My invitation to the premiere of György Kurtág’s first opera Fin de partie must have got lost in the post but the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán obviously got his just fine. Orbán was present and correct for the premiere at La Scala last autumn, where he no doubt drank-in Kurtág’s operatic deconstruction of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and concluded that Hungarian culture had been restored to its rightful place following all that dilution by imposters.
If anything had sewed some doubt in Orbán’s mind – a text by an Irish playwright, a French-Lebanese director, an audience of Italians watching a German conduct a cast including two Brits… that sort of thing – at least he could return home knowing that the true flame of Hungarian culture was still burning thanks to his own edicts. In the midst of the horror show that is a civilised European country drifting towards totalitarianism, culture has become a key battleground. As unlikely and inaccurate as it may seem, the Orbán regime sees the likes of Liszt and Bartók as flag-bearers for its project to wind the clock of globalisation back 50 years.
The phenomenon is by no means restricted to the Hungarys of this world. After a bruising few years in which it has been booted around the chamber of parliament like a political football, the orchestra I listen to most when at home in Copenhagen announced its new season a few weeks ago. ‘More Danish music than ever!’ was among the takeaways from the press release, and it wasn’t aimed at musicologists.
In the last decade, classical music institutions in Denmark have been caught in a moral quandary as members of the populist support party have stepped in to prevent the closure of orchestras and asked why others aren’t playing more Carl Nielsen. In March, the country’s two biggest opera companies unveiled new productions of rarities from Denmark’s ‘golden age’ by Peter Heise and August Enna. Neither has been seen or heard for generations. It’s the stuff of fantasy for the Danish People’s Party’s culture spokesman, an eccentric former academic with a taste for the obscure (as long as it’s Danish).
When nationalist politicians talk of nationhood in music, they usually mean music that makes them feel warm inside rather than addressing the state of the nation
Quite where he will stand on Hans Abrahamsen’s The Snow Queen, the first opera from the Grawemeyer Award-winning composer getting its first airing in the autumn, is anyone’s guess. On the surface, an opera by a functionalist Danish composer based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen is right up his street. But I suspect the likes of Heise and Enna are even more. Because when nationalist politicians talk of nationhood in music, they usually mean music that makes them feel warm inside rather than addressing the state of the nation in the way most meaningful art does (and as Andersen and Abrahamsen have long been wont to do).
James MacMillan noticed this last autumn, responding to a report he described in Standpoint magazine as ‘an extended love letter to the SNP government’s culture minister’. Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition and Policy is a call-to-arms for musical nationalists in Scotland, but a confusing one. It bemoans the classical music establishment’s cleaving to ‘dead, white Germans’ and suggests Scottish composers have never sufficiently reflected their roots. It also lambasts school syllabuses in particular for paying lip service to England. MacMillan politely pointed out in Standpoint that his The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is on the English A-level syllabus. The piece bears as umbilical a relationship to Scotland as any orchestral work could.
The simple reason Gowdie was overlooked is that it doesn’t contain bagpipes. Even worse, it unsettles. The whole idea of musical nationalism is problematic outside the contexts of oppression and occupation. But the brilliance with which a new generation of composers have responded to it short-circuits the problem. On the one hand, thoughts of geography and geology have prompted structural re-thinking that has advanced the language of music technically, particularly choral and orchestral. But it has also seen the creation of hundreds of works that are more inclined to question, challenge, tease or re-touch what we believe about our homelands and their abiding qualities. In ultra-traditional, predominantly white Scandinavia, the fruits of this process have been particularly moving and refreshing. Nationalist music? Yes, in a way. But probably not what the politicians had in mind.