National Identity

Albéniz: Chants d’Espagne

D’ombre et de lumière | Magda Tagliaferro | BNF Collection 1960

This album includes numbers 4 and 5 of Albéniz’s suite of piano pieces published in the 1890s.  Number 5, Seguidillas, is a very upbeat piece with fast staccato rhythms that give it the feel of a Spanish dance.  It’s in 3/4 with a strong emphasis on the second beat which is quite characteristic. Number 4, Córdoba, has a very different mood – more musing and thoughtful, though it too develops into a kind of dance with an accented second beat. A predominant rhythm in both pieces is:

 The semiquavers drive towards the accented second beat, which fits well with the kind of rhythmic stamping common in Spanish flamenco dancing for example.

Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances

Kurt Nikkanen & Rohan De Silva| Collins Classics 2011

This version of Bartok’s short dance suite is arranged for violin and piano.  Several of the movements are centred on the Eastern European scales which are closely related to the harmonic minor scale (the major version has a characteristic flattened second and the minor version a sharpened fourth), which gives them a very Eastern flavour. They also have quite a passionate character which I think is in keeping with the associations from that part of the world – the violin part is highly articulated with lots of marcato and double stops.  The faster movements sound very much like gypsy dances.

Chopin: Polonaises

Arthur Rubinstein | Naxos 2010

The Polonaise is a Polish dance in 3/4 (the name is French for ‘Polish’).  Interestingly , this style of dance makes strong use of the same rhythm I identified in Chants d’Espagne.  Rubinstein (who was a Polish pianist) plays this in an exaggerated way in the recording of Chopin’s Polonaises I listened to, by holding down the first quaver for slightly longer and making the following semiquavers faster.  There’s an interesting article on the Chopin Foundation website which suggests that Chopin’s music reflects feelings of rebellion, hopes and frustrations, during a difficult time in Poland’s history.  I think the Polonaises are a very good example of this – they are dramatic and heroic sounding, full of challenging octave passages and big chords.

English Identity

It’s interesting that the Polish, Romanian and Spanish music I listened to all have some quite specific musical characteristics such as a particular time signature, rhythm or scale, but I can’t think of any  equivalent features for English music.  I think instead its identity is more defined by mood and character – reflecting the perception of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ – defiant, stately and predominantly cheerful.  Definitely not particularly emotional or dramatic like Russian music for example.

Elgar is of course the first composer that springs to mind; besides his most well known compositions, I think his ‘Cockaigne Overture’ which I’ve played with my local symphony orchestra is a good example of a piece of music reflecting a very English identity. The march rhythms and use of percussion and brass give a real sense of stately occasion. The rhythms in particular I think are quite important – they’re simple but strong throughout, which holds the music together.  Elgar’s repetition and development of the melodic themes also give the piece a very defiant personality.


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