Music and Nationalism: Part 1

Music and Nationalism: Part 1

In the first part of a two-part review of Musical Constructions of Nationalism, Patrick Zuk discusses the contributions of Michael Murphy and Joseph Ryan and the questions they raise about the influence of nationalist ideologies on musical composition in Ireland.

I know that, proverbially, one should not judge a book by its cover, but the first thing that strikes one on picking up Musical Constructions of Nationalism is, in fact, the cover. Here is reproduced a photograph of SS musicians sounding the fanfare at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Immediately one begins to feel a little dismay. This is hardly a neutral image. The reader is led to associate – if only subliminally – the word ‘nationalism’ with a rather rebarbative nexus of fascist and totalitarian ideologies, and with all these can entail: crackpot pseudo-scientific racial theories, genocide, policies of aggressive territorial expansion and the virulent group-narcissism of inflated national self-regard – everything in short, that has come to be abhorred as the antithesis of civilised behaviour and of authentic culture. Music, the reader might be led to think, if brought into association with nationalist sentiment, must inevitably emerge as thoroughly compromised and as morally suspect as is the music of Wagner in some quarters since it became the cult object of Nazi devotion. I find it somewhat disquieting that, even before one has read a word, nationalism is presented in such a sinister light. One immediately wonders why this tone has been established at the outset and what it implies about the content of the book. Unfortunately, this negative impression is not corrected but rather confirmed as one proceeds to read Michael Murphy’s introduction.

Nationalism is a notoriously complex and elusive phenomenon; the literature on the subject is extensive and discussions of it are fraught with controversy. Murphy sets out with the declared aims of presenting ‘a survey of theories of nationalism’ and ‘a survey of musicological scholarship on nationalism in the twentieth century’. He in fact does neither. Murphy’s introduction certainly offers little help to a reader in search of a clear exposition of the most important scholarly treatments of nationalism, which for the most part fall into one of two categories. First of all, there are certain studies in the history of ideas – the work of Isaiah Berlin and Elie Kedourie furnishes notable examples – which attempt to trace lines of transmission of tenets of certain moral and political philosophies that appear to have been highly influential in the formation and evolution of nationalist ideologies. In the second category are a variety of sociological studies that may advance hypotheses to account for the emergence of these ideologies through a consideration of the circumstances in which they arose, and which may perhaps also attempt a taxonomy of their varying cultural and political manifestations.

These manifestations have ranged from a wholly benign interest in native customs and folklore to impassioned political protest against domination and exploitation by a foreign power. With the most terrible consequences in the century just past, patriotism may indeed have hardened into chauvinism and a justified celebration of the distinct virtues of one’s own culture may have coarsened into jingoism, but not all manifestations of nationalism were of the cast encountered in Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany. Nor was nationalist sentiment invariably isolationist and insular, or tinged with bellicosity. Under the influence of the liberal humanitarianism of philosophers such as Locke, many nationalist movements were distinctly internationalist in outlook. This is only an apparent paradox: such movements accepted, even embraced, national differences of character, seeing themselves engaged in a common struggle to secure self-determination and to combat tyranny, superstition, intolerance and all the other evils which the Enlightenment strove to abolish. A Westerniser in nineteenth-century Russia need not have regarded a desire for social and political reforms inspired by the programme of the Enlightenment to be incompatible with nationalist sentiments; and statesmen such as Rabindranath Tagore and Tomas Masaryk were able to espouse comparable aims without any sense of inherent contradiction.

Nowhere in Murphy’s introduction might one be given to think that nationalism, while undeniably responsible for heinous crimes, has also been a benign and productive force. This is hardly indicative of a desire to present a balanced and intellectually responsible account of a highly complex phenomenon. Furthermore, Murphy’s attempt to sketch an outline of the various significant scholarly treatments of the topic is disappointing. Some of the most important and contentious issues are either presented in a manner that is pedestrian and incomplete, or else are passed over without mention. There is no coherent exposition of the possible degrees of overlap between cultural and political nationalism; neither is any attempt made to clarify important, indeed fundamental conceptual distinctions such as that which must be made between ‘nation’ and ‘state’. There are some surprising omissions in his sketch – the influence of cultural nationalists such as Herder and the brothers Grimm is passed over in silence, while the political philosophies of German Idealists such as Fichte and Hegel are scarcely accorded a mention, let alone discussed in a manner commensurate with their significance. Such oversights render this account as incomplete as would be an outline of the development of psychoanalysis which failed to mention Freud. The avoidance of any real discussion of specific instances to illustrate his points is notable. When Murphy attempts to summarise the main ideas of some of the authors whom he does mention, his presentation is often garbled. His discussion of the writings of a figure as crucial as Gellner – a writer who can hardly be charged with obscurity – is so superficial that the uninitiated reader would scarcely come away with any clear conception either of his importance or of his contribution to scholarship.

At times, Murphy’s vocabulary is decidedly loaded. He opens his exposition with the declaration that the origins of nationalism are ‘spurious and various’ – so anxious is he, one suspects, to impress upon us that the phenomenon is invariably baneful, he apparently does not realise that this statement is illogical. Accounts of origins may perhaps be spurious; the origins themselves clearly cannot be. He allows a most curious dictum of the American scholar Warren Dwight Allen, who speaks of the ‘virus of nationalism’ – surely a striking phrase – to pass without any attempt at explication, as if the reasons for the choice of such a dramatic and loaded epithet were self-evident and moreover, apt. He then proceeds to adopt the phrase himself later on in his account. It is not that one could pin Murphy down to a precisely articulated stance of disapproval, but the trend of the discussion is such that one is left with the unmistakable impression that nationalism in any form can only be a bad thing.

His survey of musicological treatments of the subject is, if anything, even more confused. There is no attempt here to delineate with any clarity or even in any logical and organised sequence the highly complex issues which are raised when music and nationalist sentiment are brought into conjunction. From Murphy’s survey one would glean little apart from the fact that scholarly considerations of the issue were infrequent until comparatively recently. Considering the avowed pretensions of this volume to make, in Murphy’s words, a contribution to ‘the general reorientation of perspective currently in train with regard to musical nationalism’, this is surely surprising. There is no discussion of the thorny philosophical questions that present themselves for consideration, particularly in the domain of epistemology. Can we ever hope to establish to our satisfaction that a non-verbal medium such as music can in fact express such a thing as nationalist sentiment? Do essentialising propositions asserting that particular works express something quintessentially French (or English or German) have any meaning or are they void of precise reference? If a composer uses a folksong, is that invariably an expression of a nationalist ideology? Could a composer simply not use folk material because his imagination seized on purely musical expressive possibilities? Composers may for example have wished to use folk music as an evocation of the pastoral, of a realm – even if it exists only in the imagination – that is unspoilt and to which one can escape for refreshment. It must be acknowledged as a possibility that many composers may conceivably have used such material because it enabled them to find their own individual compositional voices and break free of powerful stylistic influences that they had come to find oppressive or inhibiting. This need not logically have entailed a commitment to a nationalist ideology at all. But some of the writers in this volume –particularly Joseph Ryan as we shall see – seem oblivious to the possible danger of fallaciously attributing motives or intentions to composers who employ material of this kind, who may, in fact, have been innocent of them. On the whole, one is left with an impression of incoherence of presentation on finishing Murphy’s introduction.

The contributions of both Joseph Ryan and Harry White deal with the development of music in Ireland over the last two centuries. Since both these articles have points in common, I propose to deal with them consecutively. Readers may recall the rather dramatic thesis presented in Ryan’s 1995 essay ‘Nationalism and Irish Music’, which appeared in Irish Musical Studies 3 [1]: nationalism, he asserts, ‘is the crucial determinant on the course of music in Ireland in the past two centuries’,[2] and its ‘puissant influence […] on creative endeavour’[3] has been, one is given to understand, an unmitigated catastrophe as far as Irish composition is concerned. He avers that the creative output of Irish composers has been ‘negligible’[4] for ‘the majority of the period in question’ as a direct result. Ryan enumerates an impressive list of factors that one might have thought go a considerable way towards explaining why it is only in the latter part of the twentieth century that western art music has begun to thrive in this country: the disastrous aftermath of the Act of Union which meant that Dublin ceased almost overnight to be a cultural centre of any importance, lack of education, lack of infrastructures, lack of skilled teachers and performers, in addition to the fact that Ireland was beset by grave economic and social problems in the nineteenth century, such as those caused by the series of disastrous famines – circumstances in short that were hardly propitious for the rise of a native art music tradition. Ryan however discounts all of these factors and alleges that it should have been possible, as it were, to rise above them. He tells us in what strikes me as a self-indulgent piece of platitudinous moralising that ‘[t]here has in the past been too ready a willingness to attribute all deficiencies to a social and political condition, resulting from a colonial history’ and that ‘as a people we are perhaps too ready to employ these incontestable practical difficulties in order to exonerate our own nation and its divided musical community for its failure to discover an earlier consensus for harmonious progress’.[5] One might wonder if ‘practical difficulties’ is not a rather euphemistic description of some of the circumstances that confronted many Irish people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In any case, Ryan does not instance any particular discussions where these circumstances are adduced as the principal cause of the present state of music in Ireland – I know of none such. Nor does he really trouble to explain convincingly why nationalism should have had such a calamitous influence on music in Ireland but not elsewhere.

This is all surprising enough, to say the very least, but the article in Musical Constructions of Nationalism goes even further in its assertions. Ryan tells us that ‘what can be recorded with confidence is that there is a body of opinion whose assessment is that the largely jejune musical record of the last [20th] century was not in keeping with what one might reasonably expect of a people with a musical reputation’.[6] The word ‘jejune’ according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary means ‘meagre’, ‘scanty’, ‘unsatisfying to the mind’ – hardly a flattering choice of epithet to describe Irish composition virtually in its entirety. Having stated such an extreme opinion, one might have imagined that Ryan would have felt obligated to cite sources of some kind which would help us to identify who has committed themselves to statements of this remarkable nature. Ryan does not mention a single name. Neither does he deem it necessary to discuss the justice of such a damning summation of Irish composition and the context does not in any way suggest that this is an opinion from which Ryan would seek to dissociate himself. This is not surprising: the only other context in which to my knowledge the adjective ‘jejune’ has been applied to Irish composition is in the aforementioned essay by Ryan himself, ‘Nationalism and Irish Music’, where he is at least honest enough to present such an opinion unambiguously as his own when he speaks of the ‘jejune creative harvest of the past two centuries’.[7] Such statements are frankly outrageous coming from the Chairperson of the board of the Contemporary Music Centre. What are we to understand from this view, if not that the music of such prominent figures as Ina Boyle, Fleischmann, May, Boydell, Potter, Victory, Bodley and Kinsella, together with the music of many other composers, is largely ‘unsatisfying to the mind’ and represents a ‘meagre’ and ‘scanty’ harvest. Once again, the blame is laid on nationalism: ‘Art that is indentured to polity will always suffer. It was Adorno who noted that “In Germany the National Socialist Chamber of Music (Reichsmusikkammer) has left behind a total rubbish heap”. In Ireland a past expression that was idealised and even sanctified proved ultimately to be stultifying’.[8] The reader should notice the explicit comparison which is made by apposition between the alleged effects of nationalist ideology on the course of music in Ireland and that of Nazism on German music. To suggest such a comparison would be irresponsible if it were not so bizarre. The reader is led to suspect that the choice of photograph for the cover of this book was not altogether fortuitous.

In his previous article Ryan makes statements about Irish composition in the twentieth century that are remarkable for the lack of grasp they betray of the manifold practical difficulties which beset composers attempting to live and work here, not least of which was the difficulty of keeping body and soul together if they had no source of income other than that deriving from composition. Unfortunately Ryan evinces an attitude of condescension in addressing these circumstances. We are told that in 1943 a ‘generous scheme’ launched by RTÉ to encourage native composers was ‘poorly rewarded with an endless supply of arrangements and undistinguished dance selections’[9] – as if Irish composers were assured during this period of large audiences eager to hear string quartets and symphonies composed in the idioms of European modernism. When one considers that Frederick May had to wait ten years to hear a performance of his string quartet – not a large-scale choral and orchestral work but something as modest in its instrumentation as a string quartet – one can only throw up one’s hands in disbelief at statements such as these. The composer James Wilson recently told me of similar delays that he himself experienced. Ryan also expresses puzzlement at the fact that Irish composers did not devote more of their creative energies (which they were too busy dissipating, according to him, trying to discover ‘an agreed response’ to nationalism ‘for the greater part of two centuries’[10] – I would be most curious to see hard facts in support of such a thesis) to the cultivation of genres such as opera – a form he deems ‘ideally suited to a nationalist expression’.[11] One would not be too sanguine about the chances of a full-length opera by an Irish composer being staged in Ireland even at this point in time, given the fact that all save one of the opera companies in this country seem utterly indifferent to the work of Irish composers. For most of the century just passed, the chances of an opera by an Irish composer being mounted were even slimmer – one would have thought that Ryan would not have needed to be reminded of the obvious fact that very few composers are going to expend the amount of labour necessary to write an opera when the score was most likely going to gather dust and remain unperformed.

As a piece of academic prose, ‘The Tone of Defiance’ is one of the poorest that I have encountered. Even after several readings I have difficulty following the logic of Ryan’s thought. His torturous sentence structure and choice of vocabulary result in a prose style that is sometimes opaque to the point where one finds it difficult to be sure that one has grasped what he is attempting to convey. For instance, the very opening sentences run:

Like the nature of nationalism itself, the introduction of the vulgate into the serene region of musicological dissertation serves on a number of levels, not least here, in that it questions any remaining assumptions that music retains a hallowed otherness. It can be argued that for too long music has occupied the high ground, regarded as a virgin art untainted by practicalities.[12]

Apart from a rather inappropriate metaphor which would suggest that changes of emphasis in musical scholarship have effected a defloration of music, one can only wonder at Ryan’s notion that music, which of all the arts is most dependent on ‘practicalities’ such as copying parts and engaging performers and hiring venues to mention only a few, should in fact have remained until recently ‘untainted’ by them, in what is surely a curious phrase. The word ‘vulgate’ (with a capital ‘v’) refers to Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, and by extension, means any traditional text. Its use in this context makes no sense whatsoever and I must confess that I have not the remotest inkling of how ‘its introduction into the serene region of musicological discourse’ can be compared to any profitable end with ‘the nature of nationalism itself’. The intransitive use of ‘serves’ is also grammatically awkward. Most of the article is written as poorly as this.

I should mention that one realises as one reads further that he is in fact talking about reactions to the so-called ‘New Musicology’, which – in supposed contrast to ‘positivist’ musicologies – considers music in broad relation to the social, cultural and political contexts from which it emerges. To quote Ryan in his own words: ‘Just as the introduction of the vulgate ruffles the normal staid currency’ – one wonders how currency could conceivably be either staid or ruffled – ‘of academic discourse, so is contextualism challenging the erstwhile rarefied discourse of matters of high music by musicologists’.[13] I think we can safely assume in this context that Ryan is not referring to the Jerome Bible as he uses a small ‘v’. And if vulgate means, which it can only otherwise mean, a traditional text or by a somewhat generous extension of plausible meaning, a traditional understanding, surely Ryan ends up conveying the exact opposite of what one imagines he intends to convey – though I remain unsure.

If some musicologists have reservations about the ‘New Musicology’, it is because it has been influenced considerably by post-structuralist thought and not always for the better. As a recent book such as Intellectual Impostures[14] shows, the influence of such ‘philosophies’ on academic discourse can result in pretentious fraudulence as academics feign knowledge of disciplines other than their own in order to impress the naïve reader with a superficial patina of what looks like erudition but is in fact nonsense. Ryan spends the first quarter or so of his article discussing the ‘New Musicology’ but making no coherent point that I can fathom, nor does this discussion bear any relation whatsoever to the remainder of his article. Ryan has a fondness for extravagant metaphors of both the unmixed and mixed varieties which have a tendency to undermine any serious point he is trying to make: thus, we are told that ‘the roots of this situation’ (Ireland’s ‘sorry record’ [15] in musical composition) are ‘to be found within a wider frame’.[16] The ‘exotic spices’ of traditional musics have ‘attracted the palates of intrepid musical itinerants, yet another species that thrived on the fruits of nationalism’.[17] Finally, Ryan assures us that ‘Nationalism is no slouch itself in the matter of revisionism’.[18]

As the reader may be aware, academic work on Irish music (other than traditional music) is still in its earliest stages. In striking contrast to the number of books available on even comparatively minor literary figures, there is scarcely a book in print on an Irish composer to which one could send a reader curious to find out something about one of them. The last history of Irish music was published in 1905. There are huge gaps in our knowledge. We are simply not in any position to be making broad generalising statements about the influence of nationalist ideologies on the circumstances of Irish musical life in the period 1800–2000 such as those Joseph Ryan wishes to make. His discussion of composition in the 19th century is largely confined to the use of Irish folk tunes by Thomas Davis and Thomas Moore. These men were not even composers: such compositional activity as there was is scarcely mentioned. He assumes an unnuanced uniformity of reactions and attitudes towards nationalism on the part of those concerned with music in Ireland across an entire century, which is simply not justified. In his discussion of music in Ireland in the earlier part of the last century, the opinions of Eamonn Ó Gallchobhair are referred to in Ryan’s earlier work as if they were almost wholly representative of the attitudes of composers of this period, with the more or less isolated exception of May. On the basis of Gallchobhair’s views and a few other pieces of information Ryan seems to have constructed his highly contentious thesis, making sweeping and unwarranted generalisations such as the following from the present essay:

[Moore’s] phrase ‘The tone of defiance, succeeded by a languor of despondency – a burst of turbulence dying into softness’ could well encompass the account of music in Ireland in the face of rampant nationalism. Music was shepherded into defiance and it has taken over a century to shake clear of the resulting torpor.[19]

Apart perhaps from wondering how music could be ‘shepherded into defiance’, the reader will have noticed Ryan’s characteristically lurid vocabulary in the choice of the word ‘rampant’. In another place, he misleadingly borrows a heading – ‘The Curse of Nationalism’ – from the preface to Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island and goes on to quote the following sentences which are taken quite out of context:

Nationalism stands between Ireland and the light of day. Nobody in Ireland of any intelligence likes Nationalism any more than a man with a broken arm likes having it set.[20]

While one may not relish the thought of the operation, having a broken arm set is of course necessary, and what Shaw means becomes clear from his continuation, which Ryan does not quote, and appears to be in contradiction to the meaning Ryan wishes to convey by the quotation.

A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again.[21]

It is notable that attitudes of composers such as Fleischmann and May who held quite different stances than Ó Gallchobhair towards the question of cultural nationalism are not discussed. In the absence of hard facts it is simply not intellectually responsible to generalise in this way, projecting one’s own imaginings about musicians’ motivations and attitudes onto such few facts as we have and coming up with a sensationalist theory of this kind. This is, it seems to me, to indulge in fantasy and wishful thinking rather than scholarship. It is not immediately evident to me that one needs to look for additional factors other than those social ones already cited to explain the slow development of the art music tradition in Ireland. To aver that ‘the curse of nationalism’ is to blame is surely unwarranted. Perhaps the situation is as simple as this: nowadays, structures are in place ensuring that composers can make a reasonable income from their work and that they have opportunities to hear their music performed, hence music is written. In the nineteenth century, composers here received little encouragement to exist. Therefore there was comparatively little compositional activity.

One forms the distinct impression that Ryan’s personal repugnance for Irish nationalism in some of its more garish manifestations has betrayed him into a false position intellectually. If repugnance is in fact what he feels, it is not difficult to understand – certain aspects of the phenomenon here have been deeply disturbing. But it is surely vital that we maintain a desire to be scrupulously fair in our accounts of the phenomenon and its influence and above all to seek to understand it. One of the most important writers on the subject of nationalism is Isaiah Berlin, who penetrates to the very core of its emotional appeal. ‘Nationalism’, he tells us,

is responsible for magnificent achievements and appalling crimes […]. One may wish to condemn nationalism outright as an irrational and enslaving force […]. But it seems to me far more important to understand its roots. Nationalism springs, as often as not, from a wounded or outraged sense of human dignity, the desire for recognition […]. It may take hideous forms, but is not in itself either unnatural or repulsive as a feeling.[22]

It is not that Berlin wishes either to praise or censure nationalism; rather he is concerned to arrive at a balanced understanding of nationalism as ‘an inflamed form of national consciousness’,[23] often caused by ‘some form of collective humiliation’[24] arising out of oppression and exploitation and ‘connected […] closely with social and religious and political grievances’.[25] This description is certainly apt as an account of the phenomenon in Ireland, and its consistency with the points made by Shaw quoted earlier is noteworthy. I quote this here because it evinces a point of view that is nowhere in evidence in the discussions of Irish nationalism in this book. If anything is ‘jejune’ in the sense of ‘meagre’ and ‘unsatisfying to the mind’ it is surely writing such as Joseph Ryan’s, which in its superficiality, shows little evidence of a desire to do justice either to such an important phenomenon or to give a responsible picture of Irish composition and the highly complex circumstances in which it originated.

Musical Constructions of Nationalism: Essays on the History and Ideology of European Musical Culture 1800–1945

Edited by Harry White and Michael Murphy, Cork University Press, 285 pp., 2001
ISBN 1-85918-153-8 (hbk), 1-85918-322-0 (pbk)

The concluding part of this review will appear in the next issue of JMI (March/April 2002)

1. Joseph J. Ryan, ‘Nationalism in Irish Music’ in (ed. Gerard Gillen and Harry White), Irish Musical Studies 3: Music and Irish Cultural History, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 1995, pp. 101-115 (hereafter RNIM)
2. RNIM, p. 102
3. RNIM, p. 103
4. RNIM, p. 103
5. RNIM, p. 103
6. Musical Constructions of Nationalism (hereafter MCN), p.199
7. RNIM, p. 113
8. MCN, p. 208
9. RNIM, p. 111
10. RMIN, p. 113
11. RMIN, p. 113
12. MCN, p. 197
13. MCN, p. 198
14. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures: Post-modern philosophers’ abuse of science (Eng. trans. by the authors), Profile Books, London, 1998
15. MCN, p. 209
16. MCN, p. 199
17. MCN, p. 205
18. MCN, p. 200
19. MCN, p. 208
20. George Bernard Shaw, John Bull’s Other Island, Constable & Co., London, 1907, p.xxxiv
21. ibid., p. xxxiv-xxxv
22. Isaiah Berlin, ‘Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of Nationality’, reprinted in The Sense of Reality (ed. Henry Hardy), Pimlico, London, 1997, pp. 251-2
23. Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Bent Twig’, reprinted in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (ed. Henry Hardy), Fontana Press, London, 1991, p. 245
24. ibid., p. 245
24. ibid., p. 252

Published on 1 January 2002

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