Is music national?

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The answer will depend on what we are seeking. If we seek to find racial characteristics, then we shall discover that music is national rather than international. Knowing what we do of the characteristics of distinct types of music, inspired and made in certain definite localities, we cannot imagine that they are interchangeable. For instance, a waltz enshrining the genius of a Strauss could not be written by a Czech in Prague, nor could a genuine Bohemian polka be written by a Spaniard living in Toledo. We do not know what is inherent to the native, the atmosphere in which he is born and lives, or his particular mentality; but there is something deep down in his system responsible for the peculiar and distinct brand of the music of his race.

Not only are these national characteristics not transferable from nation to nation, but in many cases they cannot be transplanted from their native surroundings. The natural cosmopolitanism of the British race allows the Englishman to absorb music of many nationalities, but he does not absorb it all, though he is reputed to swallow more foreign music than any other European. This cosmopolitanism causes many critics to argue that there is no national English school of music.

Though the technique of the English school is first cousin to that of the German school, we realise that it is so only on paper. For, though German music has been well established here for a couple of centuries, the efforts made to establish English music in Germany have so far been unsuccessful. This suggests that the mentality of English music is distinct from German. But if there is no school of music recognisable as English: then what is it? We cannot imagine a symphony with the technique and mentality of Elgar or Vaughan Williams being written by a French or a Russian composer.

The fact that symphonies by either composer are seldom — except for purposes of propaganda — played abroad suggests that their music carries an invisible English stamp. And this line of demarcation, defining the radius of native music and suggesting that it is not international, may be noticed elsewhere. We seldom find symphonies by Russian composers in the programmes of Italian orchestras; and they have never been popular in Germany, though they had continued popularity in London and Paris. Efforts have been made to establish the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler here in a country devoted to the German classics; yet, despite their growing popularity in Germany, the efforts have hitherto failed.

The popularity of the works of established opera composers would suggest that opera is international, were it not for the fact that during the past thirty years there has been a remarkable decline in these former periodical successes, which made new operas apparently international in popularity. The signs and tendencies of the times are that music in Europe will become more and more national, that at least, as far as this country is concerned, has been the striving of a group of composers including Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, March 1937, p. 491