16 October 2018

Western Classical Music - National or International?

A letter published in yesterday’s Singapore Straits Times once again raised the unfortunate spectre of musical nationalism. 

Musical nationalism was a feature of late 19th century music, when it was used as a means of countering what was seen as German Musical Imperialism in the run up to, and subsequent creation of, the unified nation of Germany.  The elevation of German composers (Bach, Haydn, Beethoven) to the stature of Greats by German philosophers and critics, as well as the establishing of German musical ideologies as pre-eminent by German music scholars, still govern our general perceptions of Western Classical Music.  Attempts by composers including Dvořák, Grieg, Sibelius, Bartók and others to create non-German nationalist voices within Western Classical Music, only succeeded in distinguishing their own music, and did little to offset the encroaching Germanisation of music during the 20th century.  The fact that we also hold up as musical heroes of the 20th century a trio of Germanic composers (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) whose lasting legacy has been minimal to all but a few die-hard anti-populist composers is surely just another symptom of this issue. 

In his essay National Music the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, poured scorn over the idea of music being an international language, and suggested that it was the job of composers to celebrate their nationality in their music.  He wrote that essay in 1934, as the spectre of Nazism and nationalism was taking root in Germany, and was attempting to dilute the stranglehold German ideals seemed to have over music at the time.  Consciously or otherwise, the idea of promoting one race and culture above another fell out of fashion in music, if not in all national leaders’ ambitions, after the Second World War.  So we revisit the idea at our peril.

Superficially the letter in the Straits Times seemed innocuous enough.  A sub-editor had given it an enticing headline (“Do more to support local Western classical musicians”) and the letter writer herself bemoaned the lack of interest and negative attitudes towards Western Classical Music amongst most Singaporeans; something with which no musician here could possibly disagree.  What harm can there possibly be in calling for Singapore to support those of its citizens who aspire to a career in music?

Unfortunately, the letter was couched in terms which appealed (understandably) to other Singapore citizens, and seemed to hint that, within Singapore, the presence of foreigners undermined the credibility of native Singaporean musicians.  We read that “although the [Yong Siew Toh] Conservatory is located in Singapore, it is shocking to find that the majority of students there are not Singaporeans”.  This is factually incorrect, but the sentiment that prompts that statement is shared by many not just in Singapore but in many of its near neighbours who also boast a bourgeoning Western Music presence.  And that is extremely dangerous, for it promulgates nationalism and isolationism.

Perhaps Vaughan Williams was wrong in his dismissing the concept of music as an international language, or perhaps he was (as I suspect) merely provoking debate in an issue which concerned him deeply, but I believe that in our time Western Classical Music can ONLY survive if we recognise and celebrate its internationalist credentials.

Look at any of the world’s major symphony orchestras; there is not one which does not have at least one (and usually many more) visibly Asian players in its ranks.  The great conductors and composers of the world are drawn from every continent and ethnicity; in the last year alone I have attended orchestral concerts conducted by Taiwanese, Filipino, Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Australian, New Zealand, Swiss, Finnish, Estonian, Russian, Dutch, German, French, British, Brazilian, Canadian and American conductors and heard music by African, European, Asian, Australian and South and North American composers; not deliberately, I hasten to add, but by the simple accident of attending a Western Classical Music concert.  In music, we take internationalism in our stride, and to crave for something more nationalist is to crave for isolationism.

We had exactly this issue with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, and it almost killed it.  Our appallingly weak CEO was summoned to explain why the orchestra, which called itself Malaysian, comprised mostly non-Malaysian players.  I urged her to counter that with the observations that the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix featured no Malaysian drivers (well it did for a brief time, but he did not survive the heat of professional competitive racing), Malaysian Airlines owned no Malaysian aircraft, and looking further afield, Manchester United Football Club fielded no native Mancunians (and at the time, no native English) while not a single Chelsea player came from Chelsea (or anywhere close by).  That did not stop them identifying with the place of their name and, indeed, the very fact that the best in the world were attracted to these locally-based organisations, immeasurably elevated the prestige of these places in the eyes of the world.  As Tan Sri Azizan, the founding father of the Malaysian Philharmonic, said on more than one occasion, he did not want the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra to showcase Malaysians, but to showcase Malaysia to the world as a place which could attract the very best in their field.

So it is with Singapore and its educational institutions.  Yes, they do have an obligation to focus on the education of their local people, and it is right that Singapore students are given priority in being offered places in tertiary and specialist education institutions.  But is it not also right a Singapore educational institution ought to attract students (and staff) from all around the world?  This, surely, adds immeasurably to its prestige, and reflects well on both its students on Singapore.  How better do local students benefit in education than from being exposed to ideas and concepts from cultures with which they would otherwise have little direct connection?  And how much more advantageous it is for local students to claim to have studied at an institution which has a world-wide reputation for attracting the very best students and staff?

There is an argument to be made (although not one to which I wholeheartedly subscribe) that, in terms of education, national isolation has some relevance in helping create a unified citizenry.  This is especially relevant in a place like Singapore where the citizenry is ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse.  But this can never be the case with the teaching of Western Classical Music at tertiary level, where the cross-fertilization of creativity and interpretative nuances feeds into the larger body of music as a truly international language.

By all means change attitudes of Singaporeans towards Western Classical Music, but do not do it by calling for exclusive and isolationist barriers to be put up, fencing Singaporeans in and keeping foreigners out.  Singapore is demeaned by calls for national musical identity in the face of international credibility.

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