Nationalism and its Effect on Music in the Romantic Era (1985)

by John Miles

“The concept of nationality - in music as in other fields - is not an invariable constant but something which alters in response to historical factors... one of the factors in the nineteenth century which influenced the expression of nationality in music was the idea [that] nationalism... not merely created a concept out of existing elements... but that it also intervened in the existing situation and changed it.”

The epoch from the French Revolution to World War I comprises what is known as the Romantic Era, and music this includes the years from approximately 1825 to 1900. During that span of time, political instability and turmoil turned Europe into the world’s goriest amphitheater of utter chaos and disruption, finally culminating in the ‘war to end all wars”. The Congress of Vienna, held during 1814-15 at the end of the Napoleonic wars, was an event in which the cruel redistribution of European boundaries was decided with disregard for the people it affected. Patriots who saw their political and cultural borders violated staged a series of rebellions and insurrections, some of which were triumphant. This kind of political feeling came to be known as Nationalism. Nationalism dominated feeling and thought to such a great extent in the nineteenth century that it became a decisive power in the Romantic movement. The tensions between subjugated nations grappling for democracy and their proud conquerors gave way to sentiment that could be express in the arts and music.

“Nationalism” constitutes a “belief which, in the course of the nineteenth century... became the governing idea without always being held by those in government... the belief that it was to his nation - and not to a creed, a dynasty, or a class - that a citizen owed the first duty in a clash of loyalties.” This political claim, fused with the idea that it was “the spirit of the people” (der Volksgeist) which provided inspiration in the arts and life, was the dominant attitude of the bourgeois nationalism of the nineteenth century.

Nationalism itself underwent a transformation in the nineteenth century, in that during the first half of the century, a “nationalist” was also a “citizen of the world”, but by the latter half of the century nationalism had turned much more aggressive, with the oppressing nations initiating this change. Unfortunately, the attitude of the oppressed was equally affected by this. As nationalism matured, in music the change is apparent in works written primarily after 1860. It is for this reason that serious consideration must be given to the fact that various types of political evolution were achieved in each country that in turn affected musical nationalism.

At this time in Europe, new nations such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Finland and Hungary had been formed by the unification of old empires. In England and France, power had gone from the monarchy to democracy, while in Russia, the revolution had failed, leaving the Tsarist regime as strong as ever. It is interesting to observe that in politically strong nations such as Germany, France and Austria, composers took little interest in political themes and subject matter.

Nationalism in music usually refers to the various national schools that consciously tried to separate themselves from the standards set in the Classical period by the French, Italian and especially the German traditionalists. This formation of a national school, conceived to differentiate itself from the pan-European tradition, was itself a pan-European tradition, as was the entire bourgeois nationalist movement of the nineteenth century. Although distinct national styles are discernible in music from the Renaissance onwards, it was not until the nineteenth century that Nationalism came to dominate Europe as a mode of thought.

During the nineteenth century the popular view was taken that folk music “is always and above all the music of a nation.” However, what makes this ambiguous and ill-founded is the fact that when one discusses folk music with references to “the people”, the expression “the people” usually refers to the lower strata of the population known universally as peasants, and also to the concept of “the nation” as a whole. However, nineteenth century nationalism was a phenomena of the bourgeois, not an expression of the peasant’s self-awareness. This use of folk music by the bourgeois was more to reassure themselves of the authenticity of their own patriotism as well as an appeal across the social barriers of the time. (For the nobility, it was not the national loyalties that counted, but dynastic ones.) For the bourgeois, national character was the “primary and essential quality of folk music... and that folk music expresses the spirit of a people.”

In the nineteenth century, composers not only expressed themselves but chose the style in which to do it. In general, the Romantic composer was slow in discovering and using folk songs in their music. At first they were used in brief works, such as a peasant dance like a mazurka, but gradually became to be used in symphonic works, although the lush vivid orchestrations tended to mask their simplistic character. Because folk music is basically monodic, it resisted assimilation into the well-established formulas of major-minor tonality, and for that very reason it challenged composers to experiment with unusual harmonies. This in turn affected harmonies in music unconnected with folk-oriented music, and thus manifested itself into the mainstream of developments. This experimentation was itself a consequence of a specific, well-defined problem that was encountered by Romantic composers of the era, and was not the result of random factors.

Occasionally composers, attracted by another country’s national idioms, would for specific reasons use those idiom in their music for an effect. This practice is known as Exoticism and was a strong trend in the nineteenth century. Exoticism is “a search for new effects from the folk music of other lands and peoples, generally those considered to be less spoiled by civilization; this even led to the phenomenon of Russian nationalists who proclaimed their musical independence from western European models by exploiting the exotica of the peoples of central Asia who had recently been conquered by the Tsarist imperium.”

Another way nationalism made an impact in the music of the nineteenth century is from an aesthetic standpoint. The dominant principle was one of novelty and originality. The tradition of imitation was now condemned, and unfamiliar music was now considered by be authentic. However, with art music being confronted with the dillemma of having to abandon aristocratic and esoteric goals to become democratic and popular, the ideal of popularity came into direct conflict with the ideal of novelty and originality, which required a great deal of intellectual understanding and was not appreciated by the general public. Musical nationalism provided the “appearance of familiarity” so the composer could be original and artistic while the listener could identify with the music on a patriotic level.

Paradoxically, folk music is not always local or regional in its coloring or character; some stylistic traits felt to be specific to a particular country are actually common to “national” music in general, as the study of folk music at the time was considered in each country only at a national, and not on a comparative level. As much as composers exploited peasant music for their nationalistic music, “the ‘spirit of the people’ that was thought to speak in the music of the ‘national schools’ was heard only by the educated, not the ‘people’ themselves.”


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