The Rambler :: blog

Monday, November 22, 2004

Composition + language = national identity? 

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Hmmm. Of course, a healthy scepticism is required when ever scientists start to deal with music. However, in this case the phenomenon has already been approached by musicologists, and even in one major case by a composer. Janacek, it is well known, wrote many of his vocal lines according to the rhythms of Czech speech. He used to sit in cafes transcribing conversations to give his operas a sense of realism.

But in purely instrumental music, the idea that a composer's spoken language might influence their musical one is commonly found in discussions of Chopin - in particular the mazurkas. Or, more accurately, there is something Polish about the mazurka rhythm, that in turn became an important part of Chopin's musical language (and later Szymanowski's), defining and reinforcing its Polishness - and adding weight to its significance for Poles for the next 150 years.

Polish, unlike English, is a phonetic language. Once you get the hang of how the letters should be pronounced, they are used consistently. No through/enough/cough/hiccough/Slough trickiness in Polish. In addition to this, Polish also has a completely systematic approach to accenting words. The accent always falls on the penultimate syllable. Thus, PendeREcki, and its genitive possessive, PendereckiEgo. Once you figure out these two things, Polish is pretty easy to pronounce - which is good, since the rest of it is dead hard.

As for the mazurka, well this is a dance rhythm written in 3/4 time. But, unlike a waltz, in which the accent falls heavily on the first beat, a mazurka rhythm is accented on the second (ie penultimate) beat. This gives it an unexpected lurch, which fits uneasily with our waltz-trained minds, but which is wholly characteristic of the accent style of Polish speech. Penderecki in west European waltz-time would be pronounced PENderecki, PENderecki; in a mazurka it's pronounced PendeREcki, PendeREcki.

So there may be something in what Dr Patel is saying in the Guardian article above - but let's not forget that music does not exist in a vacuum. Science like this is interesting as far as it goes, but it cannot explain everything - but neither can I. National identity in music is forged in countless different ways - conscious and unconscious, poeitic (composer-side), esthesic (listener-side), and neutral level (the score itself). Chopin sounds Polish undoubtedly in part because of the accenting patterns; but equally to most contemporary Poles he sounds Polish because you can't avoid hearing him everywhere on the streets and in the shops of their hometowns; for their parents and grandparents, Chopin sounds Polish because that is what was played by State-controlled radio whenever live broadcasting was pulled, as it frequenty was in the early 1980s. (One Pole has wryly observed that he dreaded hearing Chopin on the radio, because it meant that something bad was about to happen.) There's a wealth of complex and unmappable interrelations between life, sound, speech and music that go towards making Chopin 'sound Polish' today (for a fuller analysis than this, see "National Anthems: The Case of Chopin as a National Composer" by Zdzislaw Mach, in Ethnicity, Identity and Music: the Musical Construction of Place, ed. Martin Stokes.)

So maybe something in the rhythms and melodic shapes of Elgar makes it sound English - but equally, isn't there something much more complex and revealing about this embedded Englishness at work too? Elgar hated the idea of being co-opted by the nationalist lobby, for example. And will Elgar's music remain equally Engish for all time? If the Englishness is embedded in the score itself, we might say yes (insofar as the speech patterns of British English remain relatively unchanged), but can we be sure?

Update: Here's a copy of the original Patel paper being referred to.

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