Musical Nationalism: A Love Note Made of Eighth Notes

In the ideological battlefields we have seen form amongst our communities and households in the last centuries, we can question what really links us to our homes. In midst of crises, one can get the overwhelming urge to run, hide, and eliminate all traces of their past. But our culture keeps us as people linked to where we came from, and can be the integral building blocks to our interactions and choices. That culture can put air into one’s lungs and push them to take another step each day.


But you may be asking: Gauri, culture is amazing! But what does it have to do with music? And to that, my dear friends, I’d answer that the rich culture any of you readers grew up with can be recognizable with characteristic melodies, harmonies, and motifs. And while some cultural music can be identified by instruments - the piri for Korean music, or the sitar for Indian music, for some examples - it goes far beyond that. A culture can create a sound that is distinctive, touching, characteristic to their ideals, called musical nationalism. So wherever you go and whatever you come to be, those distinctive ties to where you came from may reawaken when you hear music that embodies the values of your home.


With July 4th coming up soon, the “American sound” is even more prominent in our festivals and celebrations, with its values embracing the people of America yet again. Composer Aaron Copeland is accredited with the creation of that “American sound”, but what did he do so different than his fellow composers to get his moniker of the “all-American” composer? Experts say Copeland’s music invokes transcendalist values - classically American, and embodying the spirit of exploration and individualism. His brilliant deconstruction and recombination of traditional folk music in new patterns and the implementation of country tunes in ballets paint the image of the American Wild West and frontier in the global consciousness. Especially as the 40s marked a turning point in American culture, Copeland’s influence on the musical world through compositions such as “Appalachian Spring” (1944), “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1942), and “Lincoln Portrait” (1942) was prolonged and critical, embodying both the past and future of America.


In neighboring Mexico, composer Carlos Chávez felt the same distaste Copeland did when examining the foreign influence of Europe on the music of his home. The Revolution of 1910 ushered in a new era in Mexico, one that was centered around finding its true identity and flaunting it. As one of the main leaders of resolving this identity crisis, Chávez immersed himself in Aztec and native Mexican music, finding the voice of those hundreds of years ago, and utilizing them in his compositions. In his Symphony No. 2 (1936), he uses percussion instruments (such as the Grijutan and Tenabari) that are native to the Yaqui, a Native American tribe who have called Northern Mexico home since the 1700s. This music was tied to Mexican values, and reflected to many the vast cultural identity of Mexico.


Across the Atlantic Ocean, Béla Bártok, inspired by the newfound nationalism of Hungary at the turn of the 20th century, searched the corners, nooks, and crannies of the country to find the folk music that documented his country’s history. He and his colleague, Zoltán Kodály, transcribed many a folk tune in order to find the roots of Hungarian culture, and with their dedicated work, they implemented some of the aspects of these melodies in their compositions. Bártok’s work left a prodigious impact on the field of ethnomusicology, effectively transforming Hungarian music and rediscovering the beauty of the Hungarian past.


When we travel far from home, that sickly feeling of longing can pervade everything we do. But when you feel that nostalgia, perhaps a love letter to your roots can be exploring your home’s roots, like these esteemed composers.


Signed, sealed, and delivered,

Gauri Adarsh