Sing out, brothers

By Philippa Ibbotson, a freelance violinist (THE GUARDIAN, 27/09/06):

National anthems rose to prominence in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, bringing people together often at times of adversity or celebration. It was during the French revolution that the Marseillaise caught the people’s imagination, while God Save the King’s rise in popularity coincided with the Jacobite revolt against Protestant Hanoverian rule. Amalgamating the functions of folk and ecclesiastical music, anthems were the liturgy of modern nationalism. And as national states became more homogeneous, the divisions between them were becoming more pronounced. The songs, then, gave people a much needed feeling of identity and connection with their fellow countrymen.

Repressive regimes have been well aware of the power of music. Witness its banning by the Taliban, its minimal, prescriptive use by Mao Zedong in China, and in Stalin’s Russia. The potential of music to energise and exhilarate a crowd is dangerous to dictatorships, the arousal of emotions being counterproductive to their will to suppress. Of course this same musical power can also be used to their advantage. Take the careful selection of Wagner’s Meistersinger for performance at Nuremberg rallies.

Yet in today’s world of burgeoning multiculturalism and media sophistication, it is necessary to question the place of such nationalistic music-making; and in so doing to risk accusations of political correctness and imposing manipulative leftwing agendas. For, in Britain at least, there is a disturbing trend for live classical concerts to be run as patriotically themed spectacles. Outdoor music – miked up and pared down into bite-sized chunks – is served to an audience rewarded for its patience by a grand finale of jingoistic tunes and a dazzling firework display.

A violinist colleague of mine, his artistic sensibilities strained by a run of such events, finally flipped one night when a pellet of gum thrown from the audience hit him on the forehead during the second verse of Rule Britannia. He stood up and began screaming obscenities at a front row of blue-rinsed ladies. The band, of course, played on.

We may well wonder, on these occasions, who are the ones being manipulated? Whose emotions are carried on the backs of stirring chords and thunderous harmonies, and intensified by the fervour of a crowd in festive mood?

Removing the music from the words leaves one with something quite different. For surely the point about any such event is that much of the enjoyment is derived not from the meaning of the words, or from any great truth of the prevailing sentiments, but from the intoxicating combination of music and an excited crowd wishing to celebrate. And the most intoxicating element of all, perhaps, is the feeling – inspired by the music – of being at one with one’s fellow man, even if on these particular occasions the fellow must be white and British?

There is no doubt the feeling of unanimity that music can elicit, the identification with that which is beyond ourselves, can provide us with deep inspiration and joy. There is also no doubt that the need to identify ourselves with one small nation may be shifting. The advancements of science and technology are steadily broadening our horizons. Our common enemy, moreover, looks increasingly likely to be global warming – far larger than the sum of our woefully inadequate parts. In that instance, our need to pull together becomes ever greater. So the question is: why are we not taking advantage of music’s power to bring people together?

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, adopted as the official European national anthem in 1972, is now part of Unesco’s Memory of the World register. Schiller’s text, though not used by the anthem, expressed his belief that all men can become brothers. It was a belief shared, and conveyed musically, by Beethoven. They were expressing something that has yet to happen. But bringing a spirit of internationalism to our anthems might help.