Nationalism with the intention to promote nationalism

Nationalism was a popular sentiment during the Romantic era and appeared in all art forms of the day, including music. This lesson will introduce you to some of the biggest nationalist composers of the Romantic era.

What is Musical Nationalism?

Musical nationalism is the term used to describe art music that was created with the intention to promote nationalism or help inspire patriotic sentiments. The 19th century, also know as the Romantic Era, was a turbulent political time in the Western world. Much of the European continent, including Germany and parts of Eastern Europe was under control of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires.

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Other modern day countries, like Italy and Germany, were fragmented into a number of smaller city-states. The French and American revolutions of the previous century helped to inspire other countries to fight for their independence from foreign governments or to unify under a single national identity. Nationalism was also still prominent in the United States, a fledgling country that was struggling to find its voice while dealing with a civil war.

Popular nationalist sentiments were fueled by music and the arts. Painters helped commemorate important revolutionary events and recreated symbols of national pride, while composers began seeking new ways to commemorate their heritage through music, as well as to help establish recognizable regional styles. There were three key ways that Romantic composers created nationalist music: overtly political music, patriotic music, and national music.

Overtly Political Music

It was 1848. Composer Robert Schumann was turning 38 years old and his wife, Clara, decided to surprise him with a birthday present. At the time, Germany was divided into independent states, each ruled by a different monarch.

Revolutionaries wanted these states to be united and used the slogan vorwarts!, which means ‘forward!’ The slogan came from a poem written by a German revolutionary, and Clara decided to set that poem to music and have it performed for Robert’s birthday. The opening lyrics to Clara’s song are, ‘Leave the dreaming and hesitation behind, without fatigue, go forward!’ The addition of music helped the poem become an even more emotionally charged battle cry that reflected the political climate.

Patriotic Music

Music has been an effective way to inspire patriotic sentiments for centuries and another tool romantic composers used was to breathe new life into existing patriotic songs by turning them into art music, fit for the concert hall. American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, did just that with his work ‘The Union: Concert Paraphrase on National Airs.

‘ Gottschalk, a fierce supporter of the north, wrote this virtuosic work during the American Civil War. ‘Union’ combines three pre-existing national tunes: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and ‘Hail, Columbia.’ Although Gottschalk was not the original composer of any of these songs, his skillful arrangement of them in ‘Union’ earned him thunderous applause, standing ovations, and lots of street cred as a composer.

National Music

Antonin Dvorak was a highly successful nationalist composer in his homeland of Bohemia. Bohemia was a region of Eastern Europe that is now part of the Czech Republic.

Along with other eastern and southern European regions, Bohemia was an ethnically Slavic territory and, as a Slav, Dvorak decided to write music that commemorated Slavic national heritage. He composed the Slavonic Dances, a set of 16 orchestral works that take their inspiration from the ethnic music of Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, and his native Bohemia. These dances were very popular and gained him a widespread reputation as a nationalist composer.

This led to a job offer from the National Conservatory of Music of America, inviting Dvorak to serve as director.As an immigrant-based society without a long-standing tradition of native folk music, 19th century America wasn’t sure what their national music should sound like and wanted Dvorak to help them find their voice. After spending a few months in the country, Dvorak published a series articles stating that the foundation of American school of music should be based on the musical traditions of Native Americans and African Americans. To help prove his point, Dvorak composed a symphony incorporating the sounds of these two traditions called From the New World, which was very well received and help set the stage for modern American music. While these three composers typify certain aspects of 19th century nationalism, musical nationalism was a widespread trend that inspired a large number of composers throughout the western world. Other notable nationalist composers include Frederic Chopin from Poland, Modest Mussorgsky of Russia, Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, and Jean Sibelius from Finland.

Lesson Summary

Musical nationalism was a popular movement in the western world during the 19th century. Nationalistic music was created with the intention to promote national political agendas and help inspire patriotic sentiments. Some composers, like Clara Schumann, wrote overtly political music to reflect the then-current political climate, like her revolutionary anthem, ‘Vorwarts!’ Others, like Louis Moreau Gottschalk, combined patriotic tunes into virtuosic works worthy of the concert hall. As fragmented nations fought for unity, another trend in musical nationalism was the incorporation of folk tune elements to create a national sound. Antonin Dvorak did this by using several different folk dance styles in his Slavonic Dances, works which were so successful that he was invited to help America find its national voice, as director of the National Conservatory of Music.


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