Friday, June 13, 2008

The secrets of national identity

When you become a high school social studies teacher anywhere in this country, the first thing they tell you is this: if you don't know what to do with your students, set an essay on what it means to be Canadian. Or lead them in a class discussion. Or something.

The twisted genius behind this suggestion is that no-one will ever be able to come up with a satisfactory definition of the Canadian identity. If you ran into the Canadian identity on the street, it would apologize hurriedly and run away - possibly after dropping its umbrella - and five minutes later you would forget having ever seen it. And so millions of children across the world will forever be forced to re-enact this ritual, first defining their identity by negatives (well, we're not American!) and then by picture-postcard cultural symbols (hockey! beavers! maple syrup! musical masterpieces!) without actually accomplishing anything of value.

The cynic goes away from all of this with the idea that national identity is bunk, but the musician knows otherwise. You could switch the labels on these two cans, but as soon as you open them you'll realize which one has French music inside and which English:

These pieces have nothing in particular to do with each other except that they were both written in 1907. The history books, however, are unlikely to dwell for long on the young George Dyson, writing a rather Wagnerian set of canticles while in Europe on a Mendelssohn scholarship, or even on Debussy writing a second set of Images; after all, 1907 was the year that Schoenberg began writing his second string quartet.

To even make the chronological connection between these three pieces almost invites snide remarks. Dyson, one of the Bright Young Things of English music, was still writing in a late-Romantic, Wagnerian style that was popular decades ago; Debussy, one of the leading French composers, was reacting against Wagner with his impressionistic style, essentially a continuation of Romanticism, but Schoenberg was far beyond either of them, writing in an atonal style for the first time in history. In the Grand Race To The Future, Schoenberg seems to be winning. The German composer is writing advanced, innovative music; the Frenchman is writing slightly more provincial, less advanced music, and the English musician doesn't have a clue what's going on.

I've written before on my dissatisfaction with the sort of mediocre elitism that places Germanic music on a pedestal, at the expense of all other artistic traditions. Prior to the eighteenth century, this Teutonic hegemony was unheard of; Baroque and Renaissance composers flourished in England, France, Iberia, the Low Countries, Italy, and anywhere else that a rich upper class could support professional musicians. Today, the musical scene is more international than ever; off the top of my head, I can think of three contemporary Finnish composers of note (Rautavaara, Saariaho and Lindberg) and only two Germans (Henze and Lachenmann). Germany's predominance comes from having two of the most important composers of the High Baroque (Bach and Handel), the three most important Classical symphonists (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) and a whole host of wonderful Romantic composers. During the same time period, many other countries had their cultural activities disrupted (the French Revolution) or co-opted by foreign musicians (the English vogue for Handel and then Mendelssohn). It so happens, unfortunately, that the historical periods where Germany dominated the musical world are the ones which now dominate the standard repertoire.

Since our entire training as classical musicians is focused on interpreting an Austro-German repertoire from approximately 1710-1900, isn't it natural that we should assume that Schoenberg is better than Rubbra, or Stockhausen better than Holmboe? Myself, I find the idea of comparing them too much for my abilities - thinking about Schoenberg's atonal music pushes any thought of Rubbra's conservative writing out of my head, and vice versa. Yet I still meet otherwise well-trained musicians wrinkling their noses at the mention of English music, as though all British composers marched in lock-step to The Lark Ascending - or pronouncing judgment on the "superficiality" of French music, as though Jean Francaix was the musical template for all of his musical countrymen. (I'll look forward to the blast of invective when Pierre Boulez gets that memo.) This is pure ignorance, the musical equivalent of your elderly acquaintance who tells you that all Southeast Asian people look the same.

If classical music is to rebuild an audience, I'm convinced that performers will need to adopt a more open-minded approach to programming; the supply of blue-haired orchestra subscribers who only like Mozart is not endless. And so it's in our best interests to take a less blinkered approach to selecting music. In the end, the only test of a good piece of music is whether it continues to provide enjoyment on its own terms after you live with it for years - a test passed with flying colours by Rubbra's symphonies and failed by that pre-eminent example of German music, Pachelbel's Canon.

Ask a Canadian musician what countries have produced the greatest proportion of great composers, and he'll rattle off dozens of names before he gets to Canada. If instead you start the conversation by telling your musician friend that Canadian music is mediocre and all sounds the same, however, he'll hurry to our defense with counterexamples: Healey Willan! Harry Somers! R. Murray Schafer! And perhaps this contradiction could be used as a starting point to uncovering the Canadian identity. Then again, maybe not.


shogart said...

You did not just link me to Celine Dion...........

CurrentConductor said...

I'm also under the impression that Germanic music was placed on that pedestal in part because musicology as a field was started by Germans. So when German musicologists came up with the list of the greatest composers, German composers naturally topped the list.

Osbert Parsley said...

A good point! Although I don't think that anyone would question the enormous contribution that Bach, Beethoven and the other great Austro-German composers made to the history of music. I'd be leery of anyone that told us that Gossec, Rossetti and Boccherini ought to hold a higher place in music history than their German contemporaries. Rather, I'd say the main problem is that we apply a "ranking system" which works in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to eras that it doesn't fit.

diplomatizer said...

the supply of blue-haired orchestra subscribers who only like Mozart is not endless

Well, with the mass retirement of the baby boomers fast approaching, I'd say the supply of blue-haired individuals is set to grow, if anything.

Now, whether or not they all like Mozart (or other classical artists) is another matter. Who knows? Maybe a lot of them will lose interest in constantly and discover a great breadth of classical music (call it a 2/3-Life Crisis). Then again, they may not.

diplomatizer said...

Sorry, my hotlink didn't quite work out, and I can't seem to delete my comment. The text should read:

Maybe a lot of them will lose interest in constantly reliving their youth and discover a great breadth of classical music (call it a 2/3-Life Crisis). Then again, they may not.