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Nineteenth Century Musical Nationalism: Important Milestones Essay

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The present paper is an investigation of nationalism in nineteenth century music trends in different parts of the world. The paper takes into consideration two countries and chooses the notable figures of music history from these two countries because of the enormous influence these two figures have left on the canvas of musical nationalism. The first country of analysis for the present study is Italy. From this country the musical nationalist understudy is Giuseppe Verdi. The other country is nineteenth century Russia fro where Glinka is chosen to examine musical nationalism. These particular individuals are chosen because of their nationalist efforts, sincerity, and influence. The paper ends with a critical discussion of these two individuals and makes a thorough analysis of their contribution.

Musical Nationalism in 19th Century

The nineteenth century is a point in time when there began a musical movement that carried elements of nationalism and composers raised their voice through the music they composed. There were some genres in which this musical nationalism of the nineteenth century was prominent: some of the wells noted genres were folk songs, folk rhythms, symphonic poems, and on subjects of operas. All these reflected a spirit of nationalism, the life of their nations, and their histories, and the composers stood firm on their stance. This musical movement in the nineteenth century was moving on parallel to political movements going on for independence like those in progress at the time of 1848. The name of Haydn appears on top of such musicians of nineteenth century musical nationalism. Many of his folk songs are clear manifestations of this musical nationalism. The Polish musician, Chopin, is another name in the same series. This figure in nineteenth century musical nationalism is remembered today because of his dance rhythms and such musical forms as ‘mazurka’. In Russia, the musical stage saw Glinka’s compositions carry on the grave voice of nationalism. He is a very prominent figure in the nineteenth century musical national of Russia. Glinka’s ‘A Life for the Tsar’ (1836) is considered to be the work that began musical nationalism in Russia. His nationalism was later sustained by some musicians in Russian, e.g., Cui and Mussorgsky to name a few. Hungry was not behind in the changing scenario about political activity and its manifestation in musical efforts. Thus, there we meet Liszt, who expressed his spirited nationalism in his works which was also carried further by other Hungarian musicians like Kodaly. Bohemian musicians like Dvorak and Janacek are considered to be the representatives of the same musical movement of that time. Norway gave the name of prominent works of Grieg to be remembered today for this very movement of the nineteenth century. From Finland we meet Sibelius and Falla comes from Spain. In short, it can be seen that the musical movement of the nineteenth century was a collective effort initiated and sustained in some countries. It is this spirit of musical nationalism that resulted in monumental masterpieces which have received historical praise and applause from around the world.

Giuseppe Verdi and Musical Nationalism

Verdi is considered an inspiration for Italian nationalism. Verdi, along with Wagner and Mozart, makes up the trio for the greatest of operatic musicians in Europe’s history. He was born in the rural setting or northern Italy and was proud to mention his humble birth origins and proudly called himself a peasant. As such, this great musician wanted to speak to the masses about his nationalist thoughts and did not privilege the elite. It was with the background of the Napoleonic Wars that then Italy became divided into two sections; one was the mixture of different kingdoms scattered across the country and the other was the duchies. Verdi was a fundamentalist who fervently raised his voice for liberal forces of nationalism. It was this base that made him produce remarkable works in a musical career that spanned 50 years long. Thus, his works became truly inspirational for Italian nationalism. In 1861, he came to the first parliament of the country to become its member on the same ground of nationalism; he was widely considered a figurehead for the Risorgimento (the movement of unification). During his lifetime Verdi enjoyed the status of being a massively popular figure. He musically belongs to the Romantic Movement of Europe. This movement began in a revolt against classical music conventions; the Romantic Movement accentuated on the musical content which was expressive and it was obtained at the expense of previously held musical norms and forms. It was the time when a musician, like Verdi, let his ideas flow freely through music accompanied by the feelings and fantasies developed into the music by the composer. Verdi’s operas present a state of high emotionalism; he is regarded as the true heir to the Italian music trends. It was the time when growing voices of unification and nationalism gave rise to folk and national music. Thus, he is finely linked to Italian musical nationalism. In his early phase of musical reflection (the late 1830s and 40s), Verdi can be seen busy at operas that were allegories of his country’s struggle against the oppression of foreign powers such as Austria. Nabucco (1842) is considered as the most applauded of his work from that early phase of his career; in eight years his writing of 13 operas sparked off high fervor of Italian nationalism (Sagall, 2001).

The Battle of Legnano is his most explicitly nationalist opera conducted in 1849 in Rome. The background of this masterpiece is that in 1848 a huge resistance rose against oppression. Though it was later put to the wall, Verdi was given a patriotic zeal to create this national masterpiece. However, it caused Verdi to retreat from politics and he started composing music that was more private and more subtle. From 1849 to 1853, his works like Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore all became highly appreciated and famous in basic elements of melody and drama. It is in Rigoletto that we see a very mature artist Verdi, who was now composing long-lasting musical masterpieces. Class hatred is one major theme in this work along with others. The 1853-work, La Traviata, is often considered as the most sentimentally rich of Verdi’s operas. In this work we find Verdi highly critical of the hypocrisy offered by the fake standards and practices of the bourgeois. It is the story of Violetta, who wants to gain a respectable status in society by marrying Alfredo, her lover. However, Alfredo’s father influences her to let go of her lover. It is the conventional morality that is exposed victimizing Violetta, on the one hand; yet she is shown to be morally so superior to the so-called dictators of morality. The 1850s saw Verdi moving onto a further changed direction for his works where he was seen more inclined to his political thought and efforts of nationalism. Thus, we see this artist composing music that is full of political questions which are, however, mixed with his tension. As Italian nationalism was drawing to the stage of completion, Verdi was busy dealing with new problems which were connected to this situation. A few quotable examples for this practice by Verdi are A Masked Ball, created in 1859; The Force of Destiny, conceived in 1862; Don Carlos, composed in the year 1867; and Aida has done in 1871 (Sagall, 2001).

The one issue that is constantly at examination and exploration in the works of Verdi is that inquiry about the kind of government that can be desirable and successful for the modern times and that nations flourishing in these days. There are a long range of likely rulers presented by Verdi in his works. For instance, in Masked Ball we meet King Gustavus, a person with high magnanimity and impressive vision. It was feudal oppression which Verdi wanted to be subdued by the future government; instead this savagely treating system, Verdi wanted a system that was civilized: democracy became the word of his musical tones. On the other hand, we meet Philip II in Verdi’s work Don Carlos, and there is this Egyptian priest of high caliber, Ramfis (in Aida). Both these figure are portrayed as being the oppressors and harsh rulers whose bad nature and attitude results only in the destruction. It may be a right remark to state that in Don Carlos, Verdi’s treatment of personal life woven with political treatment is a classical creation. The leading characters in this work have both private and public lives and the way Verdi exposes their hidden valleys is remarkably impressive and touching. Political responsibility and personal wants and desires very beautifully take on in this work (Sagall, 2001).

Verdi, the icon of musical nationalism of Italy, had been actively involved in the nationalist struggle in his youth. He wanted to throw out the oppressing rulers, the Hapsburg. This agitation and struggling Verdi is very much evident in the musical compositions that the mature Verdi gay a material form (Strini, 2008). What actually Verdi realized was that idea that music can be used to take public to patriotic waves and nationalist voice. Hence we see him composing a number of works that stand independent of any shortfall and impress us with deep love for nationalist spirit such as “Va, Pensiero”. Verdi’s contribution is also remembered as his name is tied to the great string woven for Italian cultural struggle and nurturing. A great hero of Italian music and opera, Verdi is put in the front reference when it comes to music discussion, nineteenth century Italy and nationalism. Verdi’s sublime art and creative fervor for his love of national ethos make him a composer par excellence especially from the period of 1840s to 1893. While putting full efforts to raise his concerns against a number of issues in his country, he is well remembered today for synthesizing music and drama (Schmidt, 2001).

Glinka Mikhail and Musical Nationalism

Glinka Mikhail is one of the most prominent figures in the entire musical history of Russia and not only the nineteenth century. It was Mikhail who virtually lay the founding stone of nationalist Russian music in the nineteenth century. Forthcoming generation of nationalist Russian musicians essentially sought to take assistance in the godly nationalist efforts put by this grand personality on the Russian musical scene. Mikhail took Russian nationalist spirit to such heights that later composers consulted to his work to meet the challenging arena of European music when it came to original composition and richness of Russian folk music. Chasing the background of the then Russian society tells us that in the 18th century Russia, aristocratic influence was immense which gave way to the European style of music that was open with praise for elite. Thus, to overcome this trendy fallacy of music, a number of Russian musicians tried their creative talent by incorporating folk music into their works. As a child Mikhail had already been exposed to Russian folk music. Being in the company of his musician uncle, he was highly taken by the beauty and enchantment of Russian folk music. The indication of his love is reflected in his conducting the same old folk operas, at times, when he became mature. While in Italy learning how to compose music, Mikhail’s interest in folk music remained high as he wrote some pieces of Russian folk music as well as started to plan for a Russian opera. However, it is important to note that Mikhail’s work did show considerable influence of Italian and French traditions on his operas like A Life for the Tsar. This was not only linked to Mikhail’s work; indeed, quite a few of his Russian contemporaries were under similar influences (McKay, n.d.).

When it comes to the examination of Glinka Mikhail’s incorporation of nationalism into music, it is to be noted that the work done by his cannot be met by any of his contemporaries in form and content. Glinka’s use of national appeal and material into highly dramatic moment of A Life for the Tsar is an episode par excellence. While his contemporaries were busy in making their works decorative periphery so as to impress the Russian aristocracy, Glinka was putting his efforts in brining the nationalist fervor in his works. At that time folk music was considered essentially a way of peasant entertainment; as such the aristocracy did not have much room for such music. However, Glinka’s works later proved that it was as powerful form of music in Russian history as was any other. Odoyevsky (cited in McKay, n.d.) rightly states on this accomplishment of Glinka by writing: “One must hear it to be convinced of the feasibility of such a union, which until now has been considered an unrealizable dream”. This remarkable achievement with Glinka was that all the major characters in his opera now became the countryside peasant who sang folk songs. Although the hero of his opera is essentially a disliked-by-aristocracy peasant, Glinka sought to obtain dual purpose because his hero seeks preservation of Tsar. “Glinka thus accomplished the dual nationalist purposes of glorifying the Tsar and giving national musical material a significance beyond what had previously been accomplished” (McKay, n.d.). Ruslan and Ludmila is one important work remembered today for Glinka’s high spirited musical nationalism. The originality of this work truly makes it a masterpiece of nationalist nature. In this work Glinka clearly indicated that it was time for Russian musicians to move beyond other nations’ influences as well as to move away from their own traditional forms of music which was narrow in essence. Ruslan and Ludmila showed to the Russian music world that music can be composed and performed in an entire innovative manner. Another important contribution made by Glinka in Russian musical nationalism was that this very individual is one of the first musicians who used “the whole tone scale”. He incorporated influences from a number of musicians such as Schuber and Chernomor; none the less, the end product was something that took audience by storm, the reference will again be made to Ruslan and Ludmila. One original contribution made by him was that he brought into this flavor a completely new tone and symbolism of nationalism in music.

Hi 1842 opera, Ruslan and Ludmila is highly nationalist in a number of ways. However, a number of his songs and overtures are also filled with the same fervor of nationalism. For instance, his very popular work Kamarisky was regarded as his massive success that won him high popularity as he was later called “first Russian symphony”. However, it was disappointing reception of his second opera that led him to spend more and more time abroad. This is one reason why there is so much mixing of exotic taste in this work of him. The diversity of exotic flavor in this work is all the more diverse and noteworthy. He brings in different flavors of musical tones from such countries as Middle East, Finland, Poland, Italy, and Spain. Glinka is considered a prominent figure in Russian nationalist musician to lead the following musician generation. However, his influence, his innovative effects over Russian music is so grave that it was felt in other areas of music like romantic music and conservative trends which were also the part and parcel of his works. He encouraged quite a few musicians to try to tread new paths like him (Gale, 2004).

His famous ‘varying background’ technique is something that came to influence a large number of later musicians who developed their talents on these lines. However, the musicians that straightforwardly acknowledge the influence of this great artist from Russian soil are Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Dargomyzhsky, and so on. Individual orchestration is another contribution made by him (Warrack, and West, 1996).

Smetana, Bedrich and Musical Nationalism

Smetana, Bedrich (1824-1884), Czech composer, critic, and composer, is considered as the first and the most important of Czech nationalist musician. He is also referred as the most important figure in the new generation of opera composers of Czech, dating from 1860s onward. It is specifically Smetana’s six operas that win national stature for Czech music, making his name indelible. As a young man, Smetana struggling to secure for himself an independent position of musician, did see some ups and downs. For instance, his tour to Bohemia for the program Bohmische Melodien was a failure. However, in the later period, especially after his marriage, Smetana saw his career moving on the upward curve of success and in 1846 was drawn into public; by Prague artists group, Concordia. From here we can say that his career as a nationalist musician picked up as it is here that we see him dedicating two piano marches to National Guard. Pisen svobody (Song of Freedom) also belongs to this period. Afterward a series of his nationalist compositions like Trois polkas de salon; Trois polkas poetiques, and Ceske tance became public. However, at this point it is noted that Smetana was not happy with the response that the music critics gave to his creation. As such the period from 1856 to 1861 is when he searched for recognition abroad which gave him ample opportunity to “work for progress and to cultivate the taste of the people and there [was] an impact which [he] could never have achieved in Prague”. The chief credit, however, here goes to Franz Liszt, who drew the isolated Smetana to public performance polishing his inner talent. Smetana went through great personal changes during his stay in Sweden; these range from personal events to professional development (O. Mojžíšová, 1998).

It is from 1862 to 1874 that Smetana shows us a career of devoted nationalist musician. In 1862 his piano works Richard III and Wallensteins Lager were materialized which, however, did not get high recognition. Opening an institute in 1863, he kept on working on this line of his career. It was this time that he expressed his views and ideas in elite meeting getting into Czech public notice. He also improved his proficiency in Czech language here. The same year his music periodical, Dalibor, published his biography and he started working as a music critic and was also appointed as chief conductor for Royal Provincial Czech Theatre. Along with expanding his classical works of Gluck, Mozart, etc. he created fresh works like his opera Braniboriv Cechach and Prodana nevesta (The Bartered Bride). The individual’s creation was overshadowed by a war with Prussia (O. Mojžíšová, 1998).

His 1868, Dalibor, is seen as the right direction for his musical nationalism because here Smetana seems to stand apart from foreign influences over Czech nationalist music. Smetana seems to indulge himself in deep arguments about a number of issues regarding national solidarity and stature. His Libuse (1869-72) and Dve vdovy (The Two Widow), 1873-4, are well remembered operas. However, it was the very time that this person seems to undergo a loss of hearing and this musician came to a resignation from his great musical career. His works range from operas to piano creations; from orchestral compositions to chamber music. (O. Mojžíšová, 1998).


Looking at the history of musical nationalism in two very historically powerful countries, Italy and Russia, it comes to our notice that great musicians did their best to promote and advance the voice of national spirit and love for their country. They did this by using their talent at music and surprisingly took public and private opinion by storm into their favor. It was not because they were politically very active or that they were harping on the strings of some famous political parties; it was because these musicians were committed to the cause of nationalism. To them oppression either in the form of foreign invasion and rule or in the form of local cruelty was intolerable. This is the starting point of their struggle that sought to take the most beautiful form of musical compositions that came to execute two purposes of entertainment as well as leading the people toward solution of a number of national issues from oppression to snobbery. It will not be wrong to state that musicians like the above have done a great job in shaping the history of all the countries where such movements were backed up by musicians. It is also very worthwhile to note that these people shine in the pages of history because they took music to an area of reforming the general mentality of their people and were highly influential. Here we can say that spirit, will to act in the right direction, and love for humankind are the elements that can prove plainly productive in any field from politics to music. The two musicians discussed at length in this paper give us the example of this impressive side of human talent and national sincerity. Today’s world needs to follow the talented direction laid by these people, and many other, so that a number of critical issues from poverty to terrorism can be rightly addressed and the message of peace can be spread around the world through the captivating tongue of music.


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  4. O. Mojžíšová, ed.: Bedřich Smetana: Time, Life, Work (Prague, 1998) [incl. R. Habánová: ‘Bedřich Smetana (his Life and Work)’, 80–115; O. Mojžíšová: ‘Bedřich Smetana’s Compositions (Selective List)’, 116–41; O. Mojžíšová: ‘Muzeum Bedřicha Smetany (its History and its Collections)’, 142–66]
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