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Policing concert hall patriotism: causes

Policing patriotism at the concert hall is a time-honored tradition. One of the latest targets is the Fort Worth Symphony, which has endured public criticism for performing The Star-Spangled Banner regularly before its concerts. One fed-up critic, Scott Cantrell, recently urged all American orchestras to abandon the practice because a concert should “transport” listeners to “another world” away from “narrow nationalism.”

Peddling the existence of an ideal musical world separate from the messiness of the real, political world is the rhetorical weapon of choice for patriotism police.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, a figure perhaps best known for writing the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, was among the first to rail against concert hall patriotism. Music lovers know Hoffmann for his effusive 1810 review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Hoffmann claimed that Beethoven’s symphony has the power to reveal the “wonderful realm of the infinite” to its listeners — precisely the opposite of “narrow nationalism.”

Hoffmann’s thesis is noteworthy because other reviewers did not hear the symphony’s transcendence. Commenting on an 1809 performance in Leipzig, one critic described passages in the generally delicate second movement as “ruggedly military.” It was hardly divorced from the real world, which was embroiled in a state of total war thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies. For Austrians, the triumphalism of the finale reflected real aspirations, not an astral kingdom.

The belief in the possibility of musical transcendence was a radical departure from the prevailing paradigm of musical listening at the time. Joseph Haydn’s symphonies were so successful because they combined engaging musical rhetoric with recognizable musical signs now called “topics.” The pleasures offered by these otherwise abstract elements rooted listeners in reality.

Hoffmann, however, was not so concerned with listening. His conception of Beethoven’s symphony relied heavily on visual analyses of the score that did not necessarily reflect one’s perceptions of the music in time. For Hoffmann, the work itself could stand outside our experience of its sounds.

How to address supposedly “non-transcendent” music became a distinct challenge for believers in the Hoffmann paradigm. Their standard solution was to police patriotism. National pride blocked the path toward transcendence. Hoffmann explained in his review that the sublimity of Beethoven’s music has “nothing in common” with the real world. In contrast, he called the openly patriotic symphonies of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf “ridiculous aberrations that should be punished with complete oblivion.”

But even Beethoven himself was not above writing patriotic music for the concert hall. Caught in the fervor of the moment, he wrote an extended instrumental work celebrating Joseph Bonaparte’s defeat in 1813: Wellingtons Sieg, Op. 91. The work’s overall soundscape matches the militarism of the Fifth, but its quotation of national anthems and realistic portrayal of a battle elicited apoplectic responses from Hoffmann’s acolytes.

George William Curtis, a New England transcendentalist and self-described “Beethoven worshiper,” complained to his friend John Sullivan Dwight that Wellingtons Sieg was a “sad disappointment.” The vexed Curtis couldn’t comprehend “what Beethoven meant by writing it” or “how he could be so purely external.” His only conclusion was that it must have been a joke.

The impulse to deprecate patriotism in instrumental music persisted throughout the nineteenth century. Joachim Raff wrote his First Symphony (1861) while fueled by anticipation for German national unification. One of the movements contains a blatant quotation of a patriotic song. The symphony actually won a major contest, but the judges complained specifically about the quotation. Covering his tracks, Raff later justified it in a preface that explained how the entire piece represents German unity.

When the powerful conductor Theodore Thomas gave the American premiere of Raff’s symphony in 1863, patriotism police showed up in droves. One reviewer complained about the “priggish preface,” while another thought it absurd to believe that symphonic music could be “in any way descriptive of German unity.” Thomas never performed it again: critics had taken it into custody.

Apparently playing patriotic music before a concert should also be unacceptable. Cantrell concludes that “The Star-Spangled Banner is as out of place” at a concert as “eating hot dogs and guzzling Cokes during a performance of a Brahms symphony.” Hoffmann would have agreed. But the sharp distinction between transcendence and nationalism falls apart when examining German symphonies with no patriotic pretense — pieces of so-called “absolute music.”

German musicians long believed that injecting patriotism into a symphony, as Raff had done, was too blustery. From their point of view, the genre itself was distinctly German. Critic August Kahlert gushed in 1843 that “the domain of the symphony has, for a long time, indisputably belonged to the Germans.” Simply writing one, no matter how abstract, was a patriotic gesture for a German. (Some composers, such as Carl Reinecke, continued to be openly patriotic anyway. His music, like Raff’s, is still serving a life sentence.)

Musicologist Matthew Gelbart has argued, however, that the finale of Brahms’s First is actually a series pan-German nationalist gestures: an Alphorn solo, a churchy trombone chorale, and a lyrical Beethovenian melody. By 1876, Beethoven was the quintessential German cultural hero. As Gelbart explains, the specificity of these gestures wasn’t lost on Brahms’s original listeners. It is absent for most of us now largely because the modern patriotism police — followers of the absolute music ideology — have erased it with claims of transcendence.

There are ways to resist this ideology and its purveyors, if we wish. When I hear Brahms’s music, German nationalism immediately springs to mind — along with a craving for Wiener Schnitzel and lager beer. I accept these feelings. I’m not afraid of them or repulsed by them. The music, for me, is still great. But if we insist that “orchestra concerts aren’t patriotic,” German symphonies, great or not, should be some of the first things to go.

Part Two of this blog post on the consequences of concert hall patriotism, addressing 19th century American symphonists on the anti-patriot “Most Wanted” list, and why The Star Spangled Banner may be the only transcendent work of art in this discussion, will appear on Thursday, 26 November 2015.

Featured image: The U.S. Army Orchestra in concert on Saturday, 12 October 2013 by SSG Mark Nixon, U.S. Army Band. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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