Long before you see Fréderic Chopin’s tombstone, at the Père Lachaise graveyard in Paris, you’ll see the mountains of cards and plastic flowers. What you won’t see, surprisingly, is much red and white, the colors of the Polish flag. Considering the composer’s omnipresence in his country, with its Chopin University of Music, Chopin Airport, and Chopin Vodka, you might expect to see more nationalist outpouring at his final resting place. (Late Pope John Paul II’s grave at the Vatican is decked out in the glittering bicolor.) Still, Chopin is a monumental figure in his country, important on a scale with which only the greats from the most important musical superpowers—Russia, Italy, Germany—can compete.
Maybe the reason the flag isn’t there is that it doesn’t need to be. The Polish don’t need to do anything for Chopin, he’s simply there for them. They don’t need lobbyists to talk up his name in the international music scene’s corridors of power, like other, smaller countries must with their lesser-known composers and performers. LOT Polish Airline’s craft liveries—unlike those of the Finns or the Norwegians—don’t feature tail fins with composer portraits. Those planes are supposed to familiarize the tourists of the world with their composers. But tourists lay their fake flowers at Chopin’s grave instead.
When I was studying composition at the Chopin University, the oeuvre of Jean Sibelius was considered to be in brutally bad taste. The opening theme of his Violin Concerto was a melody full of unnecessary detours and sleazy nuances, reminiscent of a Russian gypsy song. Worse yet was Antonín Dvořák. His music, I heard, had no restraint. One professor of mine told me over tea that Dvořák was really just a composer of drinking songs: his Requiem was a beer hall scene, like “Carmina Burana,” and his “Stabat Mater” a profane take on the Virgin Mary. How much better Szymanowski “Stabat Mater” was, he said, particularly in the form. Sure, I heard, the piece was somewhat problematic, like everything he wrote; after all, Szymanowski was gay. The music was a bit purple for the church. But it was still better than Dvořák.
When I later went to Finland, everything was upside-down. In my 10 years at the Sibelius Academy, I didn’t hear a single negative word about Sibelius. On the contrary: he was taught to us as a unique symphonist, outmatched perhaps only by Beethoven. Of course, there was a slight complication here too. Theodor W. Adorno, whom the Finnish academics worshipped, had once, in a notorious passage, subjected Sibelius to a rather disheartening verbal beatdown. For these scholars, who were rightly proud of Finland’s enormous, successful contribution to the leading musical movement of modernity, this was a serious problem. In my first year in Helsinki, I heard that Adorno was “slightly confused and misunderstood,” something like a murderer, who, in the heat of an argument, kills what he loves out of jealousy and passion. Later on, I sat in a class where our teacher insisted, nodding vigorously, that Sibelius was a first-class modernist on the order of Arnold Schoenberg—one simply needed to dive deep enough inside his music. And just possibly, he admitted, there were some signs of a reactionary Romanticism on the sonic surface. They were trying for a posthumous pardon of Adorno. Like the revised gospels that made Pontius Pilate out to be a decent guy, Adorno became a hapless but basically righteous crucifier of their musical son of God.
So in Finland Sibelius was never criticized, rather deified. Dvořák was mentioned, but barely, and without passion. It was striking and amusing to note the obvious differences in what people were talking about from country to country. It took longer to realize what they weren’t talking about. Eight years after my studies at the Sibelius Academy, I was working on my opera “Peer Gynt” at the Norwegian National Opera. And I realized that during my time in Finland, I hadn’t once heard the name Edvard Grieg. The Norwegians were a bit friendlier with Sibelius. He did come up in conversation, though he wasn’t in the spotlight. That was reserved for Grieg. And neither the Norwegians nor the Finns could help gloating that the Swedes, for their part, had no figure of analogous stature to either.
What makes a composer from a country the composer? The best-known Danish symphonist is Carl Nielsen. His works, however, are in no way musical postcards from his home. That makes him hard to summarize—and therefore sell—on the international concert market. As a leading Danish composer, people naturally look to him to represent Denmark. But besides a few folksy songs, he never did. That hurts his chances on the concert programs of the world, organized as they often are like cultural-tourism guides. No wonder we hear more Sibelius and Grieg. Us Estonians have a similar problem with Eduard Tubin, not that he was necessarily opposed to being the national composer.
As a child, I often traveled to Lithuania. The name there was Čiurlionis. Mikalojus Konstantinas was considered a musician of the real Lithuania who created national-Romantic, symbolist paintings and works for orchestra. Now the more common reaction to his work is shame. A year and a half ago, Lithuanian officials organized a large and impressive presentation of their country’s music at the German Ministry of Finance; a German was the only person to mention Čiurlionis, though. The relationship between Tubin and Estonia is similar. Lithuanian performers—many internationally known—avoid his music in a way that is obvious and striking.
Why is this? In the 19th century, Chopin had an important influence on the idea of musical identity. This idea found a later outlet in the form of a few new national masters like Sibelius and Grieg. Estonia, Lithuniana, and Latvia, however, had no single defining composers, and therefore little presence in the international scene. In the Europe of today, with its grotesque mix of EU politics and Eurovision-style pop nationalism, this missing link leads to a certain amount of shame, even regarding the composers they do have.
Then again, this shame can lead to something positive. A rootlessness or lack of connection to a (likely artificial) historical identity makes composers cunning when it comes to modern music. That’s how the works of Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks are possible. If you don’t have someone to overshadow you, it’s easier to find your own path. Countries with more famous musical cultures, particularly monocultures, are burdened with an extra weight.
Modern giants cast smaller shadows than those of the past. Chopin still threatens to outshine contemporary Polish musical life. A whole generation of Finnish composers wasted enormous energy confronting—whether the result was positive or negative—the music of Sibelius. And so when we think in terms of countries, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. Personally, I believe Nielsen’s music is hardly Danish. Sibelius was an exceptional composer, particularly considering the often difficult circumstances of his life. Then again, formally, Grieg’s work is more interesting. What’s important about Szymanovski wasn’t his country: instead, his honest, fearful, deeply faithful and rooted Catholicism made his music what it is.
I respect how difficult it is for a composer to climb the peaks of the music market. When tourists from around the world come to leave plastic flowers at a grave, that says a lot about the power of national marketing. It also shows that music can easily takes on an afterlife of its own. For me, Chopin doesn’t sound particularly Polish. The second theme of his “Marche funèbre” sings like a lonely violin, trying to imitate a Bellini tune, heard perhaps a day ago in the market, from some small and winding Italian alley. ¶