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nationalism in Music, Europe, and the United States

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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 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 (1759–1805) of how an artist might project—for those in the urbanized present who stand in imperfect relation to a more ideal past—either 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 (1744–1803), 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 past—that is, mythologies—thus quickly became a core ingredient in the artistic advancement of 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 (1797–1828) 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 (1786–1826) and continuing in the next generation with the operas and music dramas of Richard Wagner (1813–1883); 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 (1870–1871) and the unification of Germany that resulted from it, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth—the opera house designed and built by Wagner—became an enduring monument to "Holy German Art."

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 (1895–1978) 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 (1874–1954), the jazz-based concert idiom of George Gershwin (1898–1937), and the "wide-open spaces" idiom of Aaron Copland (1900–1990), 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 tradition—based on popular song styles and a variety of mostly assimilationist plots—is that of the American musical, both for the stage and in films.


Knapp, Raymond. "Nationalism in Music, Europe and the United States." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, vol. 4, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005, pp. 1592-1594. Student Resources In Context, Accessed 25 Mar. 2019.

DMU Timestamp: March 07, 2019 02:52

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