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Nationalism in Music, Europe and the United States

Nationalism in Music, Europe and the United States

Nationalism in music has traditionally been described as a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon associated with countries or regions aspiring to nationhood whose composers strove to wed a national (most often folk-based) musical idiom to existing "main-stream" genres. Some of these accounts begin with Frédéric Chopin (18101849), but he is more often understood as "cosmopolitan" or "universal," a Romantic composer of Polish and French parentage whose work was often based on Polish dance forms but was too early to count as nationalist. Most accounts of musical nationalism start with Russians in the next generation, especially the moguchaya kuchka the "mighty little heap," or the "mighty five," including Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (18441908), Modest Musorgsky (18391881), and Aleksandr Borodin (18331887)and continue with the Czechs Bedrich Smetana (18241884) and Antonín Dvorák (18411904), the Norwegian Edvard Grieg (18431907), and the Finnish Jean Sibelius (18651957). Within this narrative line, the rise of a musical form of Impressionism in France and the genesis of a distinctively American music may be seen as late developments, somewhat out of step with general trends.

Yet nationalism has provided the principal cultural and political framework for musical expression within European-based traditions for most of the nineteenth century and has continued to do so up to the present. This tendency has not been widely noted for two main reasons: First, it remained overlooked because of the entrenched habit of considering European music history apart from history more generally, as encouraged by the doctrine of absolute music; and second, the genesis and development of musicologythe discipline entrusted to tell the history of musicwere both intimately connected to nationalist ideologies.

Musicology and Nationalism

Music history in the nineteenth century has generally been perceived in terms of "mainstream" traditions continuing from the late eighteenth century, the general rise of Romanticism across these mainstreams, and the splintering into a variety of "nationalist" musics in the later part of the century. But nationalism lay at the heart of all facets of this master narrative, from the maintenance of the "mainstreams" to Romanticism and, most especially, to the narrative perspective. The principal task of historical musicology, for much of the time since about 1850, has been the promotion and development of a historicist canon to support a particular nationalist ideology. Moreover, as European nationalism, especially in Germany and Italy, led to two world wars in the twentieth century, some of its victims who fled to the United States (especially in the 1930s) established the American scholarly tradition in musicology, teaching the same history they had been taught and thus perpetuating the view that the most important musical tradition was German, which was to be understood as the least nationalist and most universal (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.), trailed by Italian opera and older Italian traditions, a few isolated "cosmopolitan" geniuses such as Chopin, and various "national" schools at the margin of respectability, whose legitimacy was cast in doubt not least because their music was widely enjoyed.

Nationalism and Art

Nationalism holds that a "people," whether defined in terms of cultural or ethnic roots, constitutes the only legitimate basis for a political state. This belief took root in Europe around the beginning of the nineteenth century, as an outgrowth of German Romanticism, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and (according to some views) human inclinations. The merger of nationalist feeling and art was accomplished using the model proposed by German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Schiller (17591805) of how an artist might projectfor those in the urbanized present who stand in imperfect relation to a more ideal pasteither a fuller sense of that lost past (through idyll and elegy), a critical account of the present (through satire), or a believable future restoration. Coupled with the idea of the Volksgeist (the spirit of a people) promulgated by fellow German Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), Schiller's structure became a recipe for the nationalist artist: the idealized past, for the nationalist, is the past of a "people" who survive into the present (i.e., in the Volk of the countryside), and the ideal future for which one strives is a "nation" in which they are restored to their earlier oneness with the land of their past. Images, narratives, and projections that instill belief in a people's valued pastthat is, mythologiesthus quickly became a core ingredient in the artistic advancement of nationalism.

German Nationalism

The early stages of a specifically musical engagement with nationalism may be found in the late-eighteenth-century fascination with folk song, which fed the development of early nineteenth-century German lieder, folk-based chamber songs expressive of a yearning subjectivity. In his lieder, Franz Schubert (17971828) placed that subjectivity, often alienated, within a specific landscape, frequently carried within the piano's figuration. Such placement of people within a landscape became a core strategy of nationalist art, and was more elaborately accomplished in German Romantic Opera, beginning with Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber (17861826) and continuing in the next generation with the operas and music dramas of Richard Wagner (18131883); particularly effective were Weber's evocations of the German woods, through horn choirs, and his (and Wagner's) frequent recourse to mythology. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (1824) is implicitly nationalist, but in a forward-looking way, projecting a temporal and geographic fusion of classical Greek ideals (Elysium), "oriental" ("Turkish") tropes, and modern German Christianity. In the generation following his death, Beethoven became the cornerstone of Germany's nationalist claims to preeminence in music. By the middle of the nineteenth century, older German musical treasures from the past (especially those by J. S. Bach) were being systematically collected, establishing a milestone in the nascent field of musicology. After the Franco-Prussian War (18701871) and the unification of Germany that resulted from it, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuththe opera house designed and built by Wagnerbecame an enduring monument to "Holy German Art."

During the same general period, Italy also became unified, led by a movementthe Risorgimentowhose slogan ("Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia," championing a leader of the movement) was based on the letters spelling the name of the foremost Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi (18131901). After the Franco-Prussian war, French composers, who until then competed primarily with Italy, and mainly in the domain of opera, began to engage deliberately with Germany's proclaimed mastery of instrumental music, at which point various musical nationalisms began to proliferate according to the familiar narrative outlined above.

Features of Nationalist Music

While musical nationalism could adopt a variety of specific profiles according to the "nation" involved, these all had a number of features in common. Many nationalist musics relied on folk idioms that, however inaccurately, could be claimed as a national heritage. Opera and program music lent themselves easily to national themes; and opera also had recourse to rousing choruses, which could not only evoke the character and presence of a peoplemost notably "Va, pensiero" in Verdi's Nabucco (1842) and the coronation scene in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (1872)but also cross over into popular currency. Ethnographic studies could either add legitimacy to native folk idioms or form the basis for a nationally conceived exotic "other" to be assimilated and synthesized in national terms. Thus, "Spanish" music provided both Russian and French composers an opportunity to indulge in coloristic orchestration that was itself a source of nationalist pride; such as in Carmen (1874) by Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and Capriccio Espanole (1887) by Rimsky-Korsakov. Similar use was made of Asian sources (e.g., in Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherezade, 1888), analogous to the earlier tradition regarding the "Turkish" topic. Eventually, ethnographic research evolved from a kind of colonialist interest in the "other" into another vehicle for nationalist endeavor, with some ethnomusicologists holding that only "authentic" members of a group ought to conduct research into its musical traditions.

The Legacy of Nationalism and the Special Case of the United States

Nationalism must be at least partly blamed for the Holocaust and other instances of "ethnic cleansing" in the twentieth century, given that nationalism's intense focus on defining an authenticating group identity entailed a corollary focus on what that group was not. The most notorious early instance of this in musical discourse was Wagner's essay Das Judentum in der Musik (1850; rev. 1869), which helped give nationalism a racialized profile it has never lost.

Nationalism has often moved in quite another direction in the United States, which, according to the European model, would have had either to elevate the American Indian as the core part of its authenticating past or to foster an alternative mythology of a "virgin" land settled by Europeans, transformed by their new setting. A third alternative, which has helped absorb the contradictions between the first two, has been to claim some form of "melting pot" nationalist basis; such was Dvorák's approach in his "New World" Symphony, op. 95 (1893), blending "Negro" melodies (spirituals), Indianist idioms, and a European-based style, in a recipe later taken up by William Grant Still (18951978) in his blues-based Afro-American Symphony (1930), for example. More central exemplars of American nationalist music are the often nostalgic "New England" idiom of early modernist Charles Ives (18741954), the jazz-based concert idiom of George Gershwin (18981937), and the "wide-open spaces" idiom of Aaron Copland (19001990), which was often allied with an emergent American style of balletic dance. Departing from these "high art" traditions, many have chosen to locate America's most distinctive musical profile within popular music, either within jazz ("America's classical music") or song, which has, historically, absorbed a wide number of influences. In terms of musical nationalism, perhaps the most fully realized American traditionbased on popular song styles and a variety of mostly assimilationist plotsis that of the American musical, both for the stage and in films.

See also Absolute Music ; Musicology ; Motif: Motif in Music .


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Raymond Knapp

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