, particularly dances, in the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Weber.

There are, of course, ample examples of folk forms finding their way into art music elsewhere in Europe as well—and of those forms traveling. You can hear Polish dances in the music of Bach and Telemann, and Renaissance and Baroque Spanish composers borrowed plentifully from local dances. For the most part, though, the grand thrust toward creating specifically national styles outside Germany, Italy, and France did not blossom until the mid-19th century, when composers elsewhere began to regard the folk music of their countries as a virtually inexhaustible resource. From there, other influences from the worlds of art, literature, and even commercial popular music (jazz, in particular) pushed these nascent national styles in new directions.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s examination of this music got underway last month, when Yannick led a concert that included Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’océan, a work in the painterly style favored by French composers early in the last century, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, a work in a decidedly broad-boned but lyrical Russian style, even as it evokes (through its winding violin theme), Arabian imagery.

Another installment included music by Edvard Grieg—a suite from Peer Gynt, Grieg’s score for Ibsen’s setting of a Norwegian fairy tale—as well as works by Béla Bartók and Jean Sibelius, composers who devoted themselves to creating national idioms (Finnish and Hungarian, respectively), even if the works at hand did not refer overtly to folk sources. And a third October program, conducted by Marin Alsop, included George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a work that could not be more overtly American, thanks to its jazz roots and inflections.

Yannick’s most focused look at musical nationalism is in a mid-November program that presents three works that blossomed unequivocally from their composers’ love of their countries and people (Nov. 13-15).

Jean Sibelius was committed to creating a national idiom with such works as Finlandia. The Philadelphia Orchestra had a close relationship with the composer, giving the U.S. premieres of his last three symphonies. Here Eugene Ormandy, and the entire Orchestra, visited Sibelius at his home in Helsinki during the ensemble's 1955 European tour. Photo: Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Archives

The curtain-raiser is Sibelius’s Finlandia, a work that virtually defines the effort to create a national style. Sibelius composed the score in 1899, originally as the turbulent but hope-filled finale of a seven-movement overview of Finnish history. It was subversive in its day: Sibelius intended it as an assertion of Finnish national aspirations at a time when the country was dominated by Russia. And because of Russian censorship, it was first performed under less assertive titles, among them, Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring.

The heart of Sibelius’s score is a gentle, hymn-like theme, in the winds and strings that emerges just as the percussion and brass (temporarily) fall silent, about three quarters of the way into the work. The theme sounds as though it were steeped in tradition, but is actually Sibelius’s own. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is built around a hymn as well, but in this case, Copland turned to the past, taking up the old Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” and building a lovely set of variations around it.

Clearly, “Simple Gifts” accounts for much of the work’s American DNA, but Copland made his own contribution as well, most notably the sense of sweeping vistas, painted in long-lined string passages, that characterize much of his music of the mid-1940s, when Appalachian Spring was composed. That he originally called the work Ballet for Martha (it was composed for the great choreographer Martha Graham) in no way diminishes the sense that this is a quintessentially American score. Graham, after all, was in the process of creating a thoroughly American style of dance, and her work and Copland’s fit together brilliantly. It was Graham, in fact, who suggested the title, which she found in a Hart Crane poem, “The Dance.” (It should be noted that the second concert in this series takes place on the 115th anniversary of Copland’s birth, Nov. 14.)

When Antonín Dvořák visited the United States, between 1892 and 1895, he was intent on helping American composers create a distinctly American style, and naturally recommended that they examine folk sources. And the sources that most impressed him for their melodic and rhythmic weight and—though he might not have put it exactly this way—their soul, were spirituals. He composed two works that showed how spirituals might drive classical works: the String Quartet No. 12 (“American”) and the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”). For the most part, American composers took different paths, but one composer who would probably not disagree with Dvořák in principle—although his approach is markedly different—is the jazz trumpeter and composer who goes under the single name Hannibal.

Hannibal’s best-known work for classical forces, until now, has been African Portraits, a 1995 oratorio that traces the African-American experience from the Middle Passage and slavery, through the heyday of jazz and beyond. In that work, which The Philadelphia Orchestra performed in 1997, Hannibal wove West-African kora music, blues, gospel, and jazz into a symphonic texture. In a way, his work has been an expansion and complication of the desire for a national idiom that drove Sibelius and Copland. Instead of looking at nationality alone, Hannibal explores both nationality and ethnicity, as qualities that are at once distinct and intertwined.

Hannibal and Yannick at the 2015 Martin Luther King Tribute Concert at Girard College, where the Orchestra gave the premiere of the first “veil” of the composer’s One Land, One River, One People. The premiere of the complete piece is November 13-15. Photo by Jeff Fusco

His new oratorio, One Land, One River, One People, a Philadelphia Orchestra commission, extends the franchise he created in African Portraits. This work also draws on traditional African music and contemporary Black vernacular forms, including spirituals. Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Orchestra in the first portion of the work in January, in a celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday at Girard College, but the full score will have its world premiere at these mid-November concerts. 

More works etched in distinctive voices with identifiable national accents (and, often, folk music roots) are scattered throughout the season. We don’t think of Stravinsky principally as a musical nationalist, but his early works draw plentifully on both Russian folklore and folk melodies, albeit heavily processed through a Stravinskyan lens. Yannick offers The Firebird (Dec. 3-5), and The Rite of Spring is the centerpiece of a program conducted later in the season by Conductor-in-Residence Cristian Măcelaru (April 21-23).

The principal draw of James Levine’s visit will undoubtedly be the towering Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony, but his program also includes  Three Places in New England, one of Charles Ives’s characteristically feisty efforts to build a thoroughly American musical language (Feb. 18-20). And there is more Gershwin on offer as well—Yannick’s reading of An American in Paris, a vividly pictorial evocation of Paris in the 1920s, as seen through the jazz-tinted musical lens of Gershwin’s energetic style.

As a social and political concept, nationalism is suspect, these days. Though most people consider it good and even natural to love their country—or, for that matter, their region or their city—the 20th and early 21st centuries have shown that nationalism, when it becomes a magnified form of tribalism, can be a lethal force as well. But whatever its dark side, the great national awakenings that began nearly two centuries ago have yielded artistic movements that remain fascinating and durable.

Allan Kozinn writes frequently about music and musicians.