[Pt. III – Proj. 2] ~ Exercise – Expressing national identity

Exercise – Expressing national identity

Choose one or more pieces of music by one of the composers discussed above (you’ll find some suggestions in Appendix C). Listen carefully and then write brief notes on what you think is specifically Russian/Czech/Norwegian/Spanish about it – or maybe you feel that the piece you’ve chosen doesn’t express any particular national identity. What musical features might express an English identity? Name a piece that seems to you to be quintessentially ‘English’ and analyse the features that in your view contribute to its Englishness. (Try and avoid the obvious, like Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory or Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia.)

Tchaikovsky by Daria Hlazatova

Even though I am also a fan of Richard Wagner’s music I can’t get behind his views of Nationalism nor his antisemitism. It has not stopped me from listening to and appreciating his music, but I can’t help but think that perhaps my tolerance of him comes from the fact that he is far removed in time. I see him as a relic and product of his time. I ask myself if I would be quite as forgiving if faced with similarly racist views from a contemporary musician. I doubt I would, but perhaps it is an unfair comparison since I live in a post – Holocaust era and have seen the horrors that resulted from the Nietzschean inspired anti-Semitism. Wagner did not have the benefit of history to help shape his views. Regardless of whatever ignorance lay behind his ‘beliefs’ I do struggle to consolidate them with his wonderful music. I was recently in Switzerland and visited one of his residencies, now a museum. I found a lot of information about him there and there was a pamphlet he’d written about the ‘Jews’.

Wagner postcard


Nationalism is one of the hot topics of current times. Here in Britain there has been a resurgence of interest in the preservation of traditions. As is usually the case the upsurge in nationalism has come in the wake of social unrest, economic difficulties and at the back of recessions. The perceived loss of ‘autonomy’ due to decisions being taken by a foreign body, in our case the EU, and the (arguably irrational) fear of an unmanageable influx of migrants along with a greater homogenisation of both culture, laws and goods has led to a desire to reassert a national identity. These socio-political trends are then reflected in the arts. Sometimes this is expressed in patriotic and less than savoury ways.

‘… And to those who think the Last Night of the Proms should actually be a kind of nostalgic, patriotic rally, above and beyond its musical content: get a bloody life.’ (Goodall, H.2017)

Similar trends were happening in the Romantic era. Composers in the 19th Century sought to re-establish a sense of national identity after long periods of war and occupation. They sought freedom from the cultural dominance of Teutonic music. Like now, some composers managed to embrace their roots in an invigorating way and some, like Richard Wagner, veered towards degrading and dangerous philosophies based on supremacy. (Taruskin, R. and Gibbs, C. 2013:607)

In this essay I have chosen to focus on two pieces by composers who I feel used nationalism in their music in a positive and inspiring way, without ever loosing love and respect for other cultures. Let’s start by looking at Vaughan William’s quintessentially English piece ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’.

Written references to the folk tune Greensleeves hark as far back as 1580. (Greensleeves Myth & History, 2016) It was of a ground bass construction popular in European dances of the time. (Gjerdingen, R. 2007) It is generally considered to be a Romanesca (a variant of the Passamezzo Antico) and as such Spanish and/or Italian in origin. (DeVoto, M. 2017)

The lyrics have been attributed to Henry VIII, but it seems more likely they are of Elizabethan origin. (Castelli, J.H. 2017) Many versions of the ballad existed and even Shakespeare made references to it in his play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. It is presumably this reference that prompted Vaughan Williams to pick Greensleeves as one of the folk tunes he included in his four act Opera about Shakespeare ’Sir John in Love’. The libretto was in fact based on ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. The Opera itself is rarely performed, however Ralph Greaves’ arrangement of the Greensleeves section has endured and become very well known. Greaves also included the folk song ‘Lovely Joan’ which had been a part of the ‘Sir John in Love’ Opera.

Fig. 1. Greensleeves section of ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ (2004)

By the time Vaughan Williams wrote ’Sir John in Love’ he had already become a champion of the collection and preservation of English folk music. He had researched Greensleeves’ origins and evolution and compared several different versions starting with the version given in Ballet’s Lute Book’ and tracking its development to a Morris jig in the Dorian mode. There are many permutations of Greensleeves some in Aeolian, some in Dorian and even Mixolydian modes.

According to Vaughan Williams himself;

‘One of the most interesting examples we have of the transformation of a song tune into a dance tune is the melody Greensleeves. This was a well-known tune in Shakespeare’s time, and he refers to it more than once’-and the same tune, in an altered form, was used up to modern times as a dance tune by the Morris men of England.’ (Williams, 2008)

In addition to the folk tunes, what is it then that makes ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ sound so English? In my view the instrumentation gives it a very specific character. The combination of flute, harp and Divisi strings convey a very ‘green’ and lush feeling. The sounds evoke a magical pastoral atmosphere. The directness and prosody of the language is reflected in the very English directness and phrasing of the melody which is without extensive ornamentation. The 6/8-time signature and hints of the Dorian mode is typical of local folk dances. The overall impression of the piece is epic and sprawling but it never loses an element of melancholy. There is always the sense of solitude and restraint to temper the soaring beauty, thus preventing it from the bombast and grandeur of, for example, German Art Music.

So, did Vaughan Williams have a specifically nationalist motivation behind ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’? I think it’s quite clear that his desire to preserve and incorporate English folk music and the English language into his work was in order to establish a strong English identity and sense of nationality within Art Music in this country. I think he deliberately set out to forge an English style of music and liberate it from the shackles of German (and Austrian) music and language. However, it is also clear that these nationalist goals were in order to preserve the cultural heritage and uniqueness of these isles, not because of some sort of misguided sense of supremacy or dislike of other cultures.

In Spain a renewed interest in long forgotten Spanish Renaissance music and folk music was led by the guitarist, composer and musicologist Felip Pedrell. Along with his four-volume collection of folk songs ‘Canciero Popular Espanol’ he also published his theories in ‘Por nuestra música’ (Rhodes Draayer, 2009:173-175) which was to heavily influence generations of Spanish composers to come, including Isaac Albéniz who became one of Spain’s best-known composers. His pieces, originally composed for piano but consequently arranged for guitar, have become synonymous with Spanish Art Music and form part of the repertoire for classical guitar.

Did Isaac Albeniz himself have a nationalist motivation behind his music or was he simply responding to his own musical heritage? I’m inclined to think it was the latter which motivated him. Albeniz was in no way a political activist and spent much of his time abroad. In fact, he had struggled to get acceptance for his music in Spain because of its heavy French modernist influences. In addition, the part of his musical heritage which he focused on was Andalusian music. Flamenco music was not considered ‘pure’ Spanish music at the time and was viewed with suspicion because of its gypsy and ‘Moor’ origins.

 ‘The ‘cante jondo’ is traditionally the improvised, sung solo section of flamenco and believed to have its roots in Christian Liturgy, Hebrew, Indian and Romani music.’ (Lorca, FC. 1931)

‘Asturias-Leyenda’, which borrows heavily from flamenco music, has in fact gone full circle. I have personally witnessed it adapted and performed by flamenco musicians, thus becoming part of the folk music tradition that it drew on. Although ’Asturias-Leyenda’ (originally titled ‘Preludio’) was written for piano it emulates distinct flamenco guitar techniques. The structure does not strictly follow a flamenco structure but remains in a simple ABA form. However other aspects of flamenco are clearly mimicked, such as the ‘rasgueado’ chords so unique and typical of the style and the use of open string pedal point. (Yates, S. 2000)

Fig. 2. ‘Rasgueado’ Chords section of Preludio Chants d’Espange Op. 232 (n.d)

In my view the preservation of traditions is important to our sense of self. Resisting homogenisation and dilution has become essential. However, resisting fanatical purist fantasies, whilst recognising the benefits of cross fertilisation is of equal importance. If not for the spread of music from one nation to the next there would be no such thing as ‘western art music’.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Lazic, S. Greensleeves section of ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ (2004) [Sheet Music+Photograph] In: possession of: The author: Lazic.

Figure 2. ‘Rasgueado’ Chords section of Preludio Chants d’Espange Op. 232 (n.d) [Sheet Music] At: http://imslp.org/wiki/File:WIMA.2d67-Albeniz_Leyenda.pdf (Accessed on 8 Sep 2017)


Albeniz, I. (1860) ‘Preludio’ Chants d’Espange Op. 232. [Music Score] Public Domain At: http://imslp.org/wiki/File:WIMA.2d67-Albeniz_Leyenda.pdf (Accessed on 8 Sep 2017)

Castelli, J. H. (n.d) HENRY III. King of England. His Reign, Wives and Military Battles. At: http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/aboutHenryVIII.htm (Accessed on 04 Sep 2017)

Cho, Y S. (2006) The Spanish Guitar Influence on the Piano Music of Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados: A Detailed Study of “Granada” and “Asturias” of Suite Española by Albéniz and “Andaluza” and “Danza Triste” of Doce Danzas Españolas by Granados. [D.M.A] the University of Texas at Austin. At: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/2481/chod16975.pdf (Accessed on 20 Sep 2017)

Clark, W. A. (2002) Isaac Albeniz: Portrait of a Romantic. (New Ed edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Classic FM (n.d) Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves. At: http://www.classicfm.com/composers/vaughan-williams/music/ralph-vaughan-williams-fantasia-greensleeves/ (Accessed on 4 Sep 2017)

Coe, D and Jones, A. (n.d) The Search for Five Finger Frank. At: http://fivefingerfrank.co.uk/category/new-notes-on-old-tunes/ (Accessed on 19 Sep 2017)

DeVoto, M. (n.d) Ground bass. At: https://www.britannica.com/art/ground-bass (Accessed on 1 Sep 2017)

Fantasia on Greensleeves Analysis (n.d) At: http://musicnationalism.weebly.com/fantasia-on-greensleeves-analysis.html (Accessed on 01 Sep 2017)

Fletcher, S. (2017) Greensleeves- Song Notes. At: http://www.heavenlyharpist.com/mp3/greensleeves.htm (Accessed on 02 Sep 2017)

Garcia Lorca, F. (1931) “CANTE JONDO”. At: https://archive.is/20011224172622/http://www.laguitarra.net/ICanteJondo.htm#selection-277.1-281.289  (Accessed on 12 Sep 2017)

Gjerdingen, R. O. (2007) Music in the Galant Style. At: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/music/gjerdingen/galant_book/chapter02/chapter02.htm (Accessed on 12 Sep 2017)

Goodall, H. (2017) Flags at the Proms: a few thoughts. At: http://www.howardgoodall.co.uk/articles-press-etc/flags-at-the-proms-a-few-thoughts (Accessed on 12 Sep 2017)

Greensleeves Myth & History (2016) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjHiXnml3DI (Accessed on 02 Sep 2017)

Horshall, K. (2015) Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves. Programme notes no.145 [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 22 Sep 2017)

Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing (2014) Galant schemata. At: http://openmusictheory.com/schemataSummary.html (Accessed on 18 Sep 2017)

Matthews, D. (1998) The Music of English Pastoral. At: http://www.david-matthews.co.uk/writings/article.asp?articleid=14 (Accessed on 10 Sep 2017)

The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (2013) [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 15 Sep 2017)

Piotrowska, A.G (2013) Gypsy Music in European Culture. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 20 Sep 2017)

Rhodes Draayer, S. (2009) Art Song Composers of Spain: An Encyclopedia. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.

Saylor, E (2017) English Pastoral Music- From Arcadia to Utopia, 1900-1955. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 17 July 2017)

Starr, F. (2007) Nationalism, Folk Song & Primitivism: In Nationalism in Music. At: http://www.dolmetsch.com/musictheory39.htm (Accessed on 08 Sep 2017)

Taruskin, R. and Gibbs, C. (2013) The Oxford History of Western music. (College Edition) New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Thomas Cosmo & Isaac Albeniz s Orchestra Barcelona. (2013) Suite Espanola, Op. 47- Leyenda – Single. [Download] Available at: http://www.apple.com/uk/itunes/

Williams, V. (2004) Fantasia on Greensleeves arranged from the score of the opera “Sir John in Love” by Ralph Greaves. Tewkesbury: Goodmusic Publishing.

Williams, V. (2012) Fantasia on Greensleeves. Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending (Classic FM: The Full Works). [Download] London: Decca. Available at: http://www.apple.com/uk/itunes/ (Accessed on 1 July 2017)

Williams, V. (2008) Vaughan Williams on music. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 03 Sep 2017)

Yates, S. (2000) Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About… ALBÉNIZ’S LEYENDA (Preludio-Asturias). At: http://www.stanleyyates.com/articles/albeniz/leyenda.html (Accessed on 6 Sep 2017)