Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nimrod

Throughout the entire 500-odd songs that I've written up on this blog I have, with one exception to date, been listening to modern popular music, that is, music created any time since 1950 and probably 1960. I'd have to go through the whole list to check but right now, on this freshly-laundered spring afternoon, I'm too blissed out to care.
I've been listening to one single piece - a fragment, almost - of what you'd call classical music for a few days now. I call it "classical" only to differentiate it from "modern", but that word almost has a pejorative ring to it. As if it automatically means "old", "uncool", and tragically undanceable. And this one piece of music has set me off on one hell of a tangent.
How does music go beyond the personal? How can it reach out to encompass a society, a race, a country? How is it that one piece of music can achieve the same results in the ears, minds and hearts of a million people at the same time?
If you were living in the UK in 1990, you may remember how the British television coverage of the football World Cup that year used the aria "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's opera "Turandot" as its theme.

It was stirring stuff, calculated to tap into patriotism, football fan-dom and the excitement of big competition and fold them into one lung-busting blast of .... what? One-ness? A sudden rush of national awareness? What, exactly?
I mean, Turandot was written by an Italian.The opera is set in China. There's nothing inherently British about it. And yet it's become one of the country's favourite pieces of classical music - if it wasn't already, but pre-1990 classical music preference polling data's a bit thin on the ground.
What sort of music, then, could theoretically act as a personal, emotional, intellectual or even social touchstone for an entire nation? Every country has a national anthem, sure, but they tend to be little more than rather tasteless, blood-thirsty 18th century PR for the most part.
For example, do Frenchmen feel uplifted by an anthem whose opening verse includes the lines "Do you hear, in the countryside/The roar of these savage soldiers?/They come right into our arms/To cut the throats of your sons and your wives"? Do Americans feel their hearts stirred by singing about the war their forefathers had to fight to preserve the infant nation? "And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air/Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."
When we sing our national anthems, are we thinking of the entire boxful of virtues, events and achievements that brought our country to where it is today?
I doubt it. To sportsmen and women, who are in the business of representing themselves and/or their country, these anthems do mean something, but to most of the rest of us, our national anthems are a reflex action rather than a conscious, positive commitment.
So maybe then it's time to think again about how music represents us as collective peoples. Each of our countries has its own history, its own cocktail of virtues and vices, those stereotypes that we all cling to in jokes and in prejudices. How should we represent those?
Put it another way: imagine your country has just stepped into the street, but suddenly spies a truck bearing down on it at top speed. In those final few milliseconds before impact, what images would flash through your country's mind? *That's* what an anthem should bring to mind.
So, not wishing to spread myself too thinly and come up with 200-odd anthems, since it would quickly fade into parody and bad taste, I'm going to stick to one. At the same time I'd suggest that anthems shouldn't be sung but played, and that we should all sit or stand in reverential contemplation of the history, of the composition, of the country we call home.
Music used to be so good at "summing up", reaching out in every direction at once to grasp and express myriad elements almost at the same time. Composers of old seemed to have such a wide palette of colours to paint with, while today we seem to need a piece of music to zoom in and focus on a particular thing with microscopic precision. And any country, any society has become too big for words to encapsulate. Let music alone do the job.
So sit back and listen to this piece. Close your eyes, let it take you on your journey, wherever that is. There are hundreds of pieces of music out there that could do the same job of transporting you, setting you alongside your fellow-men and highlighting what it is that brings you together as a society. This is just one of those hundreds of pieces. For me, it fits the bill perfectly. It defines what it means to live where I do, and the attachment I have to the country in which I live. Surely that's all you need when it comes to an anthem.

Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, Op. 36, No. 9 ("Nimrod")

1 comment:

C.J.Duffy said...

It is a fine piece of music full of invigorating melodies and powerful rhythms. We Brits have made some incredible music especially Vaugham Williams.

Classical is and odd term and benefits, as do all such terms, from hindsight. Beethoven is largely credited as taking music from the 'classical' period into the 'romantic.' He didn't do this as a deliberate act. There was no group of people who saw themselves as 'Romantics'. It was case of musical evolution. Such terms can only be applied after the event.

Good post as ever.