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Blog » Cultural identity

14 Feb  

Friday night I went to a concert at the Bishopsgate Institute, that odd little tucked away venue in the heart of the City. The concert was Czech piano music played by William Howard and included some preludes and fugues by Pavel Zemek Novak, part of a huge piano work over an hour and a half long that William Howard has championed here.

There was a pre concert talk with David Matthews, an old pal of mine, and it was remembering his enthusiasm for Novak’s music that attracted me to the concert. Novak is very interesting, despite his very sober and rather shy appearance: he has a preoccupation with unison writing, and an interest in trying to erase dissonance both horizontally and vertically – he tried not to have the ‘melodic’ line travel in seconds or sevenths even.

The music is not without tension though, but has an unusual freshness and energy all of its own. Intriguing was the word that came into my mind. In the pre-concert talk I asked Novak what the music world in Czechoslovakia had been like after the war, given that so many musicians had died in Terezin or had fled the country. Did the composers that were left look back, or did they try and create something entirely new? Novak spoke very sympathetically (and with a lot of emotion) about two composers, Miloslav Ištvan, and Miloslav Kabelác  who were subject to virtual house arrest by the Communists after the war, and not allowed to travel, nor have many performances.

I think I wasn’t alone in feeling a bit shame-faced that I hadn’t heard of them, or heard their music. He spoke with passion also about the different sorts of folk music in Czechoslovakia, and about national feeling. Afterwards I thought how different it is to live in a country that was not invaded, and how it has allowed us to be incredibly complacent about our own cultural identity. Can you imagine anyone ever asking me in a pre-concert talk about national identity? - I always feel that if I have used British folk music I have to be a bit apologetic, or risk looking either very conventional or worse, fascistic.

I wonder how we would feel about 20th century composers like say Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten, Tippett, or Malcolm Arnold, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy et al if they had been carted off to death camps, or forced to leave everything behind and flee? The last time British composers came under any real threat was the Reformation, and their music has come to represent a kind of essential Englishness, and along with choral evensong it encodes an extraordinary national identity.

The other day some dimwit in a major newspaper talked about how few great composers Britain has produced, and was the usually disparaging idiot about contemporary music.  When I was a student it was absolutely forbidden to like the sort of music known as ‘cow pat music,’ (a term coined by Liz Lutyens!) as if national identity was something to be utterly despised.

Then as now to some extent, professors in music colleges prefer a European model to a native one. We have no experience of what it would be like to lose our cultural exponents in the way most European countries have, and have become unbelievably careless with our own culture. Maybe one day it will all be taken away from us, and then we will talk, with tears in our eyes, like Novak, of the treasures we had and lost.

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judithbingham's C:T Profile:  judithbingham


 PaulBarker commenting on Cultural identity:
14 February 2010 at 14:50

Thanks Judith. I found this quite moving and insightful. You are suggesting perhaps that a kind of enforced enfeeblement or at least censorship of national identity took place in England after WW2 when classical music was force-fed proscriptively in a certain direction (by the BBC & others?), and that this experience does not match the grass-roots beliefs held on to by the survivors of incarceration or murder by fascism. The tragedy is perhaps that any sense of English cultural identity that has been lost, rather than any politically motivated national identity.

 judithbingham commenting on Cultural identity:
14 February 2010 at 17:10

I know that my views on this are quite complex and hard to blogify. I do think that as victors, we didn't have to think about what we gambled with, nor - although this is another issue - what we had done to others.I find it hard to begin to imagine what it would be like losing my friends and colleagues and living in terror. The victorious nation is propelled forwards both by its heady triumph and relief, but also by a strong urge not to look back, in case it has to take any responsibility for what it did. There seemed to be, by my childhood, a strong aversion to nostalgia, a feeling that everything had to be new. Any blame or self-reproach was well and truly repressed.I told you this was hard to blogify!

 Nicolas Tzortzis commenting on Cultural identity:
15 February 2010 at 00:01

I find a bit wrong to limit "national identity" down only to folk music elements.There is far more to being British,French,Italian,Greek etc, than some folk tunes,ie some very superficial and too easily recognizable "national" elements.
I do believe that one shouldn't be trying to hide where he is from in his music,since where you're from is,partially,who you are.But the thing,for me,is,to try and go deeper into that,not just stay at the surface.
what does being British mean to you?is it just a melody?or is it a way of thinking about life,the world,politics etc?
I think that if one answers this question to oneself,then the problem is on its way to being solved.

 MartinY commenting on Cultural identity:
15 February 2010 at 16:43

If it is forbidden but legal I must think about doing it. Even worse than going out and buying the complete Vaughan Williams Symphonies I am trying to get a copy of Rutland Boughton's The Immortal Hour to reinforce my cultural identity!

Not a joke at all. In the stable democracies we have nothing to fear from the Gestapo or the KGB, but there are still the authenticity police in early music, (he is no good he plays with nails), and the everything not sufficently contempory is useless police. A lot of British folk music is actually the music from my chidhood. We were still taught from songbooks which had contributions from Cecil Sharpe and Lucy Broadwood in the 1960s, though I do not remember any of Percy Grainger's collections. They were probably not thought suitable for children because some are quite violent.

 judithbingham commenting on Cultural identity:
15 February 2010 at 17:33

I didn't mean to concentrate totally on folk music, though I am a fan, especially of Irish music which has really evolved. But Pavel Novak was able to talk of minute differences between folk music of different regions in Czechoslovakia without self-consciousness and while still thinking of himself as truly contemporary if not avant garde. We are totally squeamish about it - even you Martin, prefaced your remarks with a joke (probably!) about Rutland Boughton. Strangely, these were the generation who were at war. If R. Boughton had been an Austrian Jew, he might have died in a camp and now be part of the whole entartete musik phenomenon. How strange that sounds! We can't imagine it. And it is only the Classic FM population who are comfortable with revering RVW et al, and yet we should be proud, and reverential just as we are about Ravel or Messaien.

 judithbingham commenting on Cultural identity:
15 February 2010 at 17:34

And I have to add that I am myself very uncomfortable indeed with writing this!

 Jim Aitchison commenting on Cultural identity:
18 February 2010 at 23:10

These are wonderful words Judith, and I'm so glad you've overcome your discomfort (!) to write such important things. 2 thoughts: not disagreeing with your points in any way, would Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten, Tippett, or Malcolm Arnold, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy et al have produced the same music in the context you describe (i.e. themselves living directly under such oppression) - just a speculation. And, what you allude to re our possibly tragically complacent enjoyment of musical despotism at the expense of so many voices in British music has strong echoes for me of the situation around Rochberg in the 70's. How I love those fiercely rebarbative words: “All human gestures are available to all human beings at any time.”

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