Musical nationalism

Musical nationalism

Musical nationalism refers to the use of musical ideas or motifs that are identified with a specific country, region, or ethnicity, such as folk tunes and melodies, rhythms, and harmonies inspired by them. Musical nationalism can also include the use of folklore as a basis for programmatic works including opera.

Although some evidence of the trend can be seen as early as the late 18th century, nationalism as a musical phenomenon is generally understood to have emerged part way into the Romantic era, beginning around the mid-19th century and continuing well into the twentieth. It initially began as a reaction against the dominance of the mainstream European classical tradition (that is "German", "Italian", and "French" music) and later developed alongside the growing movements for national liberation and self-determination that characterized much of the 19th century. Countries or regions most commonly linked to musical nationalism include Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Scandinavia, Spain, UK, Latin America and the United States.

It should also be noted that musical nationalism is a term often used to describe non-European 20th century music as well, in particular that originating in Latin America.



Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

See also: Nationalism in Chopin's compositions

Fryderyk Chopin was one of the first composers to incorporate nationalistic elements into his compositions . Joseph Machlis states, "Poland's struggle for freedom from tsarist rule aroused the national poet in Poland...Examples of musical nationalism abound in the output of the romantic era. The folk idiom is prominent in the Mazurkas of Chopin." (Machlis 1963, 149-150). His mazurkas and polonaises are particularly notable for their use of nationalistic rhythms. Moreover, "During World War II the Nazis forbade the playing of...Chopin's Polonaises in Warsaw because of the powerful symbolism residing in these works." (Machlis 1963, 150).


Until the 19th century, Russian art music had been dominated by foreign musicians. Peter the Great (1689–1725) had begun this trend by importing foreign musicians to modernize his kingdom. As a result, very few Russian compositions in the western European art music tradition exist before Glinka.

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Mikhail Glinka was the first Russian composer to give a native voice to common musical styles of the day. After studying music and visiting Italy and Berlin, Glinka composed an opera about the Russian peasant and hero Ivan Susanin. The work was titled A Life for the Tsar, and used several aspects new to Russian music. It used recitative instead of spoken dialogue, and had recurring themes. There were two Russian folk tunes in the opera, and several more tunes that had the characteristics of folk music.

The Five

Moguchaya kuchka (The Mighty Handful) is a phrase coined by Russian music critic Vladimir Stasov to describe a group of five Russian composers whose purpose was to compose music in a Russian style. Members of the five were Mily Balakirev (1836–1910), the leader of the group, César Cui (1835–1918), Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), and Alexander Borodin (1833–1887).

The Five felt that the folk and religious music of the Russian people should be used a basis for composition. They tried to avoid strict counterpoint in the Germanic style, as well as certain other techniques employed in western Europe. They preferred Romanticism and realism over Classical form. Some of the distinguishing stylistic characteristics of this group included use of non-functional tonal progressions, asymmetrical meters, and a coloristic approach to orchestration.


Czechoslovakia was a country formed in 1918 by the combination of the Bohemian, Moravian, and Slovakian territories. These territories had been under the control of the Habsburg Empire. As a result, the imperial language, German, and the imperial religion, Catholicism, had become a way of life for the Czech people.

To preserve the native language, the Provisional Theater was organized in Prague. This theater promoted the Czech language, composers, folk music, and programs using national themes.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Smetana, a Bohemian, was the first great Czech nationalist composer. He wrote his first nationalist work in 1863, in Czech, as a contest entry to the Provisional Theater. He learned to read and write Czech to enter the competition. This opera, Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia) has a historic plot, but the music does not represent folk song.

His second opera, Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride, 1863–1866), incorporates folk melodies, and was a success beyond Czechoslovakia. Also included in his nationalistic works are the six tone poems Má vlast (My Fatherland, 1872–1880).

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Dvořák was the most successful of the Czech nationalist composers. He performed viola in the Provisional Theater under Smetana, and was mentored by Brahms.

Dvořák included Bohemian themes and elements into much of his music. In 1871, he left the Provisional Theater and began to set a libretto by a Czech writer, Lobesky, titled Král a uhlíř (The King and the Charcoal Burner). Unfortunately, this opera was not successful. More notable for their national content are his sixteen Slavonic Dances, eight in Op. 46 (1878) and eight in Op. 72 (1886), plus the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op. 45 (1880).

Dvořák was invited to New York to direct the first national conservatory in America. While abroad, he studied African American and Native American music. Some say that these styles are incorporated into his American works: Symphony no. 9 op. 95 (From the New World), The "American" string quartet op. 96, and the "American" string quintet, op. 97.

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

Janáček did a lot of work researching and cataloguing Moravian folk music. His work inspired further research. Because of his interest in folk music, he was predisposed to modality and pentatonic scales which appear frequently in Moravian folk music. He generally wrote without key signatures to freely move between modes.

His most famous opera, Jenůfa (1904), was originally written in Czech and translated into German. Janáček supervised the translation carefully to preserve the integrity of the libretto.


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

Grieg began composing national music after visiting Ole Bull, a violinist and researcher of folk music.[citation needed] His most notable pieces are the incidental music for plays, including his music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1874–1875).[citation needed] He also composed many piano works in a national style.


Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

Jean Sibelius had strong patriotic feelings for Finland. He chose to write program music rather than base his works on Finnish folk music.[citation needed] For his contributions, the government awarded him a pension.[citation needed]

In 1899, patriotism was running high in Finland. Sibelius composed the symphonic poem Finlandia (1899) for a festival, and this rallied the Finnish citizens into a patriotic fervor. A portion of this tone poem has been arranged as a chorale; it remains an important national song of Finland, and is also present in many Protestant hymnals.[citation needed]


Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)

Studied at the music conservatory in his hometown, Stockholm. In addition to being a Violinist, Conductor, and Composer; he was also a painter. He is perhaps best known for his 5 symphonies and 3 Swedish Rhapsodies.


Felip Pedrell (1841-1922)

Spanish Catalan Composer. Basically the father of Spanish national music. He strongly encouraged both Albéniz and Granados to compose music in the Spanish style.

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)

Albéniz was born in Camprodon, Catalonia and studied at many of Europes premiere conservatories, including the Escuela Nacional de Música y Declamación in Spain. Many of his piano works reflect his Spanish heritage,[citation needed] including the Suite Iberia (1906–1909). In this piece the piano imitates the guitar and castanets, traditional Spanish instruments.

Enrique Granados (1867–1918)

Granados composed zarzuelas, a type of Spanish musical theater.[citation needed] He composed his work Goyescas (1911) based on the etchings of the Spanish painter, Goya. Also of a national style are his Danzas españolas and his first opera María del Carmen.


Manuel M. Ponce (1882–1948)

Manuel M. Ponce was a composer, educator and scholar of Mexican music. Among his works are the lullaby La Rancherita (1907), Scherzerino Mexicana (1909) composed in the style of sones and huapangos, Rapsodía Mexicana, No 1 (1911) based on the jarabe tapatío, and the romantic ballad Estrellita (1912).

Carlos Chávez (1899–1978)

Carlos Chávez was a Mexican composer, conductor, educator, journalist, and founder and director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra and the National Institute of Fine Arts INBA. Some of his music was influenced by indigenous Mexican cultures. A period of nationalistic leanings initiated in 1921 with the Aztec-themed ballet El fuego nuevo (The New Fire), followed by a second ballet, Los cuatro soles (The Four Suns), in 1925. Of his six Symphonies, his Symphony No. 2, Sinfonía India, which uses native Yaqui percussion instruments, is perhaps the most popular.[citation needed]

Silvestre Revueltas (1899–1940)

Silvestre Revueltas was a composer of both nationalistic and avant-garde music. His most famous is his film-music to the homonymous film La noche de los Mayas, where he appropriates musical and rhythmic motifs from Mayan indigenous music.[citation needed]

People's Republic of China


Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

He is best known for his orchestral Roman trilogy: Fontane di Roma - "Fountains of Rome"; Pini di Roma - "Pines of Rome"; and Feste Romane - "Roman Festivals".

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, nationalist music was more prominent in Scotland, Ireland and Wales than in England.[citation needed] These countries have always had a strong connection to their heritage, and Romantic composers incorporated elements of British folk music into their works.[citation needed]

Joseph Parry (1841–1903)

Parry was born in Wales, but moved to the United States as a child. In his adulthood, he traveled between Wales and America, and performed Welsh songs and glees with Welsh texts in recitals. He composed the first Welsh opera, Blodwen(1878).

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Best known for the Pomp and Circumstance Marches.

Charles Stanford (1852–1924)

Stanford incorporated Irish and English elements in his music,[citation needed] including five Irish Rhapsodies (1901–1914). He published volumes of Irish folk song arrangements, and his third symphony is titled the Irish symphony.

Alexander Mackenzie (1847–1935)

Mackenzie prepared and published arrangements of Scottish folk songs, and many of his compositions contain folk elements.[citation needed] Included in these are his Highland Ballad for violin and orchestra (1893), and the Scottish Concerto for piano and orchestra (1897). He also composed the Canadian Rhapsody.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Though also linked to some degree with the impressionist movement, Vaughan Williams' melodic language grew primarily out of the idioms of English folksong.[citation needed] He collected, published and arranged many folksongs from across the country, and wrote many pieces, large and small scale, based on folk melodies, such as the Fantasia on Greensleeves and the Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus".

United States

Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881–1946)

Cadman spent time on the Omaha and Winnebago Indian reservations and recorded their songs. He arranged and published some of them. Cadman presented a series of recitals with the Omaha princess Tsianina Redfeather, a mezzo-soprano, and composed an opera, Shanewis or The Robin Woman (1918), based on her life.

Arthur Farwell (1872–1952)

Farwell also worked with Native American music, but also studied Anglo American and African American folk songs, as well as Mexican and Cowboy music. He founded Wa-Wan Press to publish his American Indian Melodies (1900) and works by contemporary composers.

Charles Edward Ives (1874–1954)

Ives combined the American popular and church-music traditions of his youth with European art music. Sources of Charles Ives’s tonal imagery are hymn tunes and traditional songs, the town band at holiday parade, the fiddlers at Saturday night dances, patriotic songs, sentimental parlor ballads, and the melodies of Stephen Foster.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Copland wrote in a classic "Americana" style writing several patriotic songs such as Lincoln Portrait.

Edward MacDowell (1860-1908)

He was best known for his second piano concerto and his piano suites "Woodland Sketches", "Sea Pieces", and "New England Idylls". Heavily inspired by scenes of nature in the New England States.

African American Music

Music Nationalism was started off with famous composer, Anton Dvorak. After he traveled to America, it became very apparent that he was extremely interested in American folk music, Native American tribes, and the black community that was around New York City. Dvorak showed particular interest in his student Harry Burleigh. Burleigh is recognized as the first African American to achieve national status as a composer and arranger. Burleigh became famous for his arrangements in art form music of African American Spirituals. Burleigh was the exception to most African American composers who mainly studied compositions in theater music. Will Marion Cook was a violinist and graduated from The Oberlin Conservatory when he was only 15 years old. He composed many unsuccessful musicals but was best known for his songs that represented black folk elements. John Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson and Robert Cole produced two successful operettas with all-black casts on Broadway. The two operettas were The Shoo-Fly Regiment and The Red Moon.


Nikos Skalkottas

He was one of the most important Greek composers of 20th-century music. A member of the Second Viennese School, he drew his influences from both the classical repertoire and the Greek tradition.

Manolis Kalomiris

He was a Greek classical composer. He was the founder of the Greek National School of Music.


Ukrainain classical music began with the education of Ukrainians in western Europe who would return and compose music. Such composers include Italy-educated Maksym Berezovsky (1745–1777), Dmytro Bortnyansky (1751–1825), Artem Vedel (1767–1808), and Semen Hulak-Artemovsky (1813–1873).

Mykola Lysenko (1842–1912)

Mykola Lysenko is considered to be the father of Ukrainian classical music, not because he was the first Ukrainian to compose classical music, but because his music was the first that can be considered distinctly Ukrainian. At first Mykola Lysenko graduated from the Kiev University with a degree in natural sciences. However, coming from a rich family Lysenko was educated in music and decided not to start work in his field of study but instead to further his musical education at first in Franz Schubert's Leipzig Conservatory and later in the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Inspired by Taras Shevchenko and other members of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius who stood for the liberation of Ukrainian territories from Russian, Polish and Austrian rule, Lysenko wrote numerous art songs to the words of these and many other Ukrainian poets. He was also an ethnomusicologist, collecting and arranging Ukrainian folk songs for choir, and solos and duets with accompaniment. His own orchestral music, such as his opera Taras Bulba were based on distinctly Ukrainian topics and featured Ukrainian folk themes. He also opened the first Ukrainian music school in Kiev, the Mykola Lysenko Institute of Music and Drama.

Lysenko's traditions were continued by the likes of Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882–1922), Mykola Leontovych (1877–1921), Yakiv Stepovy (1883–1921), Alexander Koshetz (1877-1944), and later, Levko Revutsky (1889–1977).


  • Apel, Willi. 1968. Harvard Dictionary of Music. Boston: Harvard UP.
  • Applegate, Celia. 'How German Is It? Nationalism and the Idea of Serious Music in the Early Nineteenth Century', 19th-Century Music, 21(3) (Spring, 1998), 274-296.
  • Grout, Donald J. 1960. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton.
  • Machlis, Joesph. 1963. The Enjoyment of Music. New York: W. W. Norton
  • Stolba, K. Marie. 1990. The Development of Western Music: A History. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, Inc.
  • Taruskin, Richard. n.d. Nationalism. Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 8 December 2005). [<>].
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. 3rd Edition. New York: Norton and Company 1997

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