In reviewing the most recent San Diego Symphony concert, I made something of a big deal about countries of origin not being important in classical music. While that is true when it comes to performing or listening to classical music, it is not true when it comes to the composition of classical music — at least in the past. Current composers appear to have abandoned notions of a national sound.
There can be no arguing that many 19th- and early 20th-century composers were trying to capture a national tone. All we need do is look at the titles of some of the pieces, such as Sibelius’s Finlandia, Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, or Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.
Schumann Symphony no.3 (1)
The British composers often used locations in the titles of their pieces. Vaughan Williams has compositions with titles such as London Symphony, Norfolk Rhapsody, Cambridge Mass, and In the Fen Country.
Nationalism played a significant role in the creation of 19th-century music. Political movements were also influential but that was more the realm of opera and we’ll discuss that separately.
No one is trying to establish an American sound anymore but for a time that was a major concern. Dvorak was trying to create that sound with his New World Symphony but was so in tune with his Czech roots that the music ended up sounding like an homage to the folk music of his home instead of the palate of a new continent.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 has a tune from a Russian children’s song as one of the principal themes. The song is known to almost every Russian child. The American equivalent would be Row, Row, Row Your Boat or Yankee Doodle Dandy. That fact doesn’t make the symphony more or less meaningful to listeners and performers who aren’t Russian.
As we move away from nationalism, and I do believe that is happening even if it has slowed down of late, the national identity or context of classical music begins to fade. Even with the threat of nationalism in mind, I argue that once the notes are on the page the country of origin becomes irrelevant.
We can now go to a concert that is more along the lines of humanity experiencing humanity instead of an American audience listening to a Brazilian pianist with an Indonesian conductor performing French music.