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Nationalism in Music: A Grand Expression of Political Turbulence

The Eduqas A-level music syllabus includes study of Western Classical music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The syllabus asks students to explore this era, which “witnessed a fading romanticism and looked forward to new directions and musical challenges”.

This was a period of change and emancipation. No single composer led the way in terms of style, and artistic creativity was expressed with compositional devices including explorations in instrumental sonority and harmony, including increased use of dissonance and chromaticism. Nationalism, the use of cultural and patriotic references including the integration of elements of folk songs and folklore (often as programmatic forms and ideas) became an important feature.

However, alongside the stylistic emancipation, which has to some extent become romanticised in itself in the music history texts, this was a period of significant upheaval and in some areas of the world, restriction, dictatorship and death camps.

What Prompted the Rise of Nationalism?

Nationalism in music did not exist out of context. Rather topically to today’s political events, it was an ideological movement that provided an important factor in the development of Europe. In the late 19th century (1871), both Germany and Italy were newly unified, created from their various regional states and given a common ‘national identity’. Other countries, including Serbia, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, were formed in uprisings against the Ottoman Empire and Russia. At a time of social and political upheaval, romantic nationalism purportedly represented a general optimism for self-determined rule by newly formed government in place of the traditional monarchies and foreign control of territories. 

The Dark Side of Nationalism

It is common for nationalism in music to be superficially explained as the patriotic exploration of a nation’s folk music in the high cultural field, which makes sense in light of the new feeling of identity. However, if nationalism can be described as calling on people “to identify with the interests of their national group and to support the creation of a state – a nation-state – to support those interests,” (Professor Leon Baradat) music could also be used as a propaganda tool. It is interesting that when current politics demonstrate the dangers of nationalism, or of strong national identity without inclusion or integration, this element is often romanticised as a positive expression in the context of classical music

The truth is, composers were not always exploring nationalist ideas out of sheer creative and patriotic inspiration. This was demonstrated with the discovery of a Suite on Finnish Themesby Dmitri Shostakovich, which was written in 1939 but only discovered in 2001. The composer had never claimed authorship of the suite, it was never performed in his lifetime, and only one reference is made to it in his letters. Why?

The Winter War began on November 30th 1939, when the Red Army invaded Finland. Research shows that the Soviet government commissioned Shostakovich to write a suite based on Finnish melodies. The commission was instigated between November 23rd and 25th 1939, with a completion date of December 2nd, representing the timeframe of the invasion and the proposed date of occupation. 

A Finnish machine gun station during the Winter War

This was a propaganda tool. If the invasion had succeeded, Shostakovich’s suite would have been performed by Red Army marching bands in the streets of Helsinki, either with the intention to demonstrate the Soviet commitment to nurturing Finnish culture and prevent dissent, or to further humiliate the Finnish people after their defeat.

Shostakovich had a notably difficult relationship with the Soviet state throughout his life. He was one of the few composers who did not flee Russia when the revolution took place, and he was kept under close scrutiny. The Finnish commission of 1939 came some time after the composer’s first denouncement by the Communist Party, and these condemnations of Shostakovich’s music were not insignificant.

In fear for his life, Shostakovic was forced to take a more conservative and patriotic approach, as heard in particular in his 1937 Fifth Symphony. His acceptance of the commission to write the Suite on Finnish Themes demonstrates this forced patriotism. Shostakovich needed to escape the Communist Party backlash and return to Stalin’s favour. His alternative, the consequence for dissention, the Gulags. 

Further Examples of Nationalism in Music

Edvard Grieg – Norway

Grieg combined elements of traditional Norwegian folk songs with the Romantic style, often using poems by Norwegian poets such as Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson to set to his vocal songs.

His Opus 25, a set of six songs all set to poems by Ibsen, is a good example of his compositional style, demonstrating his feelings about nationalism through his synthesis of compositional elements and text. The form, harmony and melody of his works reflect his close relationship with the landscape of his home country. 

Bela Bartók – Hungary

Bartók is often painted as a highly nationalist composter, but study of his music shows how his idea of nationalism developed throughout his career and actually became diluted by social awareness.

In his late teens, in allegiance to the divisive politics of Hungarian nationalism he was attracted to what was known as the Hungarian popular music, often performed by Gypsy musicians. One of his early works, the 1903 symphonic poem Kossuth, tells the story of one of the heroes of the 1848-9 revolution.

This work employs characteristic features of the urban Gypsy music, which is also heard in the music of Franz Liszt. Musical devices include the use of a minor key scale with a sharpened fourth note, a short-long rhythmic figure (much like the Scotch-snap found in Scottish folk music) derived from the stress pattern of Hungarian speech, and the emulation of the performance style of indigenous instruments. These included the hammered dulcimer or cimbalom, the sound of which was later made famous in Anton Karas’s score for The Third Man.

However, through the influence of his friend Zoltán Kodály, Bartók was to discover a very different type of Hungarian popular music – music from the countryside. Much like Cecil Sharpe who built up the English folk song and dance collection, Bartók subsequently spent much of his life collecting, editing and cataloguing these folk songs, which he recorded in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, North Africa, and Turkey. Along with 2700 Hungarian melodies, Bartók collected 3500 Romanian and 3400 Slovakian tunes, and 10,000 other melodies from field workers.

Gypsy musicians in Budapest, May 1946, image source: http://www.fortepan.hu

One notable aspect of Bartók’s research was that he attempted to be properly systematic and scientific, making use of the recently developed phonograph rather than transcribing by ear. He refined the approach thoughout his life, creating ever more detailed transcriptions and seeking out points of correspondence between the music he had sourced from people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Through this ethnomusicological study he effectively reorientated himself. What had begun in his youth as a narrow Hungarian nationalist outlook became a much broader and more inclusive view. He came to see an essential unity between the rural working people of Hungary and its neighbouring states. In compositional terms this led to a musical style with a firm base in Hungary but which was permeated by elements derived from other cultures.

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