Musical Borders

A reflection on identity, in music and politics.

Colton Map of Europe, 1855.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder’s postmodern novel about the history of philosophy, the young heroine Sophie is in a woodland cabin with her mentor Alberto, when a thunderous series of knocks is heard at the door. The visitor, unexpectedly, is Alice in Wonderland. ‘I am to give Sophie these little philosophy bottles,’ Alice explains. She hands them to Sophie and runs off into the woods.

One bottle is red, one blue. Both are labelled DRINK ME. With Alberto’s encouragement, Sophie sips from the red bottle. Her surroundings seem to change. ‘It felt as if the lake and the woods and the cabin all merged into one […] everything she saw was one person, and that person was Sophie herself.’

When Sophie drinks from the blue bottle, an entirely different transformation occurs. The surroundings fracture into infinite, dizzying variety. ‘The tiniest twig was like a fairy-tale world about which a thousand stories could be told.’ Alberto explains that the bottles reflect the pantheistic Idealism of the Romantics (red) and the Individualism of the philosopher Kierkegaard (blue). Kierkegaard disagreed with the Romantics, but neither his view or theirs is a strictly correct way to see the world.

This lesson cuts to the heart of a basic question of perception: how much do we see unity, how much uniqueness? It was an issue that briefly surfaced in the panel discussion of February’s Music Into Words event. There was a suggestion from the audience that genres like ‘classical’ were of limited use. Can’t we just talk about music?

I have always found this argument odd. Most of us enjoy music of many genres. But that does not mean that genre traditions are not meaningfully distinctive. All music has something to tell us about the people and the culture that made it.

The idea of ‘just music’ also conveniently ignores the messy business of politics: in an unequal world, musics are not created equal. Whether we like it or not, classical music has a a long history of establishment support and aristocratic patronage. In popular culture it is frequently used as code for refinement, class privilege, and prestige – and however unfairly limiting these associations might be, neither are they accidental.

I can certainly understand a desire to rid ourselves of this baggage – but baggage is part of inheritance. Rather than aspiring to eliminate genres, we could develop a better understanding of where they’ve come from, and what they tell us about where we are today.

Frances Stonor Saunders, in her insightful and moving essay Where on Earth are you? writes about borders both mental and physical:

All borders […] are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are; and we cross them in search of who we might become.

To fortify our sense of who we are. On the whole, the traditions of Western classical music are distinctive enough that what it is seems to be pretty well understood. And when musicians experiment across genres, that they are doing so also seems fairly well understood – with music as with geography, borders do not have to mean barricades.

However, for some classical artists who adopt approaches from more popular cultural forms, and in doing so achieve wide popularity, you can see battle lines of identity being drawn. The contempt it is common to hear reserved for figures like Ludovico Einaudi or André Rieu – as representing music supposedly too simplistic, vulgar, commodified – claims the opposite values as part of a supposedly authentic classical music. If Einaudi and Reiu were straightforward pop acts, distancing oneself would not be necessary – they disturb precisely because they occupy a kind of musical ‘uncanny valley’, an uncomfortable proximity. We use borders to mark differences; we use them to obscure similarities.

Thankfully, not everyone is so dismissive. But while some forms of identity are loudly declared, others hide in plain sight. Why is the classical repertoire so dominated by the works of dead white men? There may be many historic factors, but we do not learn about dead white men in music lessons, we learn of ‘great composers’, ‘masterpieces’. We are left to suppose the repertoire is defined by merit, even though the idea of such a purely meritocratic outcome is laughable. Yet this narrative can become so deeply ingrained that when a different story is told it often genuinely upsets people, even (or perhaps especially) when it is illustrated by the most damning of figures.

Can't we just pretend that gender doesn't matter?
Can’t we just pretend that gender doesn’t matter?

But since I’m on the subject of borders, I want to think about what it means that Western classical music, even as it has spread around the world, is European in origin. Particularly at this time when the borders of Europe are such a fraught political issue.

Britain will soon vote on whether to remain a member of the European Union – a project built on redefining the meaning of borders – or whether to pull back to its island shores. At the same time, the enormous humanitarian crisis at Europe’s edges has created tensions around borders on a much bigger scale.

The EU’s mission of a united Europe has echoes in its official anthem – Herbert von Karajan’s arrangement of the prelude to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from the ninth symphony. If classical music is code for prestige, big choral-orchestral works signify might and glory (even UEFA, the European football body, use a pastiche of Handel’s Zadok The Priest for the Champions League Anthem). But Beethoven’s Ode is a glory of brotherhood rather than battle, and in pushing the boundaries of symphonic form it represents the spirit of progress, of building something bigger than before. It is also, of course, so familiar and renowned as to be iconic of classical music as a whole. And while Karajan’s arrangement is instrumental, the unifying sentiments of Schiller’s words inevitably hang about it in the air:

Your magics join again,
What custom strictly divided,
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

A world away from the halls of Brussels and Strasbourg, these words surely ring hollow at the recent sight of EU member states erecting fences and bolstering border controls. As we witness news reports of crowded boats sinking in the Mediterranean, Schiller’s ecstatic peroration – ‘Be embraced, you millions! / This kiss is for the whole world!’ – strikes a particularly sad dissonance against the calculating prose of contemporary politics.

And yet, despite the undeniable fear of mass immigration and far-right sentiment rising in many parts of Europe, there is plenty of compassion too. The classical music world has responded with charity concerts in aid of refugees. In March, Berlin saw a ‘welcome concert for refugees and helpers’, featuring three conductors and three orchestras. This was no doubt a worthwhile endeavour, but the music was predictably unambitious: Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev. What about the opportunity to start a cross-border dialogue with the music itself?

Back in November, Nicolas Nebout conducted a London concert to raise money for the UNICEF Syrian Children’s Appeal, with a programme including Pheonix in Exile, a work by contemporary Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali. This piece deals directly with the theme of the humanitarian crisis, and combines Middle-Eastern modes with Western classical forms and harmony. The programme note makes clear how Jandali uses the idea of the Pheonix, represented by oboe and violin solos, as a metaphor for the flight of refugees of Syria, as well as his hope for the eventual rebirth of the nation:

The Syrian people, like the Phoenix, will rise from the ruins and rebuild their homeland in a manner even more magnificent than it used to be.

Here it is worth reflecting on how relatively rarely we in the West seem to hear classical music from the non-West. It is not for a lack of it – plenty of music has been written for classical ensembles from countries as varied as Japan, Lebanon, Brazil. Much, like that of Jandali, incorporates non-Western musical elements.

We might conclude, then, that the well-worn maxim of music as a ‘universal language’ is too idealistic. My view is that all music can at some level be universally understood, but it will resonate differently with those who have an existing relationship with the traditions it has grown out of. It was on this point that last year, in Parochialism Is Universal, that I explained how music played a positive role in enriching my understanding of where I live – in my case works by British composers. But there is an important caveat: being interested in what is around you (literally ‘of the parish’) doesn’t mean being closed off to outside influences. In fact I would argue that to really understand where you are, that perspective is necessary.

Similarly, on a European level, it would surely be self-flattering to imagine that Bach and Beethoven speak to eternal human values, that they have transcended their European-ness, even their German-ness. If we know classical music can represent prestige, there is a danger of prestige becoming cultural triumphalism. This idea surfaces in Lucy Cheung’s recent article about an Orientalist attitude in the classical music world. She notes that conductor Daniel Barenboim has made several patronising comments about Asian and African countries he had visited to perform music. It is especially ironic given his friendship with the late Edward Said, leading critic of Western Orientalism.

Such comments should remind us that we can overlay the history of classical music remarkably well with the history of European Imperialism, from the Conquistadors of the late Renaissance to the breakdown of tonality at the time of the ‘Scramble For Africa’, which ended with European powers ruling an astonishing 90% of the continent. For many Europeans, it is our awkward inheritance that our history is also the history of peoples in distant parts of the world – their borders in many cases are our borders, the scars of European violence. These legacies still inform patterns of economic power and migration today, so how much we chose to remember matters. I cannot help but think, listening to the angry rhetoric about ‘taking back control of our borders’, that perhaps deep down rests an uneasy realisation – that the relative peace and prosperity we enjoy is not ours to fence off by any inherent moral right.

With all this in mind, we try to imagine what a classical music suited to the twenty-first century might look like, if it were designed anew. It could take on a leading role in navigating the bustling, multi-perspective world we find ourselves in. It could honour its many European roots, but do more to investigate the way those traditions have been adopted, and adapted, by other cultures. It could spend less time lounging in the historic squares of Vienna and Paris, and more exploring the confusing alleyways of the modern global megacity.

It could also spend more time exploring artistic borderlands. I was fortunate to attend a recent concert at Brighton Pavilion to mark the centenary of events, during World War One, when that pseudo-oriental pleasure palace became a makeshift hospital to injured Indian soldiers who were fighting for Britain. The concert featured English orchestral music by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, both of whom served in that war (the latter fatally), and who were defining a new musical identity drawing on British folksong. Interspersed between these works was The Seasons of India, traditional Indian music scored with orchestral accompaniment by Kala Ramnath. Two different musical cultures were celebrated together as equals.

The Indian soldiers at the Pavilion were caught up in a catastrophic battle of colonial powers they had done nothing to start. We sat in the exact space they had lain hospitalised, and heard readings from letters they had sent home, of their adjustments to being in a strange land, of warning relatives not to enlist. These touching details invited us to consider the memories of places that would have come together under Brighton Dome, to make connections radiating out across the South Downs, past the villages where Vaughan Williams collected folksongs, to the battlefields of the Western Front, to distant British India.

A light show at Brighton Pavilion marks the ‘Dr. Blighty’ centenary celebrations, Brighton Festival 2016. Photo by David B Young, shared under Creative Commons License.

That concert, like the UNICEF fundraiser, was an example of how imaginative programming can illuminate shared history, while acknowledging the painful experiences so often bound up in it. Schiller’s vision that ‘all people become brothers’ is a noble sentiment, but has little precedence to offer us. The poet himself seemed to realise this later in life, describing in a letter to a friend how the Ode was ‘detached from reality’. Whether that is a bad omen for the future of the EU, we will have to wait and see.

Nonetheless, for all its flaws as an institution, I will be voting for Britain to remain a member of the Union. Perhaps I am something of a romantic idealist, but my instincts tell me that, for all our differences, progress more likely lies in partnership and collaboration. I cherish the idea that people can go abroad in search of a better life, whether they be EU citizens or Syrian refugees. But like Sophie, I think we need to drink from both bottles. In music as with politics, our distinctive histories are important to understand, even as we try to remember that they don’t have to define our future. Borders, as Saunders reminds us, are what we cross in search of who we might become.