Nationalism and the traditional French style, II

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Beethoven's one-time hero, slightly modified. Click for a larger view.

Continued from Part I

In most textbooks I encounter, Nationalism – as a movement in Western music history –  has a beginning and an end. It is a period spanning roughly from the late 19th-century to the mid 20th-century.

For about 100 years or so, a number of great composers — even the ultra-conservative Johannes Brahms —  mixed in more and more local flavor, myth and folklore into their famous compositions.

In some cases this outpouring was something like a natural byproduct from training or from childhood nostalgia. With other artists it was a grass-roots method to take their art to a higher level. For some, it was Big Brother looking over their shoulder.

A composer might consciously tap into the heart-strings and traditions of the Common Man for a variety of reasons, including:

  • to focus attention on a folk tradition dear to them,
  • to play out a grand dramatic or social metaphor to new heights,
  • to inspire regional pride and spirit,
  • or in the extreme, to motivate a political movement.

Some relevant historical examples from various art forms and traditions to consider:

  • Verdi’s Nabucco
  • The Mighty Five
  • Impressionism in France
  • Expressionism in Germany
  • The flavor of Smetana and Dvorák
  • Bela Bartók’s fascination with folk music
  • Vienna horns
  • Sibelius’ Finlandia
  • The Wagner Ring cycle
  • Vibrato

In my conservatory training, the impact of Nationalism – its sentiments and historical footprint – was regarded as a footnote compared to the higher-minded development and history of the 12-tone row. This was in both my music history and composition training.

I then mislead myself to believe that regional tradition was something not to be strongly concerned about – not in America.

Regional culture

Looking into this deeper sheds light onto why this assumption – that European-based music traditions were not relevant to my American career – was so wrong-headed.

Localized music traditions in the classical music field are certainly not a thing of the past. Particular models of instruments, styles of musicianship and types of players continue to gravitate towards certain major metropolitan cities. Here, key orchestral players uphold the standard and practice, and the sphere of influence – sometimes for generations.

In the United States – – where we tend to think ourselves as different from the rest of the world – – we have our own regional style traditions, which parallel trends from the Old World. Vibrato can be a prickly topic in our melting pot; while most might agree that a “tasteful” vibrato is acceptable, putting a handle on what that means is a slippery slope.

In this much broader sense, nationalism in Western music has transcended time and international boundaries. It remains alive today.

Shifting tides

While at one time Paris was dominated by piston-valve horns, years later the gears shifted radically in another direction. Rotary valves were in and piston valves were out.

Here too the Thévet videos give us things to think about. What once was made high was made low.

Imagine an alternate universe where Lucien Thévet had not rejected Charles Munch‘s offer to play principal horn in the Boston Symphony. Tastes in horn vibrato would be very different in America.

This scenario aside, hundreds of years from now what will horn players think of our current traditions and schools of playing?

That sounds awful!

Traditions are rooted in basic rituals or methods that connect a group of people to one another in a profound and lasting way. A little digging into the details of traditions can be enlightening and empowering to us as performers.

Even if those traditions have passed or are different than our own.

Variety is the spice of life, and the traditional French school of playing has helped pave the way to where we are today. Ultimately, the horn universe is a better place because of bold and innovative players like Lucien Thévet.

N‘est-ce pas?

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