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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin

In 1866 Carl Engel (1818–82), a German organist and music scholar who had been living in England since 1844, published a monograph called An Introduction to the Study of National Music. It consisted mainly of a comprehensive, if loosely organized, survey of folk songs from around the world, accompanied by obiter dicta culled from such scholarly literature as then existed on the subject. The author's own contribution was the comparative framework and the myriad observations he allowed himself to draw from it. “Although no people has been found without music of its own,” he announced on the first page, “the degree of susceptibility and fondness for music, as well as the form and spirit of popular musical compositions, vary greatly in different nations.”

The nadir of susceptibility, it turns out, had been reached by the author's host country, England, whose music, he lost no opportunity in reminding the reader, was faceless, and whose inhabitants were peerlessly unmusical. The English, he asserted, had borrowed their most characteristic folk songs from the lore of other countries, and with good reason: “Such adoptions…occur oftenest in a nation whose music has a less marked national character;…thus, the English will more easily adopt a foreign tune than the Germans.” The English countryside, Herr Engel assured his readers, was mute, for “the rural population of England appear to sing less than those of most other European countries.” Even the English ethnological literature failed to meet the author's needs, for “travellers (especially the English) are seldom experienced musicians.” Perhaps the most delectable sally came in a discussion of the almost universal spontaneous musical expression of religious feeling. “Eecclesiastics,” the author notes, have “always and almost everywhere been adepts in the art of music. Instances where this is not the case—as, for example, with the clergy of the Church of England at the present day—are exceptional.”48

By the time of Engel's writing, the unmusicality of the English was already a cultural cliché, especially among the Germans. Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), who visited England in 1827, recalled what he heard there in a report from Paris to a German newspaper in 1840: “These people have no ear, neither for the beat nor indeed for music in any form, and their unnatural passion for piano-playing and singing is all the more disgusting. There is verily nothing on earth so terrible as English musical composition, except English painting.” Another German traveler, the poet Georg Weerth (1822–1856), took great pleasure in mocking “the immense efforts the Englishman will make only to appear just a tiny bit musical” and “how the English, incapable of singing as they are, always maintain in the most ridiculous way that they lead all other nations in this as in other things.” Their proof? “Carl Maria von Weber is buried there.”49

This view of the English found its ultimate expression in a treatise published in 1904 by the German philosopher Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz (1873–1931). Its title, Das Land ohne Musik (The Land without Music), became—or, more likely, already was—a catchphrase. Although the subtitle immediately established englische Gesellschaftsprobleme (English social problems) as the actual subject of his book, the alleged unmusicality of the English had become for Schmitz a useful metaphor for more basic deficiencies—their prosaic, unimaginative character; their selfishness (a word Schmitz retained in the original); their lack of empathy (which made them such successful imperialists). Schmitz's critique of the English character was a variation on Napoleon's old cackle about the “nation of shopkeepers.” One might have expected a scholarly author to seek explanations on economic or political terrain, but the time of writing favored essentialist explanations. Engel, whose book Schmitz listed as a source, had immediately assured his readers on page 1 that the musical characteristics he would identify as national “are innate, and, so to say, of indigenous growth” and therefore required no further explanation. So it was enough for Schmitz, as an explanation for England's social problems, to cite, as “something that distinguishes the English from all other cultures to an absolutely astounding degree,” this “lack, which everybody acknowledges, and is therefore no new discovery, but whose import has not been sufficiently emphasized: The English are the only cultured people without their own music (street songs excepted).”50

How did the English acquire this dismal reputation? For that, there are convincing historical explanations, and Weerth had actually alluded to them. Its highly developed commercial resources and freedom of enterprise made England—just London, really—the greatest magnet in Europe for the international freelance trade. The city became the preferred residence or touring venue for international stars of the highest standing, and that imported prestige had a crushing impact on domestic talent. The star system, which in the first place meant great performers such as castrati and instrumental virtuosi, eventually encompassed composers as well: a stellar succession of continental masters who provided—or saddled—native talents with inescapable models. In the early eighteenth century there were Handel and the violinist-composer Francesco Geminiani. In the later eighteenth century there were “John” Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel (1723–1727), who not only composed the music of highest British prestige but also purveyed it at their own elite concert series, becoming British musical shopkeepers extraordinaire—only to be eclipsed as businessmen by Muzio Clementi (1752–1832), an Italian composer (and Mozart's only rival as a keyboard virtuoso) who set up an internationally dominant music publishing and piano manufacturing firm in London in 1785. And then there was the grand pléiade of visitors—Haydn, Weber, Mendelssohn—who appeared before the British public, treating them to a series of brilliant premieres, from Haydn's “London” symphonies to Weber's Oberon to Mendelssohn's Elijah. No other country could equal Britain as an international showcase for the best in musical production of all kinds.

Small wonder then that the local talent found themselves fairly dwarfed by the magnitude of such goings-on. Britain never lacked for native talent, but the locals worked in genres dominated by the visitors, and—with the fairly marginal and insular exception of music for the Anglican liturgy, doomed by definition never to be exported—they had little opportunity to emerge as anything other than “epigones,” lesser imitators. There was Charles Avison (1709–1770), a pupil of Geminiani and an expert imitator of Handel's imitations of Corelli. There were Thomas Arne (1710–1778) and William Boyce (1711–1779), whose careers encompassed the end of Handel's reign and the coming of J. C. Bach and who expertly emulated both. (Arne has won a meed of immortality for his settings of Shakespeare's songs and for the final chorus—“Rule, Britannia!”—from a masque, or historical pageant, called Alfred, first performed in 1740.) There was the Irish-born John Field (1782–1837), a pupil of Clementi, admired (as we have seen) by Liszt and a pianist of international distinction as well as an original composer (the nocturne being his invention), but who spent his mature years in Russia, then even more on the European periphery than insular Britain. In the wake of Haydn there were John Marsh (1752–1828), a composer of more than forty symphonies; William Crotch (1775–1847); and Cipriani Potter (1792–1871), who studied with Thomas Attwood, a pupil of Mozart (and also, briefly, with Beethoven in Vienna). And in the early Victorian era there was Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816–1875), a pupil of Crotch and Potter and a protégé of Mendelssohn, hailed by Schumann as a major talent. The most eminent Victorian, Sullivan, was (as we have seen) compromised in the eyes of “serious” musicians by his association with operetta.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the chief influences on British composers were Brahms and, even more directly, Dvořák. Wagner and Liszt, though as popular with audiences in Britain as anywhere else, were less approved as compositional models because the composing profession had become thoroughly academicized over the century's course. Crotch, Potter, and Bennett had all been principals of the Royal Academy of Music, the main British conservatory (chartered in 1830), and the leading “serious” composers of the 1880s and 1890s, Sir Hubert Parry (1848–1918) and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924), were both professors at the newer rival institution, the Royal College of Music (with Parry serving from 1895 as director). Their educational responsibilities and their class status as “gentlemen” seem to have curbed their originality, or at least their adventurousness, as is especially apparent in the case of Parry, who as a young composer was an ardent Wagnerian but who as a teacher preached the gospel of Brahms. Meanwhile, Dvořák (already identified in this book as the most generically versatile of all contemporary European composers) had shown himself to be exceptionally well positioned to earn a following in Britain, where the oratorio tradition had persisted unbroken since Handel's time and where choral composition rivaled symphonic in prestige.

Dvořák's first big success in Britain was his Stabat Mater, a setting of the latter-day Gregorian sequence composed in 1876–1877 and first performed in Prague in 1880. Its London première in 1883 led to an invitation to the composer from the London Philharmonic Society to appear in person and conduct his works the next season and from the publishing firm of Novello to compose an oratorio for the Birmingham Festival, one of the many summer choral conclaves that particularly distinguished English musical life. The tour was the first of nine, and the commission was the first of five. Dvořák's British premieres, in London and at the Birmingham and Leeds festivals, included a requiem, two oratorios (The Spectre's Bride and Saint Ludmilla), his Seventh Symphony, and his Cello Concerto. The last two are among his most important works, but the first three were responsible for his particular relevance to the British scene, in which he assumed the mantle of mentor formerly worn by Handel and Mendelssohn—and this at a time when his Slavic ethnicity was still an impediment to his acceptance at home in Austria-Hungary. The honor given him in Britain did much to enhance his image at home, but it only reinforced the impression on the continent that the British, like the Bohemians, were musical provincials.

And that is how the rumor took root that the British—unlike the Bohemians!—were “unmusical.” The British, so the assumption went, not only did not produce a native musical genius but also could not. Their unmusicality, as Carl Engel would say, was “innate” and “of indigenous growth.” What contemporary musicians (eventually including the British themselves) saw fit to register as a fact was not that Britain had been, since the advent of Handel, the most glittering of all international musical showcases and the place where the musical profession was on the firmest economic footing, but rather that, since the death of Purcell in 1695, the English had been without a native-born composer of wide international repute. That widely-accepted “fact” was in fact a non-fact. Purcell, too, had been a composer of insular reputation in his day, as had William Byrd before him. The international concert scene had, in fact, only existed since the time of apparent British decline. The changing structure of musical life, not the “nature” of British musical talent, had produced the impression of musical decline.

Yet all it ever takes to defeat an essentialist argument is a counterexample, and that counterexample appeared in 1899 in the person of Edward Elgar (1857–1934). The breakthrough composition was his Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36, for orchestra (popularly known, with the composer's approval, as the Enigma Variations). The idea for it very likely came from Dvořák, whose Symphonic Variations, op. 78 (1877), had been a popular concert item in England since its London premiere (under the German conductor Hans Richter) in 1887; and even more immediately, perhaps, from Chaikovsky, whose Third Suite for Orchestra, op. 55 (1884), ends with a big set of character variations that culminate in a brilliant and extended polonaise. Chaikovsky's variations were often programmed as an independent entity, and Elgar heard them that way at a concert that included his own cantata, Caractacus, in October 1898, just a few weeks before he began work on the Enigma set.51 Except for Brahms's Haydn Variations (see Ex. 13-10) there were virtually no other precedents for such a composition as Elgar's, save sets by Parry (1897) and Stanford (1898) that were probably also responses to Dvořák and Brahms. Elgar's theme (Ex. 14-23a), though often compared with the opening theme in Brahms's Fourth Symphony (1885), with its short phrases separated by rests and its conspicuous falling thirds, actually resembles Dvořák's variation theme—not an original tune, but a Czech folk song called “I'm a Fiddler”—at the more basic level of ternary design (Ex. 14-23b). Elgar's colorful and varied orchestration owed a confessed debt to Dvořák as well.

National Monuments

ex. 14-23a Elgar, Enigma Variations, theme

National Monuments

ex. 14-23b Dvořák, Symphonic Variations, op. 78, theme

Indeed, Elgar's affinity for his older Czech counterpart ran very deep, nurtured both by similar upbringings and by personal contact. Like Dvořák, Elgar was a provincial violinist and church organist who had to overcome considerable obstacles to win recognition even in the national centers, to say nothing of the wider world. He was the son of a Worcester music-shopkeeper and piano tuner who had converted to Roman Catholicism. (Dvořák's father had had been a small-town butcher.) The younger Elgar earned his living during the earlier part of his career doing musical odd jobs: giving violin lessons, playing in ad hoc orchestras and other ensembles, accompanying Sunday Masses at St. George's Catholic Church, conducting bands (one at a local insane asylum). One of his more memorable orchestra “gigs” had been at the Worcester choral festival in 1884, at which Dvořák, on his first British tour, conducted his Stabat Mater. Elgar's early composing ambitions, in common with many provincial British worthies, were bound up with that peculiarly British choir-festival tradition, in which Dvořák's impact was especially keen. The early phases of Elgar's serious composing career were centered around that same local “Three Choirs” festival, for which he produced his first three choral-orchestral compositions. These, and especially the next one (Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, 1896), are full of resonances from Dvořák's oratorios, especially The Specter's Bride (1885), the first British commission.

But Elgar, unlike the many worthies from whose ranks he emerged, was not content to imitate. His Enigma Variations was an ambitious emulation, an attempt to surpass his models. The work ends with a long and eminently “symphonic” (i.e., climactic and developing) finale—revised and further elaborated after the first performance—that transcends the genre of variation and also surpasses in amplitude and complexity the corresponding concluding sections of Dvořák's, and even Chaikovsky's, variations sets. Elgar's variations are both virtuosically orchestrated and vividly contrasted, covering an exceptionally, even ostentatiously, diverse range of moods. This range is justified by a sort of secret program, whereby the variations represent various “friends pictured within,” identified in the score by initials or pseudonyms. (The big finale, according to this scheme, is a self-portrait.) That is one of the “enigmas” responsible for the composition's nickname—the “easy” one, long since solved with the composer's blessing. The other enigma, impossible of solution, was set forth by the composer in a program note at the first performance, in the form of a gratuitous refusal to divulge it:

Its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes,” but is not played…So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas—e.g. Maeterlinck's L'Intruse and Les sept Princesses—the chief character is never on the stage.52

The assumption has always been—though without any direct evidence—that the “Theme” to which the composer thus darkly alludes must be a counterpoint to the actual played theme, as given in Ex. 14-23a.(In fact, nothing in Elgar's note requires the “Theme” even to be a musical theme.) Countless candidates have been advanced, from “Rule Britannia” and “Auld Lang Syne” to themes from Bach's organ music to the standard symphonic repertoire. The game continues: in 1991 the British pianist Joseph Cooper proposed the theme of the slow movement in Mozart's Prague Symphony (yet another link to Dvořák?), and in 2007 Clive McClelland, a musicologist at the University of Leeds, added the Anglican hymn “Now the Day Is Over” to the pile of potential solutions.53

With all these layers of meaning and potential meaning overlaying the impressive music, Elgar's Enigma Variations attracted great attention when it was played for the first time, shortly after the composer's forty-second birthday. But the decisive factor allowing the composer from Worcester to burst into fame and explode the myth of Das Land ohne Musik was the prestige of the occasion, lent not by the composer's reputation, but by that of the conductor. He was Hans Richter (1843–1916), one of Wagner's foremost disciples. Richter had conducted the premier Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876, but he also gave the first performances of Brahms's Second and Third symphonies (and the Tragic Overture), Bruckner's Eighth (and biggest) Symphony, and Chaikovsky's Violin Concerto. He was, in short, the great conductor of the day.

Since 1879 Richter had been conducting an annual concert series in London (the “Richter concerts”) that was the supreme attraction of the London concert season. He performed other English composers—mainly Parry and Stanford—besides Elgar, yet the others were already lions of the London establishment when Richter played their works, whereas Elgar was plucked from relative obscurity. Richter became Elgar's champion, giving many subsequent premieres, including that of The Dream of Gerontius (1900), Elgar's most famous oratorio, which secured his position at the very forefront of the English musical world. In 1904 Richter elevated Elgar's reputation further still, by conducting a festival of his music in London (“an unprecedented tribute to a living composer,” according to the New Grove Dictionary). Most important, Richter propagated Elgar's music in the main European centers, giving him an international profile out of all proportion with those of his fellow countrymen. Without in any way detracting from the inherent qualities of Elgar's music, it is fair to say that Richter's enthusiastic espousal made the crucial difference, allowing not only Europeans but also English listeners to believe that “here was music the like of which had not appeared in this country since Purcell's death.”54 Exactly as in the case of Glinka sixty years before, and Dvořák himself a quarter of a century before, recognition abroad—“mainstream” recognition, according to prevailing current opinion—sanctioned preeminence at home. But Elgar's emergence into the mainstream and the resultant rise in his status, as a viable British musical representative to the world, were necessary preconditions for his country's emergence (or reemergence) as a significant producer, not just the paramount consumer, of concert music. Greatness, in short, was still Germany's to bestow.

So important were Elgar's achievement and reputation to his country's musical self-esteem that he instantly became a national institution, accompanied—perhaps awkwardly, because he was by no means a typical Englishman, being Roman Catholic, not a member of the Church of England—by new essentialist myths. His music was alleged to embody the national character, which was found to inhabit its sound and structure at every level. In particular, the Enigma theme (i.e., the “heard melody” in Ex. 14-23a) was alleged to mimic, in its falling sevenths, the cadence of English speech; and the first four notes—this was advanced in earnest!—were heard to speak the composer's name (“Ed-ward El-gar”), as if mystically tying the composer's person to the national collectivity.55 Such an investment inevitably begets anxiety, and Elgar has been ever since equally a touchstone of British pride and British shame. The shame came out as recently as 2008, when an English composer could still write of Elgar that “he rules as a monarch over our national inferiority complex, the not quite hidden belief that nobody English could be quite that good a musician, not compared with abroad.”56

The pride can be viewed at its least troubled height in the third edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, first printed in 1927, when Elgar was still alive. The lengthy, unsigned entry on the composer was the work of the dictionary's editor, Henry Cope Colles (1879–1943), a professor of music history at the Royal College of Music and the chairman of the School of English Church Music. The article identifies Elgar, simply and (within the dictionary) singularly, as “a great composer,” and, after a detailed and by no means entirely uncritical survey of his output, reaches an eloquent peroration:

Elgar's works hold the attention of his countrymen more decisively than do those of any other native composer. No English festival is complete without him; every choral society and orchestra, from the smallest to the greatest, gives his music a large place in its repertory; and it will be no surprise if further works should come from his pen bearing the stamp of that personality which is so recognizable that from his name the adjective “Elgarian” has been coined, yet so elusive that the adjective has been necessary in default of any adequate description.57

National Monuments

ex. 14-24 Elgar, Enigma Variations, no. 9 (“Nimrod”)

The “Elgarian” tone, by now familiar, is no longer so elusive. It is well known to all who have (perhaps unwittingly) marched at graduation time to the trio section from Elgar's first Pomp and Circumstance march (op. 39, no. 1; 1901), composed two years after the Enigma Variations. (The title alludes to Shakespeare's Othello: “The royal banner, and all quality,/Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!” [Act III, scene 3, ll. 353–354].) It is a tone that is itself frequently described as eloquent, implying public oratory. Although composed as an instrumental melody, the march tune so obviously had the character of a hymn that it was quickly outfitted, by the poet A. C. Benson (1862–1925), with a patriotic text beginning “Land of Hope and Glory,” in which form it became, in 1902, the finale to Elgar's Coronation Ode, written for a gala performance at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in honor of the investiture of King Edward VII—a commission, that, in the words of Colles, “was tantamount to the acknowledgement of Elgar as the musical laureate of the Edwardian era.” (In 1924 Elgar was the inevitable choice to succeed the long-serving Sir Walter Parratt as the actual musical laureate of the United Kingdom, occupying an honorific post known as Master of the King's Music.) That hymnic manner, compounded of exaltation and serenity, was indeed characteristic and individual, Elgarian and Edwardian in equal measure. It is already intimated in the ninth of the Enigma Variations (Ex. 14-24), titled “Nimrod” after the Bible's mighty hunter and designating one of Elgar's closest musical confidants, his editor August Jaeger (“hunter” in German) at Novello, the main British publisher of choral festival fare.

National Monuments

ex. 14-25a Elgar, Symphony no. 1, op. 55, beginning

National Monuments

ex. 14-25b Elgar, Symphony no. 1, op. 55, end

The same hymnic tone is struck at the beginning of Elgar's First Symphony (op. 55; 1908), which opens with an andante melody (Ex. 14-25a) that precedes the allegro movement, like a standard symphonic introduction. But by the turn of the century it was more or less a foregone conclusion that a big symphony would have a motto theme, and so this melody is quoted in the scherzo, the main theme of the adagio is a variation on it, and the entire finale builds to its blazing recapitulation at a pitch of ecstasy far removed from—and yet, as demonstrated, implicit within—the opening mood of expressly indicated “noble simplicity” and confident reserve (Ex. 14-25b). It is not hard to see how a nation that valued the “stiff upper lip” would find in this composer a spokesman. Elgar actively cultivated that mood. The marking “nobilmente,” a great rarity in the music of other composers (unless, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, in one famous instance, they were deliberately, and possibly ironically, striking an “Elgarian” attitude), recurs with great regularity in his work. (Its first appearance, as a matter of fact, was in the composer's piano reduction of “Nimrod.”) Elgar dedicated the First Symphony in gratitude to Hans Richter, “true artist and true friend.” Richter reciprocated not only by giving the first performance but also by pronouncing it “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer—and not only in this country.”58

Elgar's Second Symphony (op. 63; 1911) was, according to its title page, “Dedicated to the Memory of His Late Majesty King Edward VII,” and, a footnote adds, “This Symphony, designed early in 1910 to be a loyal tribute, bears its present dedication with the gracious approval of His Majesty the King,” meaning George V, Edward's son and successor. The second movement (larghetto) is a funeral march, the king's death having taken place while Elgar was at work on the opening movement. The influence of the sad occasion may perhaps be felt in the ending of the symphony as well, which replays but inverts the First Symphony's trajectory, in which a motto theme of noble simplicity is recapitulated in jubilation. In the Second Symphony the opening theme is exuberant, in unambiguous response to the epigraph from Shelley's “Invocation” that sits atop the score: “Rarely, rarely comest thou,/Spirit of Delight!” The theme's hushed and spacious recapitulation at the symphony's end, in counterpoint against receding reverberations of the antic finale, is persuasive testimony to the composer's rare combination of conventionality and originality, his ability to ring unexpected and telling changes on accepted practice or (in less complimentary terms) to invest time-honored sentiments with apparent freshness and eloquence.

Elgar's ability to move with apparent freedom and inventiveness within an orthodox or even conformist posture; his sincere and devoted professions of loyalty to his country's values and institutions, beginning with that of monarchy, at a time when Britain was at—or, perhaps more accurately, just past—the height of imperial potency (memorialized by, among other things, Elgar's music to accompany a 1911 masque called The Crown of India); and even the sheer opulence of his scores, redolent of prosperity and optimism, have made Elgar's reputation a bellwether of changing social and political attitudes. His country's plummeting fortunes after World War I, and even more the loss of its empire after World War II, caused the corpulent, walrus-mustachioed composer's output to sound embarrassingly “blimpish”—pompously self-satisfied or reactionary—to many and brought about a trough in his reputation from which a full comeback was possible, it seemed, only in the 1980s, coinciding with a resurgence of British nationalism associated with Margaret Thatcher's tenure as prime minister. Even at the zenith of Elgar's prestige, Colles saw fit to twit the composer just a little for the excessively snug, square-cut construction of his larger scores—”a tendency,” he called it, “to write long movements in multiples of two-bar phrases.” By 1954, when Colles's article, now signed, was revised by another editor for (posthumous) republication in the fifth edition of Grove's, with the “great” now deleted from Elgar's identification as a composer, it had to end on a defensive note. “It is by the direct and constant appeal of Elgar's music to his own countrymen that the English character of his art is abundantly proved,” the author now felt it necessary to insist. “He was never much impressed by the doctrine that national music can be synthetically developed from national sources of folksong and other traditions of the past.” The point is immediately reiterated at a higher temperature: “He knew no nationalistic inhibitions,” and “he believed it was the composer's business to invent tunes, not to quote them, and to make history rather than to study it.”59

If it was now required to assert these negative facts, it was obviously because a later generation of British musicians and audiences had in the meantime decided that a national music could and perhaps ought to be developed from national sources of folksong and other traditions of the past.

The main creative representative of this generation was Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), who followed a trail blazed by Cecil Sharp (1859–1924), the leader of the folklore revival in England, and such scholarly figures as Rev. Edmund Horace Fellowes (1870–1951), an Anglican clergyman who pioneered the revival of “Tudor” church music (i.e., the sacred polyphony of the “long sixteenth century,” named after the English dynasty that reigned from 1485 to 1603). Vaughan Williams's scholarly bent was nurtured by a distinguished intellectual lineage. The son of a vicar, he was the grandnephew of Charles Darwin and the great-great-grandson of the illustrious potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795).

Vaughan Williams had a traditional and cosmopolitan musical education, unusual only in its slow progress. He studied with Stanford and Parry at home; more briefly (1897) in Berlin with Max Bruch (1838–1920), a member of Brahms's generation, best remembered for a violin concerto and other concerted works, including a Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra; and finally even more briefly (1907–8) in Paris with Maurice Ravel, Vaughan Williams's junior by three years, mostly for orchestration. From 1903 Vaughan Williams made folksong collecting expeditions to the English and Welsh countryside, and beginning in 1905 he conducted choral music at a festival (Leith Hill) founded by his sister.

National Monuments

ex. 14-26 Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, theme

Almost none of the music Vaughan Williams composed before the turn of century is published, and what little has been appeared only posthumously, as a matter of historical interest. His two early masterpieces, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra and solo string quartet (1910) and A London Symphony (1913, rev. 1918), exemplify the two sides of the nativist tendency he embodied: belatedly embodied, it is fair to say, for it meant the arrival in Britain of a current that had spread on the continent—in Russia, the Czech lands, Hungary, Iberia, Scandinavia, and so on—considerably earlier. The Tallis Fantasia is based on a psalm-tune harmonization that Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–85), one of the great Tudor musicians, had furnished for The Whole Psalter Translated into English Metre, edited by Matthew Parker, the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, around 1567 (Ex. 14-26 shows Vaughan Williams's version). The antiphonal deployment of the two groups of strings and their responsorial interplay with the soloists evoke a sort of mythical wordless liturgy, and the magnificently rich textures that Vaughan Williams, trained as a violinist, was able to elicit from the chosen medium evokes another set of cultural memories—the abounding repertoire of fantasias for “chests” of viols that date mainly from the Jacobean period, the era of the early Stuart kings that followed the Tudors.

The London Symphony is a response to the other revival, that of traditional, orally transmitted lore. The published score carries as an epigraph a passage from an article Vaughan Williams had contributed in 1912 to the R. C. M. Magazine, the official organ of the Royal College of Music, titled “Who Wants the British Composer?” This text almost exactly paraphrases the prescription Dvořák had made to his American readers a generation earlier:

Is it not possible that the English composer has something to say to his own countrymen that no one of any other age and any other country can say? Have we not all about us forms of musical expression which we can purify and raise to the level of great art?

National Monuments

ex. 14-27a Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, II, mm. 1–8

Vaughan Williams's process of elevation and “purification” led him, altogether unlike Dvořák, to adopt a manner of writing that could only strike many academic musicians at the time as uncouth. Among other things, long passages of parallel triads abound, their fifths and octaves uncorrected (Ex. 14-27a). Contrary to Colles's insinuation in defense of Elgar in the fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary (quoted above), and with only a couple of exceptions—one of them the famous chimes of Big Ben, the Westminster clock tower atop the houses of Parliament, sounding through the mists at the beginning of the first movement and the end of the fourth, in very Ravellian harp harmonics—the symphony's thematic material consisted of invented rather than quoted tunes. But it also made intermittent references to transcribed street cries (“Sweet Lavender!”) and the jingles that announced the approach of a London hansom cab (duly listed among the percussion instruments), and it imitated the sounds of mouth organs and concertinas. (Much later, Vaughan Williams, commissioned by the virtuoso Larry Adler, would compose one of the very few twentieth-century concerted works for mouth organ, or “harmonica,” Romance in D-flat, actually a two-movement concerto with string orchestra.)

National Monuments

ex. 14-27b Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, I, letter M

National Monuments

ex. 14-27c Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony, III, mm. 5–12

The symphony's melodic and harmonic idiom is modeled throughout on the somewhat archaic “modal” and pentatonic dialect of the folk songs Vaughan Williams and other collectors had been culling from rural and working-class informants. From one end of the symphony to the other, leading tones are as rare as hen's teeth. Sometimes, as in the case of the theme that closes the first movement's exposition (Ex. 4-27b), the tonality is straightforwardly—indeed, in a post-Wagnerian age, crudely—diatonic. At others, especially in the third movement, a ghostly “Scherzo (Nocturne)” based on Cockney jig rhythms, the tonality is quite elusive (Ex. 14-27c), pointing toward the “neonationalist” alliance of folklorism and modernism that would attract many twentieth-century composers. The practically ubiquitous harp is another deliberately applied element of archaic local color, England and particularly Wales having been recognized since the Middle Ages as a nation of harpers. (Exx. 14-27b and c extract from the full score the main melodic part and the harp part, which condenses all the accompanying lines in the manner of a basso continuo.)

The London Symphony was Vaughan Williams's second symphony. (The first, A Sea Symphony, was actually a cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra on poems by Walt Whitman.) After the war he resumed his symphonic activity with A Pastoral Symphony, whose title was taken as emblematic of the whole British “pastoral” school, the tendency his music was seen as exemplifying. This was not entirely accurate or fair. Vaughan Williams possessed a considerable expressive range and continued to write prolifically to the end of his long life, eventually logging, despite his late start as a symphonist, a full Beethovenian nine (bearing traditional numbers beginning with the Fourth). His example stimulated several other members of his generation to write whole series of numbered symphonies: Arnold Bax (1883–1953), among Elgar's successors as Master of the King's (and, at the end, the Queen's) Music, also wrote nine (although only seven were performed and published); Edmund Rubbra (1901–1986) composed and published eleven; Havergal Brian (1876–1972), even longer-lived than Vaughan Williams or Rubbra, produced no fewer than thirty-two symphonies, of which nineteen were composed past the age of eighty.

The belatedness of this output—it was one of the longest-reverberating echoes of the late nineteenth century—made it fairly easy to write off as anachronistic by adherents of the neo-Hegelian historiography familiar to readers of this book since chapter 8. That view continued to gain strength in the early twentieth century. Not all English composers of Vaughan Williams's generation shared his preference for “classical” forms. Gustav Holst (1874–1934), second only to Vaughan Williams in reputation, and a close personal friend, never composed a traditional symphony, and his interest in folk song found its chief expression in songs and choral settings. Holst's most famous composition—by orders of magnitude—is a seven-movement orchestral suite called The Planets (op. 32; 1914–1916), each movement of which depicts one of the bodies that orbit the sun (excepting Earth, and sans the as yet undiscovered and now demoted Pluto) in terms of the mythological or astrological associations of its name. Two movements have won independent fame: “Mars, the Bringer of War,” which begins the suite, is a bravura display of bellicosity, with snarling tritones in the brass and a pounding five-beat rhythmic ostinato. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” is the most English-sounding movement (the composer evidently equating “Jovian” with Old King Cole); its melodies are constructed on gapped diatonic scales that lend the music an ersatz folk modality. The cantabile middle section has had a fate similar to that of Elgar's first Pomp and Circumstance march. Adapted by Holst to fit “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” a poem composed by Cecil Spring-Rice, the British ambassador to the United States, in the early days of American intervention into World War I, it became the number one rival to “Land of Hope and Glory” as a British patriotic hymn. At first used mostly as a memorial to fallen soldiers, it surged in popularity after it was sung in 1981 at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and, sixteen years later, at Diana's funeral.

But of course such appropriations offered little comfort to British musicians anxious as ever about the old charge of parochialism. The pastoral school always had vociferous opponents. Philip Heseltine (1894–1930), a composer-critic who signed his musical works with the pseudonym “Peter Warlock,” greeted Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony by comparing it to “a cow looking over a gate,”60 and bovine imagery was thenceforth the weapon of choice for cosmopolitan skeptics. Elisabeth Lutyens (1906–1983), one of the most committed British cosmopolitans of a younger generation, dealt the composers of Vaughan Williams's generation a temporarily decisive coup de massue by lumping them all together, in a widely reported lecture delivered in the early 1950s, as “the cow-pat school,” with their “folky-wolky modal melodies on the cor anglais [English horn].”61 Vaughan Williams himself fought back by casting aspersions on those who “thought that their own country was not good enough for them and went off in the early stages to become little Germans or little Frenchmen,” apparently forgetting his own studies with Bruch and Ravel.62

A note of class resentment is detectable here, and it was reciprocated with aristocratic derision that could still find expression in official patronage. The first director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation was John Reith, a.k.a. Lord Reith of Stonehaven (1889–1971), a Scottish peer who was loyal to the cosmopolitan attitudes of his class with regard to culture consumption—the old “Handel” model—and hired a music staff committed to the promotion of high-prestige continental repertoire, often in the teeth of public rejection. (Reith's most famous utterance: “We know precisely what the public wants, and by Heaven they're not going to get it!”) A later BBC executive, Sir William Glock (1908–2000), controller of music from 1959 to 1973, installed the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez—exactly comparable, as a charismatic continental figure of high international prestige, to Handel, Haydn, or Mendelssohn—at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. During his three years’ tenure (1971–1974), Boulez never programmed a single British composition.

This controversy, too, was a belated (anachronistic?) replay of battles already waged in nineteenth-century Europe, most conspicuously in Russia (see chapter 9), between cosmopolitan aristocrats and nationalistic insurgents, each side arguing that its was the truly patriotic position, in that it did the most to advance the nation's standing in the world. Therefore, Vaughan Williams's attempt to shift the terms of the debate onto more overtly political terrain could be seen, in the context of the 1930s, as ominous. The cultivation of a national style, he argued, was a matter of “musical citizenship,” and he urged further that the musician should “be the servant of the state and build national monuments like the painter, the writer or the architect.”63 This was a prescription many of the foremost nationalist musicians of the nineteenth century could never have fulfilled, for it implied an equation of nation and state that only certain countries exemplified (Vaughan Williams's Britain, of course, among them). Neither Chopin nor Dvořák had a state to serve during his lifetime; their later adoption as official “founders” of Polish and Czechoslovak music, respectively, could be seen in retrospect equally as a triumph or a co-option. Moreover, the implied obligation imposed by Vaughan Williams's call to action had been made an explicit demand by the time he asserted it, in now infamous twentieth-century totalitarian states: Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy, with Nazi Germany about to join them. The building of national monuments has remained a controversial goal for artists, and no less contentious has been the project of turning artists themselves into national monuments.

The latter project, which again has Russia to thank for its earliest nineteenth-century precedent (Glinka; see chapters 4 and 9), but which applies as well to the way Handel was treated by the British,64 may be most conveniently observed in its latter-day phases in Scandinavia, where there were fewer traditions of high-prestige public consumption of “world” talent to uphold and a later-developing “mass” public to demand a reflection of its identity in music. Just as in the case of Glinka, it was always the national composer who first broke through to high international recognition who was likeliest to be touted as the most essentially and autochthonously national. But whereas Glinka made his primary mark as a composer of opera, the Scandinavians, in keeping with the establishment of the international “classical” canon, won respect chiefly for their instrumental works.

The now best remembered Scandinavian musicians of the mid-nineteenth century, country by country, were the Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1796–1868), the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull (1810–1880), and the Danish composer Niels Gade (1817–1890). None was by any stretch a musical nationalist, although Bull at least was a committed patriot. He was also by far the most famous of the three, keeping up a brilliant international concert career for more than three decades as a second Paganini, renowned as much for his spectacular showmanship as for his musicianly attainments. Some of the stunts attributed in popular legend to Paganini were actually Bull's, like deliberately nicking the E-string so that it would break during the performance and the violinist could nonchalantly continue despite the “mishap,” compensating by shifting to higher positions on lower strings. Whereas Paganini was famous for his one-man “duet” playing, accompanying a cantabile melody in thirds and sixths or with drones and left-hand pizzicatos on adjacent strings, Bull rigged up a violin with a low, flat bridge and a hacksaw-shaped bow and wowed audiences with a “Quartet” for solo violin. He spent three decades on the road, actually settling for a while during the 1850s and ‘60s in the United States, where he married the daughter of a Wisconsin senator. He billed himself as an “artiste norvégien,” identifying with a nationality of which many members of his public had never heard, since Norway, during Bull's active career, was politically part of Sweden (as it had formerly been part of Denmark). The exotic persona was part of the act, as was the use, for encores and improvisations, of a Norwegian peasant “Hardanger” fiddle (perhaps the source of Bull's flat-bridge technique), which featured scordatura, or unusual tunings, and had sympathetic strings. Later in life he endowed a collection of Scandinavian literature at the University of Wisconsin.

If Bull was the Scandinavian Paganini, Gade was the Scandinavian Mendelssohn. A close friend and associate, Gade deputized for Mendelssohn as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and taught at Mendelssohn's Leipzig Conservatory. Once back in Copenhagen (as a result of the political disturbances of 1848, which included military hostilities between Prussia and Denmark), he even emulated Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Gade's main achievement as a composer was his series of eight symphonies, composed between 1842 and 1871, most of which were first performed, and all published, in Leipzig. Gade, along with fellow conservatory professor Anton Rubinstein, in Russia, was among the most faithful and prolific composers of symphonies during the fallow period between the death of Schumann and the premiere of Brahms's First, when the classical symphony was widely regarded as a moribund and academic genre. Gade's reputation, therefore, was as the very antithesis of an insurgent or a nationalist. He wrote his share of folkish Hausmusik, especially for piano duet (e.g., Nordiske Tonebilleder [Nordic Tone-Pictures] for piano four-hands), but his primary mission in life, by his own avowal, was that of upholding the most conservative, “classical” strain of German music at a time when it was under siege by the New German School. That his music and even his name are now largely forgotten is testimony to the New Germans’ pre-Brahmsian triumph.

As for Berwald, he was the epitome of personal idiosyncrasy and paid for his stylistic extravagances with a stunted career. His historical significance is almost entirely posthumous. Not counting a now lost youthful essay, he wrote four rather remarkable symphonies, each with a characteristic title—Sérieuse (1842), Capricieuse (1842), Singulière (1845), and Naíve (1845)—within a period of three years, when he was in his late forties. Full of formal, harmonic, and orchestrational oddities, these works are often compared with those of Berlioz, but no one knew them at the time. Only the Sinfonie sérieuse was performed during the composer's lifetime, to merciless reviews. Of the others, the Sinfonie naíve was presented ten years after the composer's death, and the rest had to await discovery in the early twentieth century, by which time the composer's unusual style looked “prophetic” and he could be hailed in characteristic romantic fashion as a composer ahead of his time. Berwald had a period of vogue during the 1960s and ’70s, thanks to the dissemination of his works on stereophonic long-playing records. Now, he is routinely described as (to quote the New Grove Dictionary) “the leading Scandinavian composer of the early 19th century,” but if so, he was a leader wholly without followers. At various times during his life he was forced to give up music altogether and seek his living as, among other things, a factory manager and an orthopedic surgeon. Indeed, like Borodin, Berwald was far better known for his medical accomplishments than for his musical ones. Likewise, the obvious biographical parallels linking Berwald with Charles Ives (1874–1954), the American insurance executive and Sunday composer with an eccentric (and similarly “prophetic”) style whose reputation also boomed in the heyday of classical recording, no doubt contributed to the flurry of interest. But neither Berwald nor Bull nor Gade could serve as a musical embodiment of his nation in the eyes of the world.

The first to play this role was Edvard Grieg (1843–1907), a Norwegian composer who, like Chopin and Dvořák before him, represented, until two years before his death, a nation that was not a state. That made him a heroic nationalist in European eyes, to recall Schumann's remark (quoted in chapter 7) that Chopin's nationalism, being a nationalism “in deep mourning,…attracts us all the more firmly.” Grieg's paternal lineage was actually Scottish (his father being the British consul at Bergen, Norway, the composer's birthplace; the original form of the name was Greig), and his mother was a well-known local concert pianist who had studied at the Hamburg Conservatory. A piano prodigy himself, Grieg was shipped off to the Leipzig Conservatory in 1858, when he was fifteen years old. One of his teachers there, Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel (1808–1880), had been a close friend of Schumann's, and ever after, according to Grieg's own much later avowal, he “remained in style and form a German romanticist of the Schumann school,” all the more fervently after hearing Clara Schumann perform her husband's Piano Concerto in A Minor at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert.65

National Monuments

ex. 14-28a Grieg, Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16, I (Allegro molto moderato), mm. 2–4 (piano only)

National Monuments

ex. 14-28b Grieg, Piano Concerto in A Minor, I, mm. 37–38 (piano only)

National Monuments

ex. 14-28c Grieg, “Solvejg's Song” (incidental music to Peer Gynt, op. 23, no. 19)

Grieg's breakthrough composition was his own Piano Concerto in A Minor (1868), which announces its fealty to Schumann's not only in the choice of key but in the opening gesture as well, a descending flourish on the keyboard that leads to a first theme, in which the orchestra and soloist interact similarly. However indebted the rhetoric to Schumann, the Concerto's thematic material is inflected, conspicuously enough for international audiences to discern them, by turns of phrase appropriated from folklore. (See Ex. 14-28, in which a couple of passages from the Concerto, including the opening flourish, are juxtaposed with “Solvejg's Song” from Grieg's incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's famous play Peer Gynt, composed several years later and nearly as popular as the Concerto as a concert staple.) That combination, of familiar “style and form” and exotic color, was a winner for Grieg, and his concerto has been a mainstay of the virtuoso repertoire since the early 1870s, when it was performed in Germany and England and published by the Leipzig house of Peters. Henceforth, Grieg was the Norwegian composer in the eyes of Europe and America; and, as always, it was reception, not immanent content or character—consumption, not production—that proved decisive in making him so. He was not the only Leipzig-trained Norwegian composer of his generation: there was also Johan Svendsen (1840–1911), a composer of reputable symphonies and concertos. Nor was he the composer of his generation most profoundly steeped in Norwegian lore: that would be the unfortunately short-lived, Berlin-trained Rikard Nordraak (1842–1866), who served as an early mentor to Grieg. But Grieg was the one who got to break through.

Except for a set of three Symphonic Dances (1898), the concerto is Grieg's only multi-movement work for orchestra. (Virtually all his other orchestral music is adapted from theatrical scores or arranged from piano pieces.) He was by preference a miniaturist, most prolific as a composer of songs (often written for his wife, Nina, a concert soprano) and Characterstücke for piano (he called them Lyriske stykker [Lyric Pieces]), of which he published ten books, comprising sixty-six individual items, between 1867 and 1901. These pieces, as well as the more or less obligatory Norwegian Dances for piano duet (following the ineluctable examples of Brahms and Dvořák), made Grieg very much a household composer—an artist, as he put it of himself, who wanted “to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home” rather than Beethovenian “temples and cathedrals.”66 Though modest, Grieg's Lyric Pieces attracted wide international attention by virtue of their originality. What foreign musicians found most interesting in them was less their folkloristic content than their piquant and ingenious harmonizations—“my dream world,” as Grieg once put it, only indirectly related, if at all, to the external reality of national style. One especially apt example, because it conjures up an actual domestic scene, is “Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen” (Wedding Day at Troldhaugen), the concluding item in the sixth book of Lyric Pieces, op. 65 (1896). A jaunty march with a wistful mid-section, it is a souvenir of the composer's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration, held at his home, Troldhaugen (Troll Hill), in Bergen, Norway, the town where he was born. Now the burial site of Edvard and Nina Grieg, it is maintained by the Norwegian government as a museum (Ex. 14-29).

National Monuments

ex. 14-29 Grieg, “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,” op. 65, no. 6, mm. 1–8

Grieg's harmonic explorations set provocative examples—contradictory examples, perhaps—to younger British and French composers. To Percy Grainger (1882–1961), an English pianist and composer of Australian birth and eventual American citizenship, they presented the possibility of a pure Nordic idiom, untainted by Romance influences. Grainger, who made pilgrimages to Grieg and went on walking tours with him, and who championed Grieg's concerto, was so fanatical about this anti-Latinate project that he excluded from his own scores not only the traditional Italian musical vocabulary but any English word of Latinate etymology as well. For him, molto crescendo had to be “louden lots,” a movement of a symphony or a sonata was an “art-sunderment,” and an orchestra was a “big-blent-band.” The epitome of this crackpot “Blue-Eyed English” (Grainger's own regrettable term for it) came in a sketch for a composition to be known as Random Round, a “join-in-when-you-like Round for a few voices & tone-tools [instruments] tone-backgrounded [accompanied] by a gut-strung guitar…tone-wrought around 1912–1914.” In a footnote, Grainger stipulated that “if many part-take in the Round it may be well to tame-lightning-ly sound-boost the gut-strung guitar.” He meant it could be electrically amplified.67

By contrast, Frederick Delius (1862–1934), another British composer, who met and was befriended by Grieg in 1888 but who by 1897 was living permanently in France, teased Ravel, Vaughan Williams's eventual mentor, by insisting that modern French music descended not from Rameau, Couperin, and Lully, the masters of the grand siècle (as Ravel had been conventionally claiming), but was “simply Grieg, plus the third act of Tristan.”68 Ravel assented (“Yes, we are always unjust to Grieg”) and added on his own that the String Quartet in G Minor (1894) by Claude Debussy, the most highly touted French composer of his generation, was as heavily influenced by Grieg's quartet in the same key (1878) as Grieg's Piano Concerto had been by Schumann's.

Whether Grieg's true significance as a musician is fairly or fully accounted for by characterizing him as a nationalist depends, as always, on the vantage point from which the characterization is made. For Norwegians there has never been a question. In 1874 the local government awarded Grieg a life annuity to guarantee his freedom to compose and thus enhance his nation's musical standing, and ever since he has been as crucial to his country's musical self-esteem as Elgar once was for the English (minus the contention that has always swirled at home around Elgar and his rivals). There have been occasional challenges to Grieg's status within Norway—for example, from Harald Saeverud (1897–1992), who composed his own incidental music to Peer Gynt as a “correction” to Grieg's. But no other Norwegian composer has ever made an international reputation to rival his or been nearly as influential on composers outside Norway. Those two factors are of course mutually implicated; they are what make a composer not only national but also exemplary. The final say as to which composer is the greatest nationalist, as we have had ample opportunity to observe, rests as much with audiences abroad and their critical spokespersons as it does with the composer's compatriots. And to compound the irony, such a reputation, once achieved, will likely stand as a barrier to the composer's compatriots for reasons having to do with what is often designated in American politics as “tokenism.” Once a minority has gained representation in the “mainstream” (or, in music, the “canon”) by virtue of a single, exceptionally successful member, its continued marginalization is considered redeemed and justified. Grieg's status as the Norwegian composer has not been without invidious consequences.

Even more has this been true of Jean ( Johan) Sibelius (1865–1957), the Finnish composer, who made a far more copious contribution than Grieg to the standard performing repertoire, at least in certain countries. His ten symphonic poems, composed between 1892 (En Saga) and 1926 (Tapiola), and, even more decisively, his seven symphonies, composed between 1899 and 1924, gained him widespread recognition at home, in the rest of Scandinavia, and in the English-speaking countries (though significantly less so in Germany and hardly at all in the Romance-speaking world) as the greatest symphonist after Brahms. His reputation has endured vicissitudes and challenges (especially since the 1960s, when Gustav Mahler began to emerge as a repertory composer), and Sibelius has never been without contentious detractors, but the long controversy is in itself testimony to Sibelius's potency.

His early fame was most conventionally that of a nationalist. Until 1917, Finland was a grand duchy within the Russian empire, and the early tone poems—especially the cycle Four Legends from the Kalevala (op. 22; 1893–1895), on subjects drawn from the Finnish national epic, and Finlandia (originally Finland Awakes, op. 26; 1899, rev.1900), a noisy festivity culminating in a cantabile hymn that, like Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance and Holst's “Jupiter,” has been given words and joined the oral tradition—could be variously read as celebratory or seditious. The Russian authorities cooperated in canonizing Finlandia by banning it. Before 1917 it was usually performed in Finland and Russia under the neutral title Impromptu, but the evidently intentional similarity between Sibelius's anthem tune and an existing patriotic song by a local composer named Emil Genetz, bearing the title Herää, Suomi! (Finland, Awake!), made the political message plain enough to Finnish ears.

Sibelius's first two symphonies (1899, 1902) were large, impressive compositions in the tradition of Chaikovsky. The kinship with the Russian composer is particularly apparent in the flamboyant polonaise finale of the Second; Sibelius's Violin Concerto, composed in 1903–1904, also sports a polonaise finale. Over the next few years, however, Sibelius's music took an unexpectedly ascetic turn. The symphonies beginning with the Third (1907) became increasingly tight-lipped and compressed—shorter, highly concentrated, motivically saturated, and antirhetorical. Although he was still capable of grand statements (like the finale of the Fifth Symphony), Sibelius's preferred manner was at times downright anticlimactic (the end of the Fourth). His new works were often accompanied by polemical statements of disaffection from the modern musical world and its distractions. To Mahler's enthusiastic claim that a symphony must be an all-embracing statement (“Like the world!”), Sibelius countered in 1907 (shortly after completing the Third) that, on the contrary, what counted most in a symphony was “severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.”69 Four years later, on completing the Fourth, he wrote to Rosa Newmarch, an English admirer, that it “stands as a protest against present-day music, having nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it.”70 Indeed, it was a cryptic, even gnomic utterance, seething with stark tritones, augmented seconds, and diminished fourths from start to finish (Ex. 14-30). The Sixth Symphony (1923) was, he said, “pure spring water” in contrast to the “cocktails of various hues” served up by younger composers. 71Finally, in the Seventh Symphony, Sibelius reached what was for him the limit of compression—a twenty-minute single movement of highly complex but tautly unified content whose actual form has been for generations of analysts and commentators an enduring riddle.

National Monuments

ex. 14-30 Sibelius, Symphony no. 4, op. 39: I, beginning and end; II, mm. 29–34, 263–67; III, end; IV 22 mm. after letter I

Sibelius lived another thirty-three years after completing the Seventh—to the age of ninety-one, an amazing span considering his lifelong abuse of alcohol and tobacco. But there were no more symphonies, and, after the last symphonic poem in 1926, no more major works at all. (After his death his widow revealed that he had burned the nearly completed, eagerly anticipated Eighth Symphony in a slough of despondency around 1943.) The sphinx-like silence seemed like the outcome of an inexorable trajectory. Sibelius now loomed not merely as a Finnish national monument but as the very embodiment of the North—harsh, frosty, inscrutable, chastening. His authority, especially in the 1920s and ‘30s, was enormous. His birthday was a national holiday. On the occasion of his seventieth, in 1935 (several years after he had fallen silent as a composer), he was feted at a banquet to which all the past presidents of Finland were invited, along with the prime ministers of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. There was hardly a composer of symphonies during this time, especially in Britain and America, who was not profoundly—and often openly, even reverently—beholden to his example. The First Symphony (1931–1935) by the English composer William Walton (1902–1983), could easily have passed for Sibelius's Eighth.

Having been touted by the Nazis during World War II as a result of his country's alliance with Germany (motivated by a well-grounded fear of Soviet Russia, which had waged a war of aggression against Finland from 1939 to 1940), Sibelius fell into a trough of disdain for a couple of decades, written off as a reactionary during a time of avant-garde ascendency, and only regained full respectability in the 1970s. It took that temporary eclipse in Sibelius's fortunes to allow the work of other Scandinavian symphonists—particularly the Dane Carl Nielsen (1865–1931), who wrote six remarkable symphonies between 1891 and 1925, to emerge from out of his shadow, into the international performing repertory. And after Nielsen's output had been assimilated, the work of two younger Scandinavians—the Swede Alan Petterson (1911–1980), who produced seventeen symphonies between 1950 and 1980, and another Dane, Vagn Holmboe (1909–1996), who logged thirteen between 1935 and 1994, attracted wider attention, again largely through the medium of recordings. With the death of Holmboe, and, the next year, that of Robert Simpson (1921–1997), a Briton who had composed eleven symphonies, the traditional numbered symphony seems to have become a thing of the past—along, perhaps with the notion of national, or regional, schools.

These vagaries of reception prompted Aaron Copland (1900–1990), an American composer who was also very much a “nationalist” by reputation, to observe ruefully, if condescendingly, in a book first published in 1960,

It takes a long time for a small country to get over a great man—witness Finland and Sibelius. Norway has taken fifty years to get over Grieg, and it looks as if Denmark would need as long a time to get beyond Carl Nielsen. If I were any of these men, it would not make me happy to know that my own work engendered sterility in my progeny.72

But Copland seems to have grasped the wrong end of the stick. The sterility he deplored seems rather to have been an illusion created by distance from the scene. There was never a dearth of talent or creative energy in the countries to which he refers. (Names? Halfdan Kjerulf, Johan Peter Selmer, Agathe Grøndahl, Christian Sinding in Norway; Oskar Merikanto, Armas Järnefelt, Selim Palmgren, Leevi Madetoja, Yrjö Kilpinen in Finland; Victor Bendix, Peter Erasmus Lange-Müller, Peter Heise, Johan Peter Hartmann in Denmark; plus, in Sweden, Bernhard Henrik Crusell, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Hugo Alfvén, and Wilhelm Stenhammar among others, in addition to those already mentioned.) It was the wider world, Copland's world and ours, that found it hard, owing to the historiographical assumptions of mainstream versus periphery and the persistence of tokenism, to let go of the great men.


(48) Carl Engel, An Introduction to the Study of National Music: Comprising Researches into Popular Songs, Traditions, and Customs (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1866), 1, 3, 173, 199, 313–314.

(49) Heinrich Heine, Pariser Berichte 1840–1848 (Berlin: Akademie; Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 1979): 29 July 1840; Georg Weerth, “England, eine Reise ins Innere des Landes,” in Skizzen aus dem sozialen und politischen Leben der Briten (Potsdam: Rütten and Loening, 1954), 63.

(50) Oscar A. H. Schmitz, Das Land ohne Musik: Englische Gesellschaftsprobleme (3d ed., Munich: Georg Müller, 1914), 30. Italics original.

(51) Information kindly provided by Byron Adams.

(52) Quoted in Julian Rushton, Elgar: “Enigma” Variations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 65.

(53) Craig R. Whitney, “A New Answer to Elgar's ‘Enigma,”’ New York Times, November 7, 1991; Clive McClelland, “Shadows of the Evening: New Light on Elgar's ‘Dark Saying,”’ The Musical Times 148 (2007), 49–62.

(54) Gustav Holst, “England and Her Music,” in Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, Heirs and Rebels: Letters Written to Each Other and Occasional Writings on Music, ed. Ursula Vaughan Williams and Imogen Holst (London: Oxford University Press, 1959),50; quoted in Rushton, Elgar: “Enigma” Variations, 1.

(55) Michael Kennedy, Elgar Orchestral Music, BBC Music Guides 18 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971), 22.

(56) Hugh Wood, “Serenade in B,” Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 2008, 3.

(57) Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 3d ed., ed. H. C. Colles, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 149, 156.

(58) Jerrold Northrop Moore, Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 547

(59) Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., ed. Eric Blom, vol. 2 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1954), 920.

(60) Quoted in Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling, The English Musical Renaissance 1840–1940: Constructing a National Music, 2d ed.(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 170.

(61) Meirion Harries and Susie Harries, A Pligrim Soul: The Life and Work of Elisabeth Lutyens (London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1989), 53.

(62) “Should Music Be National?” in Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 11 (originally delivered as a lecture at Bryn Mawr College in 1932 and first published in 1934).

(63) Ibid., 10.

(64) See Suzanne Aspden, “‘Fam'd Handel breathing, tho’ transformed to stone’: The Composer as Monument,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 55 (2002): 39–90.

(65) Quoted in Henry Edward Krehbiel, The Pianoforte and Its Music: With Portraits and Illustrations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911), 239.

(66) Ibid.

(67) My thanks to Daniel Paget and David Josephson for help in tracking down this text.

(68) Lionel Carley, Delius: The Paris Years (Zion, IL: Triad Press, 1975), 56.

(69) Quoted in Karl Ekman, Jean Sibelius: His Life and Personality, trans. Edward Birse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938), 191.

(70) Letter of 2 May 1911; quoted in Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius, trans. Robert Layton, Vol. 2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 172.

(71) James Hepokoski, “Sibelius,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2d ed., ed. Stanley Sadie, vol. 28 (London: Macmillan, 2001), 336.

(72) Aaron Copland, Copland on Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), 138.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Jan. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Jan. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014009.xml