‘A Nation without Music?’: Symphonic Music and Nation-Building
Kimberly Cannady [+]
University of Washington
Kristín Loftsdóttir [+]
University of Iceland
In this chapter we examine the institutionalization of continental style symphonic music as coterminous with the late 19th and early 20th century Icelandic independence movement. We argue that while Icelandic literature and the Icelandic language were heralded at the time for their supposed purity and ancient roots, local musical practices were more often seen as barbaric. At the center of this research is the 1930 Alþingishátið (Parliament Festival), an event viewed by many at the time as a prime opportunity for the burgeoning Icelandic nation to present itself as a viable and modern nation-state. We analyze documents and correspondence related to the musical components of this event to show the priority placed on large-scale instrumental music despite the necessity to import musicians and music educators in order to present such music. Following this examination of the preparation and performances for Alþingishátið, we trace the attitudes and priorities towards music making that emerged in 1930 through to contemporary practices. Through a brief consideration of the official curriculum for music schools in Iceland as well as the recent opening of Harpa, a building that (perhaps partially) fulfills a demonstrated desire for a symphony hall in Iceland, we demonstrate that large-scale Western European instrumental music maintains a privileged position within Icelandic cultural politics despite a somewhat imported nature. We do not argue that this is a problematic situation (and generally eschew ideals of cultural purity or isolation), but instead discuss how this narrative engages with Iceland’s semi-colonial legacy and ongoing nation-building efforts. We are also careful to not view so-called classical music as isolated from other forms of music making in Iceland and conclude by discussing how this material relates to contemporary music making across boundaries of popular/classical/traditional practices. The co-authored approach to this chapter contributes a strong grounding in both anthropological and ethnomusicological methodologies and theory. This writing is based on research that the authors embarked on while working together at the University of Iceland between 2011 and 2012. We include historical source material, original interviews, and contemporary ethnographic writing.