Throughout our semester together, I have found that my independent research for papers has repeatedly enlightened the themes we discuss in class. I continue to be surprised by these findings – not because they are unanticipated, but because they continue to defy my expectations. Prior to my studies and my research in this class, I had expected that course themes would be guidelines by which to draw conclusions about musical works. I tended to think in terms of which themes a piece might portray or symbolize. What I had not expected, however, is that these guidelines are fluid, serving instead as clues about the music’s origin, reception, and place in culture as both Parisians and others interacted with 1920s French culture.
Interestingly, the most obvious theme continues to be the one that most surprises me. This most obvious theme, apparent in nearly every aspect of class studies and paper research, is nationalism. From our first discussion, the topic of nationalism has intrigued me. Prior to our class, I had always considered countries, nations, and nationalism to be synonymous – for example, picturing people waving their country’s flag in displays of “national pride.” However, this class has given me a different and much richer understanding of nationalism: as an idea that exists in the mind and in shared mentalities, it is independent of, and stronger than, any physical location. The first World War permeated all aspects of French life; thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that nationalism permeates so much of our reading and research. Even so, it often catches me off guard.
Nationalism has lain at the core of each of my research topics so far. This semester, I have immersed myself in the worlds of Claire Croiza, the Societe Musicale Independante, and Ravel’s La Valse. Significances of both Croiza and the SMI are rooted in nationalism. Croiza pioneered the French song recital and was revered for her clear text declamation – her ability to recite the French language with the utmost care and caress. Turning away from opera, which was considered to be marred by German influences, she instead dedicated her craft to the superior beauty and musicality of the French language. The SMI, meanwhile, pushed against the Societe Nationale’s traditional nationalist behavior of premiering only French works, and instead sought to redefine true Frenchness by asserting that international influences made Paris a stronger musical epicenter. Even La Valse – which Ravel himself asserted was not any kind of caricature, parody, or portrayal of post-war realities – is, in part, a product of nationalism. Ravel had initially conceived the idea for the work to be titled Wien: Vienna, in tribute to Johann Strauss. After his service in the war, however, he completely reworked the piece so that it was connected to the original idea only in that it retained the waltz as its base. It seems all too possible that Ravel’s own surge of nationalism could have propelled him toward this reworking.
If this observation of prevalent nationalism has taught me anything, it is that nationalism is about so much more than hearing pro-French messages in music. Often, it is what the music does not contain that sends a nationalist message. Other times, the music itself has a message that is not intentionally crafted to be nationalist, but programming decisions or patron/impresario alliances cause it to be seen and heard through the nationalist lens. In the middle of analysis, I often step back and realize to my surprise that nationalism is, again, at play. In writing papers this semester, I have appreciated the opportunity to step back in time and become a character of the 1920s; by doing so, I have gleaned just how easy it is to be swept along almost unconsciously by the nationalist tide. People, places, and styles all become conglomerated in the sense of “nationalism,” challenging to define as a single entity but entirely pervasive.