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The strains of patriotism

Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War, Glenn Watkins, University of California Press: 598 pp., $49.95

June 08, 2003|Tom Nolan | Tom Nolan is a critic whose writings appear in a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal.

In times of war and national crisis, when words alone don't express our deepest griefs and hopes, we turn to music -- from classical to popular -- to convey and relieve collective emotion.

In the awful and ongoing wake of Sept. 11, symphony orchestras have performed healing repertoires by composers from Giuseppe Verdi to Samuel Barber. Members of Congress joined voices across the aisles in Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Bruce Springsteen was inspired to write his best work in years. And some fans and disc jockeys banned or burned discs by the Dixie Chicks.

The use of music as a focal point for national pain, pride and politics is nothing new, as Glenn Watkins shows with thoroughness and brilliance in "Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War," a scholarly and dramatic analysis of the cultural-political roles that music played in Europe and America before, during and after World War I. From the German concert hall to the English music hall, from French cabarets to the trenches of no man's land, music was a form of aesthetic munitions for the nations involved in that monumental conflict, writes Watkins. And that cultural battle, the author shows, began long before the first bullets were fired in the autumn of 1914.

Though Europe was outwardly at peace in the early years of the 20th century, many observers, Watkins notes, then felt "that the Franco-Prussian War had settled nothing and that another war was both certain and imminent." Musicians, poets and painters could be found in the vanguard of those crying out for it: "Germany's military buildup had already commenced under the facade of Kultur.... The Futurists in Italy were calling for war as 'the world's only hygiene,' and the French artist Marcel Duchamp was heard shouting, 'We need the great enema in Europe. And ... if we need war, we need war....' "

At the same time as some argued that music (such as Beethoven's 9th Symphony with its "Ode to Joy") should serve as an international language for communicating in peaceful unity, others urged their countries' composers to define a unique national identity through their scores. Debates raged in music journals and artists' broadsheets, in conservatory curricula and on symphony programs. "[I]t has been contended," Watkins writes, that "the war of 1914 was prepared for [in France] as much in the cafe-concerts as by the general staff."

Discerning a national musical identity was especially tricky for France, where the old church-state order was at cultural war with those upholding the more egalitarian ideals of the Revolution. This led to such Gallic controversies as the counterpoint-versus-harmony battle. Some French scholars differentiated between "the canonic German repertoire" of Bach (whose counterpoint they claimed as the basis of serious composition) and the more modern (and suspect) inroads made by the Austro-German Expressionists led by Arnold Schoenberg. Other partisans scorned the counterpoint crowd as religious (anti-Semitic) bigots and opted for harmony (with its "rational and scientific basis grounded in the Enlightenment") as being truer to the spirit of the republic.

Things got even trickier (and nastier) once World War I began. And, as Watkins notes, "[c]onfusion was obviously king in this war of aesthetics": Although Jean "Cocteau ... called for a 'French art for Frenchmen' and went so far as to refuse a German brand of toothpaste," that poet-provocateur "also acknowledged that to be deprived of the music of Beethoven and Schubert was unthinkable." Beethoven, beloved of listeners, critics and composers alike, posed a particular problem. Debussy and others were relieved, then, by the timely "discovery" that Beethoven was not German after all but Flemish -- by dint of his grandfather's having been born at Malines.

"There was no escape hatch for Wagner, however," Watkins writes, "and the veneration almost universally accorded him in France during the fin de siecle almost totally disappeared. Debussy, following a considerable personal struggle, now attempted to bypass Wagner, judging that his glory was based solely on the fact that he summarized centuries of musical formulas...."

Meanwhile, Debussy was attacked in print by Cocteau, a supporter of Erik Satie, who "attempted to relocate Debussy outside the French tradition and even to paint him as a successor to Wagner.... [N]o allegation could have been more damning in the war climate."

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