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Monday, April 15, 2019

What Debussy and Sibelius Teach Us About Patriotism

Program notes written for Columbia University Medical Center Symphony Orchestra's Spring concert.

Both Debussy and Sibelius shared a tendency to decry nationalism in their music. Sibelius described his Symphony No. 2 as strictly non-programmatic. Debussy was known to be "without ideology and without convention."

But to what extent are composers, or, for that matter, any of us, impervious to the patriotic sentiments of the time? For Sibelius and Debussy, nationalism—the kind grounded in natural landscape, poetic voice, and shared commonality—permeated their music.

In 1901, when Sibelius finished his Symphony No. 2, Finland was in a struggle for independence. The symphony has, in the years after its composition, been popularly named the "Symphony of Independence." The belief, though never formally acknowledged by Sibelius himself, is that the composer wrote the Symphony with an independent Finland in mind.

The Symphony has been described as a "confession of the soul"—perhaps, the soul of a nation’s natural grandeur. Sir Colin Davis captures the image in his relation of Symphony to a poem by William Wordsworth: Grand in itself alone, but in that breach / Through which the homeless voice of waters rose / That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged / The Soul, the Imagination of the whole.

At around the same time, across the Baltic and North Sea to Paris in 1903, Debussy was commissioned to write a piece to test out a new instrument: the chromatic harp. Thus, Danses was born (also adapted for double-action harp), and named "sacred dance" for its ritualistic parallel octaves, modal harmonies, and lilting waltz.

For Sibelius, Wordsworth may be an imagined muse; for Debussy, the symbolist poets such as Mallarm√© and Baudelaire were direct muses. Debussy's music is known to evoke natural experiences: the moon, the sea, the sunset. To Debussy, poetry and music were part and parcel of his vision for a national French music. Conjoined with the Symbolist movement, his music was fueled in reaction against Germanic Wagnerian influence. Debussy writes: "we have been unfaithful to the music tradition of our race for more than a century and a half…since Rameau we have had no purely French tradition… "

A context of nation and time for any piece of art is revealing. To be sure, there is value in music for music’s sake, or “pure music.” There is value in not subscribing to another’s imposed characterization of a piece of music, or poem, or natural landscape.

But everything we make also belongs to us in some way, which means we must take responsibility for it. Sibelius did, and Debussy did. In our time where American patriotism is fraught with Trumpist nationalism, a kind of Patriotism that celebrates the best in ourselves and the nation are found in the ecological relationships we have with each other. They hark to the purity of natural landscape and rootedness in a place without exclusionary sentiments.