Review: Music in the Balkans

This review originally appeared in European History Quarterly 44:3 (2014): 573-4.

Music in the Balkans. Jim Samson. Brill. Leiden, 2013. 729 + xx pp. 14 illus. ISBN 978-90-04-25037-6 (Hardback).

With this wide-ranging history spanning five centuries and more than 700 pages, Jim Samson has turned from Poland (the home of Chopin and Karol Szymanowski, on whom Samson has written extensively) towards south-east Europe. The book’s task is ambitious, and its intentions important: to provide an account of art music, church music, popular music and traditional music in the Balkans which will identify ‘patterns in the cultural history of the region as a whole’ (3). These patterns are to include the music of empire and the music of national minorities, two aspects of south-east European musical history that Samson considers are likely to be neglected by studies that prioritize the national level of analysis. Also motivating the account is a sense that, in comparison to popular and traditional music in particular, art music has been neglected in the study of the region. Samson seeks to rectify these absences by combining all these aspects into a comprehensive work. In the process, he asks what is perhaps the central question for historians, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists studying music in south-east Europe today: ‘How can we denationalise music histories?’ (660).

This is a question already being posed by many of the researchers on whose work Samson draws, notably by Donna Buchanan and her fellow contributors to the Balkan Popular Culture and the Ottoman Ecumene anthology in 2007. The idea of the ‘Ottoman ecumene’ – that is, the ‘world of multiple languages, faiths and customs, and of hybrid cultural idioms’, that developed in the Balkans as a legacy of Ottoman rule (20) – is also a strong presence in Samson’s book. His method of approaching it is that of a sole author covering a broad range of time. The book begins with a vignette of the origins of the Sephardic liturgy from which Samson is able to draw out several issues that inform the book: the contradictions in narratives of place (either that ‘everyone has a proper place’ or that ‘we are creatures of the places we inhabit’ and not of ‘our imagined past’ (28)); identity politics and the transformations of cultural identities as they interact with others; the construction and crossing of borders, both political and stylistic; the difficulties of representing oral traditions in written history; the effects of modernity on traditional ways of life; and the social sciences’ dilemma of reconciling structure and agency, which Samson proposes to solve by searching out ‘the ambiguities of little stories’ (34) within the grand narratives of the world.

The book is divided into five parts, following but not fixing major phases in the modern history of the region. The first, ‘Balkan Geographies’, establishes the physical and cultural geography of south-east Europe until more or less the end of the eighteenth century. The second, ‘Historical Layers’, corresponds roughly to the nineteenth century and the origins of nationalist movements, but takes in some much more distant history such as the development of Orthodox church music. The third part, ‘Music in Transition’, covers the end of the Ottoman empire and the emergence of the south-east European nation-states. With the fourth part, ‘Eastern Europe’, the book must consider the effects of Communist cultural ideology and the Cold War. The last part, ‘Global Balkans’, deals with the region’s experiences of post-socialism and (in former Yugoslavia) war, synthesizing the ever greater amount of research on south-east European popular and folk music in the context of globalization.

The strength of Music in the Balkans is that it places all of these examples into the longue durée. The much-discussed urban/rural divide in twentieth- and twenty-first-century cultural reception in south-east Europe, for instance, is for Samson ultimately a legacy of the geographies and trade routes that stimulated ‘an intrinsically dynamic process of cultural flow’ in cities on the trade routes but produced insulated cultural environments in rural regions where the pattern of mountains and rivers fell differently (39). A partial comparison is able to be drawn between the pan-Balkan pop-folk of post-socialism and the art music of the nationalist movements at the turn of the 20th century, on the grounds that both ‘allow a repertory of generalised idioms to serve as all-purpose musical signifiers, while specificity resides in a poetics of intention and reception’ (606). Other instances of the longue durée abound, and the book could productively be read alongside the writings on nationalism of Anthony D. Smith, which locate the origins of the nation in cultural communities and traditions that had already formed before the birth of industrial society. Its synthesis of musical genres that are usually treated separately is also valuable (though there is remarkably little reference to jazz, even within the category of art music), and the references to other authors will lead the reader to many specialist works (even if the discussion of machismo in pop-folk would have benefited from a reference to the work of Ivana Kronja, who is not mentioned here.) The reader may or may not accept Samson’s longue durée explanations entirely; however, the aims and scope of Music in the Balkans mean that research libraries with serious interests in the region should not be without this book.


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