Recently, while discussing politics with a colleague of mine, I referred, multiple times, to a phenomena I call The Soul of a People. It is a perturbing concept for it cannot be expressed. My colleague, however, was not perturbed by the concept I was seeking express.
Regardless, he did find it difficult ‘to quantify’ such a concept when it came to politics and nationalism. He understood what I was referring to–the intangible ties of a community which made them feel, deep down in their bones, that not only have they emanated from the same source; they have done so to achieve a shared purpose.
Antonin Dvorak is an exemplary example of a nationalist composer–much like the Finnish Jean Sibelius. Dvorak, however, not only incorporated folk elements from his native Czech homeland into his music, he also actively encouraged other composers to do the same with the music of that was born of their own soil.
His nationalism was a musical philosophy and tradition in itself. From 1892 to 1895, Dvorak was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. The Conservatory, which was founded by Jeannette Thurber, was open to women students as well as to minority groups–which was unusual during that milieu. During his time there, Dvorak encouraged his pupils to explore African-American and Native American music.
Dvorak’s main goal during his stay in the US was to discover ‘American Music’ and engage in it–similarly to how he had utilised Czech folk music to write his compositions. He supported the idea that African-American and Native American music should be used as a foundation for the growth of American music. It was his belief that through the music of Native Americans and African-Americans, Americans would not only find–but create their own national style of music.
Dvorak’s journey is two-fold; he first discovers the sound of his own soil. It is only then that he embarks on the quest to attune his ear to creating a new musical tradition in what is a relatively young immigrant nation. Not only did he incorporate folkloric elements of his own soil in his compositions, his three year stint in the US would lead him to influence another nation to find their own sound and their own voice.
In immigrant nations, the challenge is two-fold; it is not sufficient to simply to recreate the sounds of one’s native soil, but also for that folkloric tradition to undergo a metamorphosis to be rebirthed in a new wave. It requires the composer and the performer to be both receptive and sensitive to the new national identity that is in the process of being forged.
Even when we hear these songs, we hear a breath of the old and the birth of the new. They reflect, what can only be called, a much-needed symphony of change as well as continuity.
Over the years, I have known many leaders and even individuals who believe that to create the new, we must completely destroy the old. This ‘solution’ has never worked. The old eventually comes back with a vengeance–seeking not only to be remembered, but also to be acknowledged.
The solution, then, must be to incorporate, remember and enshrine the past while embarking onto a new future.