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Alberto Williams and Nationalism
Introduction & Brief History Lesson
Generally speaking, the term nationalism is used to describe a sense of identification which individuals within a society or culture share regarding their state of residence. Most countries are characterized by this identification to some degree or other and Argentina is no exception. However, if one considers the fact that Argentina has been an independent country since 1810, what is striking is how long a true sense of nationalism took to fully blossom (Douglas). Specific to the topic of this paper, Alberto Williams was not born until 1862. Furthermore, his music would not have been able to affect the listeners in his country until he reached adulthood and was able to actually compose it. Then one must consider that the music would have had to have been accepted by Argentine society and then disseminated across a wide enough area of the country where it could actually have any sort of influence. Clearly this is not an over-night process. So before one can discuss intelligently the rise of nationalism and the effect that Alberto Williams' music may have had on it, one must begin to understand the other societal, political and cultural factors that coalesced to create a foundation upon which nationalism could blossom. After all, music acting in a society that does not yet even contain the seeds of nationalism will simply not develop appropriately.
The problem alluded to above is captured well by Heath S. Douglas when he states that "The biggest mistake that a student can make when studying Argentina in the 1800s is to assume that it was a true union from independence." Williams's music, if written at this juncture of history would not have had much influence for this very reason. Certain practical and political structures were first needed. Argentina was a divided country after it relinquished its ties to Spain. Neither the northwestern area nor the Buenos Aires portion wanted to relinquish power to the other. Needless to say, many within the country as a whole were unhappy with this disunity and searched for a way to unite these two sections. Civil war followed from 1826 until 1828 until a dictatorship under Juan Manuel Rosas took control - but even he was not able to truly unify all of the diversity within the country. Suffice it to say that the government changed hands for most of the rest of the century (and even beyond) (19th Century).
Simply stated, nationalism cannot take root in a country until the government is stable. Williams most certainly experienced this lack of stability first hand. During his formative years he witnessed: rebellion in Entre Rios and murder of former president Urquiza (1870), two rebellions led by former president Bartolome Mitre (1874-80), "war of the desert" during the presidency of Nicolas Avellaneda, Buenos Aires rebellion during presidency of Roca (1880-86), selection of Miguel Juarez Celman by leaders rather by voters and then massive inflation during the late 1880s (Argentina to 1890). All of this before he was thirty-five years of age.
The Gauchos, Specifically
Perhaps this experience with the chaos of a country with no unity drove Williams to hearken back to a previous time period when the gaucho roamed the pampas. As an artist, maybe he approached his music in such a way that he felt it could possibly serve a greater purpose to his home country - a purpose greater than the notes themselves. It is very clear why these gauchos would be a logical choice - their star was on the rise just at this point in Argentine history.
In modern times, these 'Spanish cowboys' exist as a firm symbol of nationalism. However, for much of the history of Argentina they were looked down upon. "The term in the beginning was so derogatory that it wouldn't be part of public statements from the Federal Government." (Gauchos). But then this group helped the rest of the country resist the dominance of Spain and their reputation began to improve. In fact, by the turn of the century when the poem Martin Fierro became big news, "Gauchos were already considered national heroes." (Gauchos). Following this was the "consecration" of the gaucho when Ricardo Guiraldes wrote Don Degundo Sombra, a gaucho novel.
All of this developed when Williams was a young man - as indicated before, during his formative years. How could he not have felt the call of his culture to identify with "one of the most vibrant symbols of the past... who has become etched into the Argentine consciousness." (Argentine People). And, as a budding composer, how could he not have been drawn to the Argentine traditions as expressed in the gaucho folk song and dance (which he used in his compositions later in life).
These cowboys were actually peasants who lived in the pampas and raised horses. One of their central recreational activities "guitar playing and singing poetic songs or paydays for other gauchos around campfires in the plains..." (Gonzalez-Ortega 4). Unfortunately for Williams, these payadas were never actually recorded or even written down. Instead the payador (gaucho singer) composed/improvised them as he felt necessary. So the genuine songs (particularly the ones that go back even to the 18th century and before) are lost forever. Williams could very well have been able to hear some of the later ones in person and perhaps some earlier ones that may have been passed down from past generations (Gonzalez-Ortega 4).
Art and its Effect on Nationalism - Philosophically Speaking
Leaving aside the issue of whether Williams specifically chose to use the gaucho in order to consciously create a symbol for Argentine nationalists to rally around is not really important for the scope of this paper. What is clear is that a certain sense of nationalism did follow from Williams' music further down the line. But is the connection direct? In other words, is it reasonable to say that Williams actually spawned the eventual nationalism? Or would it be more accurate to say that his music simply reflected a burgeoning nationalist sentiment?
As a way to sort out this tricky issue, the next few paragraphs will attempt to delve into the subject of whether art (in whatever form) can affect society in any fundamental way. In "Relics and Selves: an introduction" Jen Andermann posits that art can, indeed, perform this function. If one takes the time to boil down and extract usable material from his florid prose (quite a task), one can get at the underlying meaning expressed in his words. There exist structures in society (art being one of them) that can do more to communicate messages (like nationalism) to society as a whole than any direct method. He calls these structures "symbolic environments" and their function is to display "idealized images of the nation through symbolic means." Now, Andermann claims that in Argentina, these symbols actually served to gloss over the deep divisions that existed in that society during this period of time (which was outlined in the history lesson above). His words, specifically, are that the "idealized images" provided "a facade of unity and cohesion that obscured the profound division underlying it."
So Andermann shows the reader that objects of art can have a possible negative use, since they allow leaders in society to, in a sense, control the masses if they wish. In one of the more dense passages from his article, this point about communicating an idea to the masses is 'elucidated.' "These could be conceived, to a certain extent, as fetishistic images of community, bestowed with the task of securing channels of communication with the masses effectively excluded from any formal political participation, and thus of reproducing the existing hegemony by means of providing realms of imaginary performativity." Of course, Andermann never mentions music in his discussion of "idealized images," "fetishistic images" or "symbolic environments." However, music, like all other forms of physical art, can communicate. In a sense, the communication by means of music affects at a more unconscious level and so it potentially even more powerful.
Art and its Effect on Nationalism - Practically Speaking
On a more down-to-earth level, consider the specific piece of art (in this case a poem) known as the "work that defines Argentine national identity" - none other than Martin Fierro written in 1872 and 1879 by Jose Hernandez. It also is referenced as "The Gauchesque Epic of Argentinean Letters." Nelson Gonzalez-Ortega cites this as a prime example of a "cultural construct" that can be seen to have "helped form nation-states, national identities, and literary cultures in Western societies and their former colonies." (1). In other words, he is quite specifically indicating that a piece of art (in this case a literary piece) can have a profound effect on society. Given this fact, it is much more easy to acknowledge that a piece or pieces of music like Williams compositions can have a similar profound effect on listeners over the course of time.
Moreover, it is more than likely that Williams…[continue]
"Composer Alberto Williams" (2003, April 17) Retrieved December 1, 2016, from http://www.paperdue.com/essay/composer-alberto-williams-147117
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"Composer Alberto Williams", 17 April 2003, Accessed.1 December. 2016, http://www.paperdue.com/essay/composer-alberto-williams-147117