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  • Nation and Classical Music: From Handel to Copland by Matthew Riley and Anthony D. Smith
  • Bryan Proksch
Nation and Classical Music: From Handel to Copland. By Matthew Riley and Anthony D. Smith. (Music in Society and Culture.) Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2016. [ 245 p. ISBN 978-1-78327-142-9. $34.95]

A central topic within the discipline of musicology, the interrelationship between nationalism and music looms large over classical music written from the outset of the nineteenth century through at least World War II. It rears its head in music appreciation classes just after midterm with the first mention of Wagner and Verdi (or earlier) and from there it never really goes away for the rest of one's scholarly career. In Nation and Classical Music we have a new survey of the topic co-authored on the one hand by a musicologist specialising in Elgar (Matthew Riley) and on the other by an eminent sociologist responsible for the field of nationalism studies (Anthony D. Smith).

The degree to which one will view this book as successful seems to me to be determined by assessing its intended audience. As I see it, the book can find a home with both music historians and "regular" historians and sociologists, though each group will get quite different things from it. Cultural historians and sociologists without a background in musical matters will appreciate the thoroughness of the authors' surveys. They address a wide spectrum of works and present them with an eagle's eye. Musicologists with less experience outside of musical matters will gain an introductory understanding of the broader field of nationalism studies and a framework for attuning their discourse to other disciplines. Given my background as a musicologist and this journal's focus on a musical audience, the remainder of this review will proceed exclusively with that perspective in mind.

The authors struggle from the outset to define nationalism in a way meaningful to musical expression. Their overall definition (p. 6–11) eventually evolves into a view that music functions as a language, as a symbol of national identity, and as an outgrowth of national autonomy and self-expression. There is little controversy here, of course, except that their definition of "nation" itself evolves into something markedly restrictive in practice. As the book progresses it becomes clear that "nation" does not refer to cultural or ethnic groups in the (admittedly) sometimes haphazard way employed by musicologists; rather it is for the authors a union of cultural factors with national political entities. A related issue, itself not unproblematic in my opinion, is that Riley and Smith view nationalist music not as a binary position—where a work either is or is not nationalist—but as a continuum where [End Page 389] works can be more or less nationalist. Such a viewpoint, which is implied by their analyses but never stated, leads to some unusual (to me at least) assertions, as will be seen.

To be fully national in the authors' sense, a composer should write in a distinctive national style for a specific audience who hears those works in a way differently than they do for composers of other nationalities. And, if that were not a high enough standard, the music somehow needs to foster a sense of nationhood or national identity. Ideally this all needs to happen in close proximity to the date of composition too, as the authors give little credence to the significance of later revivals. Taken in total, Riley and Smith set the bar far higher than musicology as a field has, which provokes some interesting questions for those with a musicological background. For instance, the composer's intention—whether stated in a program, their public essays, or private correspondence—rarely seems to be a factor in their survey. They defend this position by invoking Axel Körner and others: "The historians' only concern should be to find sources revealing the work's original reading at the time" (p. 159; Axel Körner, "The Risorgimento's Literary Canon and the Aesthetics of Reception: Some Methodo logical Considerations", Nations and National ism 15, no. 3 [2009]: 412.) As might be expected then, popular reception history plays an outsized...


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