Classical music’s ugly nationalism

“Music is known as the international language, not a national language limited to any one country.”

Hola a todos. Much of the classical music audience, the classical music armchair critics and music reviewers are a weird-strange bunch. As a Conservatory-trained musician, I’ve never related that well to them and even avoid them, in part, because they seem so outdated in much of their thinking. That of WWII with a Cold War mentality and language from that era. They never fail to outdo themselves when it comes to nationalism in classical music. They learn this nationalism crap from others and mindlessly regurgitate it on cue to try to come off as musically-educated, learned, or self-appointed authorities. Instead, they often come off as pretentious classical music ignoramuses void of any thought processes of their own, merely repeating what they’ve heard someone else say, without question. With few exceptions, their respect for the Symphony Chorus doesn’t exist. The Chorus is seen as “it’s just the Chorus” — do they also think “it’s just the Orchestra?” — as if the choristers are not really trained musicians. As if the Symphony Chorus is like your average Church Choir. Often these people can’t hear the difference between the two because their ear has not been chorally trained so they don’t know what to listen for.

Since everyone is a citizen of the planet Earth, why can’t it be left at that? And if some nuts generations ago hadn’t decided to rope off plots of land and call them countries, we wouldn’t even be talking about this. No one has a choice in which country they are born in. And with the finest musicians, so many things make up a stellar musician, such as talent, skill level, training (which in many cases is outside of the country one was born in), ambition, money for their training and other factors. Where the musician/composer/artist was born is really quite irrelevant in the big scheme of things.

Of course I’m fully aware of cultural differences between countries and some countries enjoy music and the arts more than others, such as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation that comes to mind. They have their own Chorus called the Nederlands Radio Choir. The Choir is closely connected with the Dutch Public Broadcasting Organisation (Nederlandse Publieke Omroep). By contrast, a network having their own musical ensemble(s) is unheard of in the United States of North America. It doesn’t happen.

Regarding ugly nationalism, in the big scheme of things do we really need for the conservative BBC to tell us, “the Irish pianist [name of pianist] will now play for us…” Why do we need to know that the pianist is Irish? What does that have to do with anything? Absolutely nothing. Instead, announce “Pianist [name] will play [name of piece] for us. S/He trained at ________ and began playing at age ________ and studied with ___________.” That would be much more interesting than the plot of land the pianist was born on.

But many classical music paid critics and the armchair critics are all about nationalism and which country produces the best of this and that. They go so far as to ignorantly say, “Only Russian pianists can play Rachmaninov.” Absolute Rubbish. I’ve heard many pianists internationally and their Rachmaninov was just as good as and in some cases better than any Russian pianist I’ve heard. Pianist Cristina Ortiz comes to mind with her Rachmaninov Third and her performance of some of his Études-Tableaux.

But what brought this ugly nationalism to mind once again was an excellent performance I watched recently of a symphonic choral work. Well, one of the commenters had to engage in nationalism as did a few other people who sucked into him. He wrote:

That is why I love Germany, which has produced the vast majority of composers such as Mendelssohn, Handel, Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Weber, R. Strauss, Bruch, Humperdinck, Schumann, Brams [sic], Offenbach, Gluck, etc. I must have forgotten a few.

His comment reeks of nationalism. Music is known as the international language, not a national language limited to any one country, in this case Deutschland. And one takes great risks when mentioning Wagner considering his beliefs on Hitler. I get the guy’s point about the many Deutsch composers, but there are probably as many English composers who could be listed for performances of Anglican Cathedral Music or the British Choral Tradition. Again, the spot of land on the planet that someone was born in seems irrelevant. It was purely coincidental since the composer had no choice about that. So does it even matter? Nah. With all the things that make the finest musicians, the geographic location on the Earth that the composer was born or lived is really quite irrelevant. Again, it’s ugly nationalism. And for a guy who claims to love Deutschland, you’d think he would call it that and not the English word “Germany” and he’d use the language correctly by putting an umlaut in the appropriate place over Händel ‘s name.

Also, as is so standard with the classical music armchair critics, some have their favourite performance of works of the standard classical repertoire and they love to drop the name of celebrity conductors (dead or alive). And they claim that’s a better performance — or the only performance of the piece that one should be listening to/watching! — than the video they’re commenting under and that performance. For works where the Chorus has the main role, they often completely ignore the Chorus altogether and instead drop the name of the celebrity Orchestra and conductor, once again relegating the Chorus to second-class musicians’ status. As a former chorister with major Orchestra Chorus experience I highly resent that. (My Orchestra Chorus experience: see here, here and here). So with these armchair critics, because they fail to credit the Chorus in the performance they’re gushing about, one has no idea what Chorus performed with the Orchestra — because usually the Orchestra they list does not have its own Symphony Chorus — even though the Chorus was the “soloist” having the main role in the work along with the Orchestra. Of course they don’t fail to mention the celebrity vocal screamers (commonly referred to as “vocal soloists”) who spent most of the piece sitting on their ass. No, they’re quick to mention them and how beautifully they supposedly “sang” — if you enjoy screaming rather than singing beautifully as most of them did not! — to pump themselves up as a self-appointed authority on all matters of classical music.

As for the “professional music critics” they’re not much better. They often spend half the article writing in lofty, “poetic” philosophical drivel about something having to do with the music. IF they mention the Chorus for the performance they do so with a lower case “c” rather than giving the Chorus the respect they deserve with a capital “C.” Lower case “c” is for the choruses in a symphonic choral work. So, for example, the music reviewers will write “Tanglewood Festival Chorus” and then write “the chorus…” (roll eyes). So you don’t know if they are referring to the TFC or one of the choruses in a piece the TFC performed. Whereas the San Francisco Symphony refers to their Symphony Chorus as the Chorus (upper case C denoting respect), when writing about them separately.

And if you happen to be around in 100 years and read this article then, you’ll see that nothing will have changed from the time in 2021 that the article was written. Chau.—el barrio rosa