Dave SINARDET is a Professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), as well as at the Université Saint-Louis in Brussels. He published in numerous international social science journals and books on themes such as federalism, nationalism, consensus democracy, political communication and multilingual democracy.
He is an expert on Belgian politics and more particularly on Belgian federalism. His phd studied how a public sphere functions in a federal multilingual country such as Belgium and how Dutch-speaking and French speaking media represent Belgium’s political language conflict.
He also contributed tot the debate on the European public sphere, through a comparaison with the Belgian situation. Sinardet is a columnist as well. He subsequently held a column in different Dutch-speaking and French-speaking newspapers. Also trough lectures, debates and media appearences, he is an active participant in the Belgian public debate, as one of the few opinion makers present on both sides of Belgium’s language border.
Additionally, he is regularly consulted by international media as an expert on questions related to nationalism and federalism as well as on Belgian politics. Sinardet is also a fervent melomaniac. He works and lives in Brussels and Antwerp (Belgium).
All across Europe and far beyond, the Parisian terror attacks of 2015 lead to expressions of solidarity with the victims and of disgust at the barbaric violence. The symbols that were put to work for this tended to be those of the French nation state: its flag and its anthem. From official monuments to individuals’ Facebook profiles, the world adopted the French colours. The Marseillaise was heard in many global cities including Berlin, Rome, Copenhagen, Madrid, Dublin, and even London.
Considering the desire to display solidarity with (predominantly) French victims, the choice of the French national anthem was not entirely surprising. And yet there is a certain paradox in expressing abhorrence by means of a military march, of which the text calls for the impure blood of its enemies to flow freely. And in the choice of a national song precisely to communicate a sentiment of togetherness that crosses boundaries.
To convey values like humanism, fraternity and peace - as well as solidarity with (French) victims - across European borders, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy may have been a more fitting choice. That the official European anthem has nonetheless failed to fill this role suggests that the symbols of European commonality are still some way from possessing the powerful taken-for-grantedness of their national counterparts.
Nonetheless, there were and there remain many convinced of the potential for shared symbols and culture to strengthen feelings of European union. Classical music has long been harnessed towards such a European mission. After all, is it not the unifying art form above all that crosses borders and can the play an important role in forming and fortifying a European identity? It suggests the broader question of how crucial the role of culture can and should be as part of the European project.
For opera director Gerard Mortier, the existence of a single European cultural community was not only the basis of but also the engine for European integration. He took the fact that all significant artistic movements cross Europe’s national boundaries as evidence that the European identity is not an invention of Eurocrats, but rather a historical and contemporary reality; one that has been shaped not least by classical music.
Various great composers are often cited as the representation European togetherness. Above all, of course, Beethoven. Among others, the Belgian pianist Julien Libber sees in him and in his work the ultimate cipher for European togetherness, a status that was officialised in 1985 when the European establishment chose the finale of his ninth symphony as its official anthem.
But we can detect elements of the European ideal in other composers, too. Bach for example, as beautifully shown in Pere Portabella’s film Die Stille vor Bach (The Silence Before Bach), which represents the composer as a pan-European icon who breaks through national borders. Musicologist Alfred Einstein asks us to which nation Handel ought to be ascribed: to Germany, where he was born, or to Italy in which his style took form, or to England that gave the composer’s work its special ‘magnitude’? The same question is difficult to answer for Mozart. Even in the music of a nationalist as concerted as Richard Wagner, Gerard Mortier saw a European phantom in that his operas exist only by virtue of Nordic epic poetry.
Those who are less convinced by a distinct pan-European culture and have a keener eye for cultural differences can see Europe loom up again through polyphony, which forms an excellent metaphor for the European unity in difference. ‘The differences between the Brit William Byrd and the Italian Palestrina were significant, but they nonetheless formed a polyphonic singularity’ the Dutch cultural philosopher Rob Riemen puts it. He argues that today’s art must help to bring those differences together. According to the German philosopher Rudger Safrinksi too, the essence of the culture of Europe is made up of many differences.
In short: there is a wealth of very inspiring insights into music’s European mission, built on thorough arguments.
Moreover, the existence of a pan-European network of musical institutions, centuries old, bears witness to the European dimension of classical music. Whether it is the orchestra or the opera house, these institutions are standardised to the point that musicians could and can naturally circulate throughout all of Europe, as musicologist Francis Maes has shown.
We must approach the notion that classical music is intrinsically European with caution: after all, we cannot deny that a link exists - or at least has existed - between music and the nation state, especially since the Romantic period. Edvard Grieg contributed to the formation of Norwegian identity, Chopin’s compositions found a place in the struggle for Polish independence, Béla Bartók wrote music that drew heavily on Hungarian folk music, and so on. Sibelius’ Finlandia needs no further explanation. And before it became an official symbol of European unity, Beethoven’s ninth was appropriated by national political endeavours at various points in its almost 200-year existence , some of which we would rather not be reminded of today.
All of this should hardly come as a surprise, given nationalism’s role as an important ideological current of the nineteenth century, and that era’s dominant political project. Indeed, the division of the world into nations also applied to its culture, which was divided into and interpreted according to similar new ideas about nationality. Culture was also mobilised to support the legitimacy of the new states. This built concertedly on the idea of national existence, which grew through shared national history and values, which in turn could be expressed through culture, in a tight loop. This, then, is the reason for reaching back to musical traditions or themes that were supposed to represent the nation state. In this way the ‘imagined communities’ took form and the concept of the nation state became naturalised or became, in Gramscian terms - hegemonic. Opera has certainly played an important role in nation forming projects in various European countries, as musicologist Suzanne Aspden has documented extensively. According to the American ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman, nationalism was never merely a temporary musical current, but rather essential to the ontology, the ‘manner of being’ of European music writ large.
Even today the nation state remains the optic through which many see the world, as the spontaneous use of the Marseillaise following the attacks in France evidences. National anthems are perhaps the strongest embodiment of the bond between music and nation. Although this is also just where you can most clearly see the relative nature of national identities. The music of different anthems, and especially their texts - both of which are supposed to express the essence of individual nations - display more similarities than differences. The typical national characteristics that are given voice in these songs appear rather exchangeable. Most national anthems also don’t score particularly highly in terms of aesthetics, either. Certainly in that regard the European variation is the superior candidate. But for a great many people, these anthems nonetheless express a feeling of nationality.
There are also other ways in which music is used by different nation states to represent the nation, albeit in less explicitly ideological ways, to paraphrase the work of the British sociologist Michael Billig.
But nation states no longer have the monopoly as far as this is concerned. In recent decades, music has been explicitly mobilised in support of the European political project, in a manner that recalls the methods of nation building. Like the nation states of yesteryear, the European Union has also sought to found its raison d’être through a shared cultural identity, in which music has an important role to play.
Particularly since the 1970s, the commission and parliament developed a cultural politics. Because there was no legal foundation for this - the 1957 treaty of Rome made no mention of culture - this work was undergirded by means of arguing for the importance of the ‘cultural sector’. But make no mistake: the fundamental idea was that the creation of a common cultural space for all Europeans could bolster European integration. In the 1980s the Adonnino commission laid the foundations for rapid acceleration by making a series of concrete proposals, including the adoption of official symbols, like the flag and anthem (which had previously belonged to the Council of Europe. In the meantime, talk of a democratic deficit increased, and was interpreted as linked to a cultural deficit. The ‘European idea’ needed to become a part of all Europeans’ lives.
In the Maastricht Treaty, culture is taken up explicitly as one of the areas that the Union wishes to take care of, in a supplementary role to states. Mention is made of the two aforementioned visions of European culture: the shared cultural heritage ought to be propagated, but alongside the diverse cultures within Europe, the individuality of which ought to be respected. From the 90s onwards, this view of culture as ‘unity through difference’ becomes steadily more dominant, at the price of the idea of a single unique European culture.
Music has played an important role in this story. Over the years, the European Youth Orchestra, the European Opera Centre and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe came to be. At the same time, some find the European Ministry of Culture overly elitist and too Eurocentric, with little interest in the cultures of new Europeans.
A more fundamental question is this: does the European political project really require a European identity and culture in order to survive?
Is there not a risk that the European project is being undergirded by the premises, the logics, the concepts, and the vocabularies of the nation state? These may still be dominant, but in the light of world history they remain a relative recent construction that could only become hegemonic in a clearly defined historical, economic and political context.
Are pro-Europeans dead set on proving that Europe does display the attributes of a nation state not arguing in the same antiquated terms as eurosceptics determined to show that it does not? Following the separation between church and state, ought we not move towards a separation between nation and state, too?
Just as the emergence of the nation state was once a logical consequence of societal evolutions like industrialisation, there are now undoubtedly other responses required for a new set of contemporary developments, like globalisation. The luxury to debate whether we want to organise (a part of) our democracy supranationally is no longer ours. Unless we reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are simply losing our democratic grip of a number of fundamental evolutions. In other words, we have to think now about how we can organise democratic institutions that best respond to these new challenges. And how we afford these legitimacy.
For this to be the case, European identity need be neither a conditio sine qua non, nor a taboo. Who, aside from stubborn nationalists, can have a problem with the fact that people from different European countries are brought closer together by being shown what they have in common?
Some regard this as an anti-nationalist project, as became clear during the Brexit campaign. Eurosceptics in Britain and beyond feel that a strong European identity is a threat to national identities, and it is this that lies behind the struggles of Scottish, Catalonian and Flemish nationalists against the British, Spanish, and Belgian identities.
What it really comes down to is the increasingly multilayered manner in which many experience identity today. Perhaps the expression and representation of these layered identities is a cultural project through which the European Union can (more intensely) proliferate itself. Who knows: perhaps the Ode to Joy may yet become the obvious choice for expressing solidarity across national borders in difficult times.