The National and the Confessional in Smetana and Dvorak

Is music universal? Maybe, but I have my doubts. Just as there are individual people who have no use for or response to music (consider the  famous cases of Sigmund Freud and Vladimir Nabokov, for instance), I rather suspect that there are probably nations or cultures that have no use for music. Nations of Ullyses Grants (“I know two tunes: one of ‘em’s “Yankee Doodle” and the other one ain’t.”). This mildly amusing Grant anecdote may be apocryphal for all I know, and it may be that a learned anthropologist would tell me that they’ve never encountered an amusical cuture. But this I know: if amusical cultures exist, the Czechs ain’t one of them.

How should we feel about avowedly “national” music? Remember, if you value “patriotism”, for instance, as all the presidential candidates are required to avow every hour, on the hour, you must respect patriotism in nations other than your own. Otherwise it’s not patriotism per se you value, but some kind of hegemony, cultural or political.

A few years ago I had an annoying incident at O’Hare airport, returning from Europe. I think it may have been from France or Germany, but let’s just say it was from Prague. I somehow got in the wrong line for passport control and an exasperated agent called me over to the appropriate line, the one for American citizens. (For better or worse, I’m always immediately recognizable as an American… hmm, maybe it’s due to the loud Hawaiian shirts, the loud voice, and the chic ensemble of plaid shorts with socks and sandals. On the other hand, if I tried to wear a leather jacket and an earring, I would be immediately perceived as an “ugly American” trying to be an “ugly European”)…

Anyway, the agent berated me thusly: “You shouldn’t have to wait in line, you belong here, not like those other people.” And his tone dripped contempt for “those other people”. Maybe he meant to show comraderie with me, or whatnot. But I didn’t like it, it stuck in my craw. Before the death of the dollar I went to Europe quite frequently, and I promise you, I sure wouldn’t want that jackass on the reception committee at the other end.

Which brings us to the case of Smetana, a composer who explicitly stated that he valued the “national” more than the “universal”; this view even caused a rift with a friend. Now, Smetana’s experience abroad, in Sweden primarily, but Germany as well, cemented his narrowly Czech outlook… he had a rough time getting his career going as well as he wanted it to go, he was homesick and estranged from his family. Also, the fate of the Czech lands for much of its history has been to be a victim of Austrian and German control, and of course this pattern continued in the generations after Smetana’s death, with the Soviet Union added to the list of offenders against Czech sovereignty most recently.

So Smetana’s view is understandable, to say the least. But does it limit his appeal? Does knowing that a composer isn’t writing for you cause you any qualms? Do you prefer Beethoven, who is writing for you? In his aspirations Smetana is more Czech than Schubert is Viennese, more Czech than Tchaikovsky is Russian, more Czech than Ives is American. Is this a problem?

No, because music is abstract, and a composer cannot control the intrinsic meaning of an abstraction, only its outward semblance. It’s out of his hands. Case in point, “From Bohemia’s Woods and Valleys” uses a polka as the symbol of nationhood, the people, which is then combined with music representing nature in a mystical epiphany. If Gershwin were to use a fox-trot in “From America’s Woods and Valleys” should polka dancers feel left out? Nietzsche had it right, it’s neither the best nor the worst that is lost in translation. And don’t ever let a Russian tell you that you can’t “really understand” Mussorgsky, or a Norwegian tell you that you can’t “really understand” Grieg. But when it comes to non-Western cultures, I’m mute. I just don’t know enough.

Dvorak was a staunch Catholic as well as a staunch nationalist. His frustration with the publisher Simrock ignoring his pleas to publish his name in the Czech manner, as well as providing Czech texts in his scores is well known. And I’d go so far to say that a fair minded person would be almost obliged to respect the nationalism of a Czech vis a vis. the dominant and foreign German influence and control, politically and culturally, in the Czech lands at the time.

Dvorak’s confessionalism might be more palateable than the nationalism of Smetana for non-Czechs, partly because Dvorak didn’t hesitate to include Hussite themes in for instance, his “The Hussites” overture, although the Hussites were completely opposed to Catholocism. Dvorak thought that the Hussites nevertheless represented important and admirable traits. And confessionalism is often trans-national; Catholocism certainly is. But is confessional exclusivity any better than national exclusivity, especially since typically in the former case those left out are thought to be denied salvation?

Once again, music itself provides an elegant rebuttal to the exclusiveness crowd. Consider the case of William Byrd, or Bach himself, who signed some document condemning the beliefs of the prince of Anhalt-Coethen, and then memorably eulogized him with movements from a (Catholic!) mass setting. Consider the poignant and instructive case of Shostakovich, who wrote thrilling and moving music for the Soviet ideology, that so many people insist on appropriating for very different ideologies! Consider the anti-ecclesiast Verdi in his “Four Sacred Pieces” and Requiem. 

Great composers have often expressed ugly jingoistic credos. But their own works as often as not belie their ideological intentions. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. This applies to Wagner as well, by the way, although you need several strong men to dump out the unusually deep tubs of bathwater.