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This excellent book is a collaboration between music historian Matthew Riley and the late Professor Anthony D Smith, who lectured in nationalism and ethnicity, and explores how and why listeners come over time to ‘feel the nation’ through particular musical works. There is no better illustration of the adaptability of music than Barber’s Adagio, a workentirely independent of any ‘national commemorative associations’ when it was originally written as a string quartet movement.Similarly, during early performances of Nabucco, there was, according to contemporary reports, no special audience excitement at ‘Va, pensiero’. The image of Verdi the Italian patriot was ‘a much later construction’.

Common to many composers’ handling of national idioms – folksong or flamenco – is their bending of the original sources to their own purposes. Thus Bartók assimilated elements of the folk music of, not merely Hungary but several other countries, into his own language, while ‘Albéniz and Falla transformed Spanish folk modes into more chromatic systems, rather in the manner of Bartók.’ Often the composer’s synthesis and sophistication take us a very long way from the supposed purity of folk-music. Also, the potent influence of Stravinsky upon composers such as Falla and Copland further modified their ‘national’ character.

The authors’ impressive breadth of reference is indicated by the inclusion of the relatively unfamiliar, such as Stanford’s six Irish Rhapsodies, Bliss’s Morning Heroes and d’Indy’s Symphonie cévenole. I like the description of Sibelius’s ‘static effects’ as ‘soundsheets’, but I don’t agree that the gloomy ending of his fourth symphony underlines ‘his characterisation of the Finnish landscape as desolate and unforgiving.’ Isn’t the fatalistic character of this piece rather more connected to the composer’s throat cancer?

Minor blemishes are the indecision about the spelling of Granada (pp 128-9) and the omission of several composers from the index, but generally the production of this intriguing study is as good as we expect from Boydell Press.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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