Song and Nationality
Over half a century ago, the picturesque Welsh town of Llangollen was host to a new kind of Eisteddfod. Such gatherings, a medieval tradition revived in the mid 19th century to promote Welsh culture were and are commonplace. Where the Llangollen eisteddfod stood out however, was that rather than attract participants merely from neighbouring towns and villages, the competitors had travelled from around the world. The event was conceived as a means to unite ordinary people fresh from the ruins of the Second World War through music; to acknowledge and respect the cultural differences evinced through national song and dance, and to celebrate them.
Fifty years on, Yvonne Buchheim has also asked people to sing to her, though in markedly different settings, and with perhaps a rather more inquisitive approach to what "national song" might mean. The performers at Llangollen, while amateur, were able to spend months rehearsing, carefully planning how best to represent themselves on an international stage. Yvonne's singers, on the other hand, were not. With the cameras rolling, some delighted in the opportunity to perform, while many others were able to remember only a line or two of a favourite song, after a good deal of gentle encouragement. But in either case, the results are fascinating. One might assume that in our mass-media steeped contemporary world, everyone might sing a song by the Beatles, or Elvis Presley, or perhaps a classical aria. But at the European parliament in Strasbourg, a group of German tourists sang a four-part Lutheran chorale; two Slovenian ladies sang a sweetly harmonised Alpine melody; a Welsh politician sang a Methodist hymn; and a Finnish man sang an archaic (if amusing) quack-imitating "duck song". Most striking of all were the two Lithuanian singers who, unaware of one another's participation, chose to sing the same long, dramatic ballad, one of them insisting on being filmed in national costume: one is instantly reminded of the mass singing rallies attended by tens of thousands, which more than anything else popularised anti-soviet feeling in the Baltic States.
When terms such as "national music" are used, it is often folk music that springs to mind, hence, presumably, the choices of Yvonne's EU singers. It was Herder, one of the earliest song collectors (and an important influence on Yvonne's work) who coined the term volkslied in the 18th century, meaning 'people's song', or 'song of the people'. By this he meant the regional or ethnically specific music of lower class, and particularly rural communities. Through the course of the 19 th century the concept grew in popularity, especially in those countries where due to centuries of political subservience to a larger neighbour, the only distinctive cultural forms from which educated urbanites might draw a sense of national pride and identity were those of the peasantry (think of Grieg and Dvo ? ák incorporating folk idioms into their compositions). The idea remained useful in the 20 th century, most notably in the communist eastern bloc where peasant artistic culture was ideologically preferable to that of the bourgeoisie, though more often than not, only after the heavy editing out of "backward" musical styles and "supersticious" lyrics.
Yet the music itself often tells a different story from the political purposes to which it is put. When the zurna, a loud, strident relative of the oboe, was banned from folk festivals in communist Bulgaria due to its association with Turkish influence, and thus the Ottoman imperial past, the public failed to turn up to the dances, dismissing them as boring without the raucous favoured instrument. And whereas the preservation of Welsh folksong has been a significant part of Welsh cultural nationalism, the English language songs native to Gower and southern Pembrokeshire are in danger of dying out due to the linguistic prejudices of the musical establishment.
But in any case, is it really only the music of a peasant past that can be regarded as representing nationality? Were each of Yvonne's subjects to have sung the same Elvis song, it is worth reflecting on how and why each singer had learnt it. The same song means different things in different contexts, evoking different memories and associations. These can be locally specific. Somehow illustrative of this point is what happened forty years ago when the anthropologist Colin Turnbull asked the Mbuti pygmies of the Congolese rainforest (inheritors of one of the most isolated and distinctive musical cultures in the whole world) to sing him the oldest song they knew. They responded, to the accompaniment of clapping, yodelled polyphony, and stick beating, with a version of "Clementine".
Song is performance, a way of defining who we are. So long as social, cultural, political, and national differences are recognised, song will reflect these.