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Nationalism and 19th Century Music Essay

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2022

In the nineteenth century, nationalism was the most powerful and successful political might. It came into emergence from two major sources. The first was the Romantic excitement of “identity” and “feeling” and the common sensibility was moving toward the Liberal attitude that was looking forward to a state that was essentially based on a nation’s masses rather than on God, dynasty, or colonial domination. The two movements, the “identity nationalism” and “civic nationalism” (the Liberal side) were the forces gushing out of the middle-class sensibility. In the 19th century, nationalism saw an outlet in the form of music, with other channels also being practice. It spread, in this very century, across Slavic countries; some of these countries had it as the revival and some of them just saw it as the emerging force. Every nation under this influence came to exercise its voice toward national identity. Although an overall wave of nationalism can be seen in this century, it would be a right observation to state that this movement was not like streamlined efforts; instead, it was felt and consulted at different stages in different countries. Some musicians came to participate in this movement from Spain to Sweden, and from Finland to Russia. However, the most prominent names of nineteenth-century musicians in different countries are Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) from Finland; Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) from Bohemia; Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) from Italy, to name a few. It was with these composers that people came to a musical representation of some challenges and limitations regarding nationalism. This point in time is so highly marked that it is remembered today due to its unique status in musical history. Some areas were touched upon by these musicians from speaking loudly in the notes about their cultural heritage to relaying a message to the masses about the snobberies of the aristocratic class. Different composers saw the situation from their points of view and mingled this sensibility with that of the overall nationalism being felt from one nation to another. There is no doubt that music came to find a new stature in this very century when it moved along with the political movement and cultural changes of the nineteenth century (Halsall, 1997).

For the scope of the present study the musician to be examined with his works regarding musical nationalism of the nineteenth century is Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana.

Bedrich Smetana

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) is a highly influential name in connection with the Czech struggle and the voice for nationalism through musical composition. The influence of this musician is so gravely felt on the Czech musical canvas this Smetana is today considered the father of Czech nationalism. The prominent features of Smetana’s musical compositions are far from many; however, his creativity and originality of thought and expression are considered to be the focal point regarding his historical fame and popularity in the musical world today. It was these qualities this Smetana stood far taller than his contemporaries and inspired some following musician generation in Czech and elsewhere. For him the perfect medium of expression was present in the opera presentation which he finely used to raise the conscious voice of nationalism. Opera was central in Smetana’s musical expression (Reichel, 2004). The unique contribution for which Smetana is highly praised in musical history is what he did in contrast to his contemporaries. He was an artist who saw the real charm present in the musical lingua franca of that time; on the other hand, his contemporaries like Vladimir Nabokov were simply moving traditionally by embellishing the commonplace through their music. Therefore, Smetana rose high to let Czechoslovak nationalism be felt with high tones. Smetana sought to bring forward through his music the two sides of nationalism. The one was his reference to historical struggles that his country had gone through, along with references made to heroic deeds with mythical elements; the other was that he intermingled these components with a subtle and appreciative travelogue. The overall effect of his composition is so dense on musical scenes that his fame and popularity move out of the geographical and ethnic borders of a nation. History and nature are two other important themes found in this artist’s works. The journey that starts from ancient harping moves through some stages from field and woods, ruins of time to castles; finally comes to be identified with that of his own time. At a time these two elements are combined to voice his concern about nationalism and cultural liberty. Political thought is not skipped from the grip of Smetana (NYT, 1987).

Smetana’s works present a typical practice of musical composition that takes us back into his own time. His music is full of melody and directly appeals to his audience. For instance, his work, the Moldau River, is a perfect piece of artistic creativity that has fresh insights into what can be called programmatic music. In this work, Smetana is engaged in taking his audience on a musical tour that moves down the river. On the one side of the river is going on a wedding ceremony that has peasants as its central characters. On the other side of the river, however, is the sharp contrast to this peasant wedding: gigantic castle meeting the sky and looking down upon the meager happiness celebrated by the peasants of the other side of the river. What is equally impressive to note here is that Smetana does more than just paint a musical picture of a theme. What he does is move beyond this stage; it is a stage where high creative power is at practice about music composition. It tells us of his pervasive attitude toward building an overall effect that is a product of finely chosen musical strands. Smetana’s works mostly center on his homeland; as such his operatic subjects, instrumental creations, and his main focus falls on this side. It was in the wake of the nationalist revolts that rose out of 1848: the intention to demand freedom from the shackles of the Austrian Empire. It was this very wave that had some artists, writers, musicians, and other notable figures start with voices of nationalism and marking the beginning of one of the most powerful Romantic Movements in history. It is also where we find Smetana being strong enough to speak the tongue of nationalism through music for his beloved homeland. This is done so majestically as to impress his own time as well as to be remembered today for his great creative powers and converting those powers into the streamlines struggle of nationalism (Essentials of Music, 2001).

His Major Works

It was not until much later in his life that did Smetana came to some stable ground both for his personal and professional life. In 1856 he had the opportunity to become the conductor of the Philharmonic Society of Goteborg. He stayed at this stage until 1861 and it is also where we find him creating his nationalistic works. He composed here his first symphonic poems. By this very time the nationalist movement in Czechoslovakia was mounting high in Bohemia where Smetana was now staying. With a few blows by the German, the movement was now again gaining force, and history is evident that this was partly because of the musical nationalist efforts of Smetana. His works, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, The Bartered Bride, The Two Widows and Dalibor and Libuse are remarkably notable for their nationalistic fervor. The latter two, however, are regarded as his most nationalistic of works. Ma Vlast is another set of six nationalistic symphonic tone poems that he composed. Ma Vlast (My Country), is one of the most important as well as prominent works of Smetana. A cycle of six poems (all symphonic) is described in the words of Smetana expert John Clapham as “the musician’s “vast instrumental monument to his nation”. It was the influence of Liszt over Smenata that encouraged him to adopt this format of the symphonic poem: descriptive. Although it might be correct that Smetana does not offer as melodic and harmonic of compositions as those with Liszt, there is no doubt in the observation that he is far naturally expressive and fresher. He composed this work at a time when he was going out of his hearing power and found it hard to keep balance. The Bartered Bride is another very famous of his work that spoke in a high tone of his fervor. It was also translated into German. The original version of this work was in two acts and the dialogue was spoken. It was later modified by some insertion including polka. It was in 1870 that Smetana replaced the spoken dialogue with recitative. This work was staged and had the flavor of an amiable picture of that time village life of Bohemia. This work reflected the originality and spirit of Czech folk music as well as dance. This work established Smetana’s position as an expert musician and won him a place as National Theater chief conductor (Decclassics.com, n.d.).

Frederick Chopin from Poland

Frederick Chopin from Poland is another notable name in the musical nationalism of the 19th century. Like many of the nineteenth century musicians, his works have also been studied to chase the flavor of nationalism. Nationalism, as such, finds a dominant place in Chopin’s musical works. It is also supported by the times in which Chopin was living; Unique political events were happening around. Recently much of the scholarly attention with regard to Chopin’s work has shifted to his reputation as a nationalist whose works are examined with regard to excellence and not what kind of appreciation these works received from the audience. A number of his works have been put to close examination to see what nationalist ingredients are put in these works. Some of these examined works area polonaises, mazurkas, and others with distinctly Polish historical background and its association with nationalism. What the examination has up to date returned is that Chopin’s intentions do not necessary stand to lend or indicate a strong nationalist intention. Another observation comes from the number of compositions that he undertook. He merely composed fifteen polonaises and just six of them got his approval to be published. However, through this genre the remarkable contribution that Chopin made to the musical scene was that the Preludes are among finest of musical works. Moreover, he introduced polonaise rhythms.

Chopin developed the genre of mazurka and doubtlessly took with it his typical nationalist associations that were Polish in essence. He wrote a number of them and often kept his hand on the writing of these even all through his life. What is so notable in these compositions is the chromatic harmonies scattered around which expel a kind of strange taste. Although these compositions are complex in nature, these are not exotic chromaticism. The Fantasy on Polish Airs, Rondo a la krakowiak, Rondo a la mazur are all composed by him. These works have dance forms, rhythms, and modalities which are clearly Polish in taste and nature. Although as a young pianist he created a number of compositions that were essentially Polish, as a mature artist we do not find in him such overtly sounding Polish tone. These works his life as a young pianist, a young artist in Poland, where he makes use of his ethnic Polish background as “fodder for his artistic creativity” (Bradley, 2008).

Glinka Mikhail

This Russian nineteenth century musician is another great name when it comes to nationalism and music. Glinka has the honor to lay the foundation of Russian musical nationalism in the nineteenth century. Later composers of Russia did follow him with regard to musical compositions that he had left behind him. The distinct feature of Glinka’ work is that he marinated for Russian music a notably different stature that took Russian musical forms essential away from that of European influence. His musical nationalism is so impressive in expression of thoughts and ideals that none of his contemporaries can be put at his side to make comparison. The highly dramatic moments of A Life for the Tsar are one example of such mastery that was typically of Glinka’s. The major contribution that Glinka had to his credit was that he was busy in creating music that was basically nationalist; whereas, his peers at that time were composing music which was nothing but a praising effort to please the rich people class of Russia. Something that took Glinka’s composition aside from his contemporaries’ work was that he employed the peasant popular form of music and by his highly creative talent he proved that this was yet a highly appreciative and beautiful form of music. Later days proved that he was right as the popularity of works increased. His originality and nationalism were combined with free flowing ideas. What he ahead did was that he used this peasant genre for the nationalistic purposes. For instance in A Life for the Tsar, we find him using the peasant form of music; however, through the same rustic form, Glinka is magnificently praising the important position of Tsar. By this way critics agree that Glinka achieved two-fold purpose. One was to bring forward the charm and beauty of the peasant form of Russian music; the other purpose that he achieved was to incorporate this form for the purposes of nationalism. He used the tone scale wholly for the first time marking Russian music’s peculiarity and distinctness. His work Kamarisky is one in the line that won him high status as a composer and was later called the “first Russian symphony” just because of this creative masterpiece. However, in the later days some events made him spend considerably more time aboard. While abroad Glinka came under the influence of foreign musicians and thus we find in his later work the influence of those foreign elements. This is surprising to note that for such a class nationalistic musician, the later foreign influence on Glinka in not only grave but also there are a number of countries from where this artist found his influence. These countries, among others, are as diverse as from Middle East to Spain. Yet, his individual status and musical creativity did not lose its weight and continued to influence other coming Russian musicians. If we examine the traditional forces at play at that in Russia, we find that things were very complex and something that were very difficult to change especially when it came to Glinka’s stance with regard to changing the musical scene of the country. For instance, it can come to our observation by the study of Russian music of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century that most of what was being composed at that time was some material away from real life and it was centrally a work to please the rich people of Russian; in other words, the musical world did not have anything for the entertainment of the people other than elite. Glinka then came forward with his talented zest and proved this tradition to be wrong enough. He took the peasant musical form and presented in it his nationalistic ideas that not only praised his country, his heroes, and his culture; but also provoked the lower class people to join hands with him so that a nationalist front can be formed (Gale, 2004).

There are a number of important contributions that Glinka made to his nationalistic music; however, very much notable is his sticking to the peasant form of music all the way down to his career. Although later life of this person did show the influence of other countries’ musicians on his work, it is right to state that his Russian stand remained typically Russian. It was the kind of stand that he took to convey his message to the masses to let them know that music worked for them. His foundation is highly praised for this very purpose. Another major contribution of Glinka is that his used the famous ‘varying background’ techniques which became the hallmark of his fame. This popularity of this technique was so much that a number of later coming musician generations not only followed this style of him, but also openly admitted that Glinka was the inspiration for them. Borodin and Dargomyzhsky are the two among these later generation musicians who came to admit this influence of Glinka (Warrack, and West, 1996).


Nineteenth century is not only a point in time when a number of political movements come into focus because of nationalistic zeal, it is the very time when we see a number of musicians appear on the scene of the world to impress the audience with the marvelous style by which they relayed their message to the masses. It is highly appreciative of them to use music for the purposed of raising their voice and conveying it to the masses. The popularity of some of the nineteenth century musical message was so much that sometimes it is recorded in history that a concert here and a concert there caused huge stir in people which led to great nationalist unity. Therefore, it is important to note that music took a very important turn from that time onward. It was the Romantic Movement of the then musicians that taught the later generation the powerful force that music had in it besides its use for entertainment.


  1. Bradley, (2008). Frederic Chopin’s Polonaises and mazurkas.
  2. Decclassics.com (n.d.). Composers: Bedrich Smetana.
  3. Essentials of Music (2001). Bedrich Smetana: Czech composer and conductor. Smetana was one of the founders of the Czech nationalist movement.
  4. Gale, T. (2004). “Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka.” Encyclopedia of World Biography.
  5. Halsall, P. (1997). . Web.
  6. NYT (1987). “CONCERT: THE CZECH PHILHARMONIC – New York Times.” The New York Times.
  7. Reichel, E. (2004). Deseret Morning News. “‘The Bartered Bride’ offers audiences a seldom-seen opera.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City). Deseret News Publishing Company UT.
  8. Warrack, J., and West, E. (1996). “Glinka, Mikhail.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera. 1996.
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