The Romantic era presented many European composers who referred to themselves, or were referred to by others, as “nationalist”. Nationalism was very important because it allowed societies to continue to remain loyal to their country and allowed the country to gain cultural identity and individuality. Our definitions of nationalism are extremely vague and inconsistent, as many composers’ music seems to fit under the “nationalist” category. This is why the definition of musical nationalism must be refined, so that only composers whose music truly represents all aspects of their nation may be called nationalist. This means that the music must first and foremost appeal to the people and must reflect the nation’s cultural identity, rather than superimpose a culture upon it. The composer must also keep in mind the nation’s past and reveal hopes for the future. This means that a true nationalist’s music, in essence, becomes the nation by not simply encompassing the views of one member of society, or even one group in society, but of the nation as a whole.
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Claude Debussy is known today as one of the great French composers who, in the words of Robert Orledge, was “ever concerned with the necessity for French music to be true to itself”. Orledge described his final series of chamber sonatas as enveloping “a nationalistic spirit looking back to Rameau”. Debussy was known for incorporating many international influences into his music, most notably the music of the “Russian Five”, and the Javanese gamelan. All of this considered, is it truly logical to refer to Debussy’s music as nationalistic, or even French for that matter? Is it not equally possible to call it Russian, since, quite arguably, most of his musical influences stem from there? Before a decision can be made concerning nationalism in Debussy’s music, we must take a look at the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.
The creation of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of the largest obstacle for Russian composers. It was first time in history where a government, a secular power, had a direct say in the subject matter and appropriate style of all art forms. During the Soviet Union, it was the composer’s job to acquire culture which already existed amongst the intelligentsia (the Russian intellectual class), rather than to invent their own culture. The artistic movement enforced by the Soviet government between 1936 and 1950 was known as Socialist Realism, described by Stalin as an art “national in form and socialist in content”. This made it nearly impossible to express or create without crossing the very fine line set by the State. Artists of the time faced constant fear of exile and unemployment. The composers who did comply with the rules, however, became terrifically wealthy and were able to thrive under Soviet rule, earning up to 10,000 rubles per work commissioned by the Union of Soviet Composers. Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was one such composer. During the social realist period, Shostakovich came back from a temporary downfall stronger than ever with the aim to write music which was consistent with the changes brought on by the Revolution and which was, above anything else, to be created for his people. Shostakovich composed symphonies which would restore his glory and forever mark him as one of the great symphonic composers. Shostakovich had managed to please his audience by progressing in innovativeness, continuing Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s strong symphonic traditions, and composing in a way that can truly be considered nationalistic.
Shostakovich’s music represented the epitome of Soviet nationalism and there are numerous elements present in his music which prove this. Shostakovich’s main goal as a composer after his revival was to please the people which formed his nation. During an interview with an American correspondent, Shostakovich illustrated this by saying: “I consider that every artist who isolates himself from the world is doomed. I find it incredible that an artist should want to shut himself away from the people, who, in the end, form his audience”. Shostakovich’s music was in touch with the national character of the time: it contained quotations of popular folk songs, was historically significant, and reflected the social realist style of the time. In an article about Soviet music, Nicolas Slonimsky stated that, “the musical biography of Shostakovich is a perfect mirror of the changing policies in Soviet music. Shostakovich is the product of Soviet life”. An important example of this can be seen in Shostakovich’s 7th symphony which was performed on March 1st, 1942 in the temporary capital of Kuibishev. It represented the survival and victory of the nation, inspired by the battle of Leningrad. The main theme is of a Soviet war hero which drowns out a second hesitant, “puppet-like” theme representing the Germans. Shostakovich used this piece to build the morale of the nation, and helped fight the war from a cultural standpoint.
It is true, however, that Shostakovich did succumb to artistic compromise during the social realist movement in order to provide for his family and continue to work as a composer. At the time, Shostakovich wrote music which was loyal to the state, but he did not necessarily agree with the government`s policies. Of course, speaking out loud about his disagreement with the authorities was impossible. Contrary to popular belief, this couldn`t be more irrelevant to whether or not he composed in a nationalistic style. A nation, after all, is defined by the unity of its people, and has absolutely nothing to do with the policies of its government. A composer may whole-heartedly agree with the politics of a country, but still fail to represent its people, its history, its culture and the nation as a whole in their music.
Of much importance, on the other hand, is the fact that Shostakovich kept the history of Russian music alive by incorporating compositional techniques used by his predecessors; however, he did not do so in a strictly imitative manner. He made use of the “hopelessly sombre” mood and the “spirit of universal humanity” of Tchaikovsky, the folk elements of Prokofiev and, finally the inventiveness of Stravinsky’s music. In utilizing these elements, Shostakovich was able to continue his country’s strong symphonic reputation and paved the way for new composers by applying innovative orchestration, contrasting orchestral timbres, increasing chromaticism, and vigorously precise rhythms. The innovativeness Shostakovich possessed is an essential quality to have as a nationalist composer, because without innovativeness, one cannot expect to continue the cultural and artistic legacy of a country.
In the words of Ernest Newman “musicians are generally driven to ‘nationalism’ as a revolt against foreign influence.”, much like the Russians did during the 19th century when Italian and German influences were taking over. Rather than escaping foreign influence, Debussy turned to it and incorporated it into his music. Debussy’s music is no more French than French fries are. Just because one is called “French” and claims to love their country, does not mean they are intrinsically and whole-heartedly French. As Ernest Newman said: “â€¦however ‘typically Russian’ a Russian may be, he is not a Russian if he looks, as many Russians do, beyond the borders of his own country, and finds certain aspects of foreign art more interesting than the indigenous art of the home territory”. There is no doubt that Debussy was a brilliant composer, but it is quite obvious that he did look far, far beyond the influence of his own nation. How is it then, that we can even begin to consider him as a “musicien français”, especially when comparing him to true nationalists like Shostakovich? Rollo H. Meyers argues that “â€¦Debussy, from the very beginning of his creative career, always knew exactly what kind of music he wanted to write, and no “influence” whatever could have made him change his course. If he took anything from others, he only took what, in a sense, already belonged to himâ€¦”. This is not unlike modernizing verses of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet and claiming them to be your own invention because Shakespeare’s timeless writing “already belonged to you”. It is people like Meyers who contribute to the constant false identification of nationalism in many composers’ music.
21Slonimsky, “Dmitri Dmitrievitch Shostakovitch,” 415.
Shostakovich, unlike Debussy, was one of the few composers to truly combine being a good musician with being a good nationalist. He was a true professional when creating his music and always found new ways of appealing to his audience. On top of all of this, he managed to deliver ground-breaking techniques and advance the future of music. His music was revolutionary yet was not overly experimental as to cause a disconnection from his audience. This is especially remarkable considering the limitations set by the Soviet authorities. Even though Debussy is evidently a Frenchman, if one compares him to Shostakovich, it is hard to understand how one could ever consider Debussy’s music as being French. This so called “French” quality of his music is really just his “Debussyist” style of composing, which is purely unique to him, and is not a reflection of his country or his people. This comparison allows us to rethink the definition of nationalism in music and what it means to truly represent a nation.
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To be nationalist does not mean that one must be born or even grow up in a country. It means that one must act with the nation’s best interests at heart, and not look beyond that nation for influence. To be a nationalist is to, in essence, encapsulate the past, present, and future of the nation all at once, and to create music which is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. One must also not be too experimental on an audience, since that immediately disengages them and does nothing to unite a nation. The musical and cultural influences brought upon by truly talented and nationalist composers like Shostakovich were, and still are, extremely significant. Whether or not one agrees, or even whether or not Shostakovich himself agreed with the politics of the Soviet Union is irrelevant. Shostakovich wrote for his people above anything else. He reflected the cultural and historical significance of his country in his music and, despite the oppressive forces of the Soviet government, continued to compose innovatively and in a way which advanced the future of music. It would be difficult to disagree that a figure like Shostakovich was exactly what the struggling country needed at the time: a truly nationalist composer who would write first and foremost for his country and for his people.
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