In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nationalism in Western Art Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works

Music Nationalism in Western Art Music
Jonathan Gentry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0056


During the 18th century, music developed the capacity to articulate nationalism. While local and even national musical styles have been around much longer, national traditions should be distinguished from nationalism. Though modern theories of nationalism differ widely, most are unanimous that nationalism is a dynamic process of cultural identification with a nation and national qualities. The peculiarities of regional musical styles can and have been incorporated in discursive efforts to create and define the nation but are not necessarily in themselves nationalized. Nationalism and music intersect whenever music is employed in the building of nations, both political and cultural. In the late 18th century peasant or “folk” music became the first nationalized genre, thought by folklorists to represent the authentic voice of a people group, defined as a nation. In turn, the historiography of nationalism in Western art music has largely revolved around folk idioms and their incorporation into high art, concert genres. However, in recent decades, new concepts of nationalism and the social function of music have greatly expanded the perceived spheres of nationalism in music. All genres, compositional techniques, and composers, regardless of nationalist intent, can participate in the formulation and negotiation of national unity and identity. In addition, the realms of popular music and amateur music making, as well as musical journalism and scholarship, are now considered important facets of nationalism in music. Given the importance of both amateur and folk music in nationalizing Western art music, this article necessarily includes selective works of ethnomusicology that illuminate the complicated, and often nationally inflected, relationship between high and low music.

General Overviews

Until recently, very few scholars attempted to address musical nationalism in a transnational context, except as chapters in general surveys. Abraham 1964 is indicative of an older tendency in scholarship to judge the degree of nationalism in Western art music by its use of folk songs, thereby marking nationalist music as the non-German music of the European periphery. Dahlhaus 1980 argues for the nationalist qualities of all late-19th-century music, not limited to folk settings, and including the supposedly universal German, Italian, and French traditions. However, Dahlhaus offers little analysis of how and why music reflects national identity. Perhaps one reason why there are so few overviews of the topic is that the techniques and processes of nationalization were not uniform from country to country and composer to composer, as is the general thrust of White and Murphy 2001. The two most wide-reaching introductions to the topic are Bohlman 2004 and Francfort 2004, which both primarily analyze the effects of popular forms of music making, with Francfort 2004 focusing on a more specified chronology (1870–1914). The best introduction to European scholarship on music and nationalism is the large edited volume Loos and Keym 2004. Another key essay collection is Stokes 1994, which provides multiple perspectives on music’s ability to generate a sense of place. Although Curtis 2008 and Steinberg 2004 offer two methodologically different introductions to nationalism in art music, they are the most conceptually useful, as well as the most critical, of Abraham’s and Dahlhaus’s national essentialism. Curtis looks at how composers actively and consciously participated in the invention of nations, while Steinberg provides textual analysis of how music itself articulates and confronts national identity.

  • Abraham, Gerald. A Hundred Years of Music. Chicago: Aldine, 1964.

    Considers nationalism one of the major trends in mid-19th-century music and as something distinct from Wagnerism. Notes the use of folk songs in the German canon but focuses primarily on Russian music, on which Abraham was a leading authority.

  • Bohlman, Philip V. The Music of European Nationalism: Cultural Identity and Modern History. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    Inclusive introduction to nationalism in European music, examining folk, high art, and popular genres. Argues that nationalism is not confined to any one compositional style. Musicians can express national identity in a multitude of ways. There is a particular focus on anthems and song contests but little analysis of musical texts.

  • Curtis, Benjamin. Music Makes the Nation: Nationalist Composers and Nation Building in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2008.

    Uses Wagner, Smetana, and Grieg as case studies of musicians who consciously used their music to build a “national culture.” Compares composers to key intellectuals who built the nation through culture rather than merely expressed it. A comparison of nation-building strategies.

  • Dahlhaus, Carl. “Nationalism in Music.” In Between Romanticism and Modernism: Four Studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century. By Carl Dahlhaus, 79–102. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    Argues that in the late 19th century it became impossible to separate national style and nationalism. Consequently all music of this period, not just folk-inspired idioms (and including the German tradition), functioned as a conduit of national spirit. Concludes that nationalism is not external to music but dependent on aesthetic authority. Originally published in German in 1974.

  • Francfort, Didier. Le chant des nations: Musiques et cultures en Europe, 1870–1914. Paris: Hachette, 2004.

    Looks at processes of national identification throughout Europe. Argues that music was used to mobilize the masses between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Considers both popular and art music. In French.

  • Loos, Helmut, and Stefan Keym, eds. Nationale Musik im 20. Jahrhundert: kompositorische und soziokulturelle Aspekte der Musikgeschichte zwischen Ost- und Westeuropa: Konferenzbericht Leipzig 2002. Leipzig: Gundrun Schröder, 2004.

    Contains thirty-seven papers from a 2002 international conference in Leipzig. Particularly focused on nationalist appropriations of music in both the 19th and 20th centuries (despite the title’s indication of simply the latter). Considers national developments from across Europe, especially eastern Europe. Entries in multiple languages, though mostly German, followed by English.

  • Steinberg, Michael P. Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

    Provides an interpretive framework for (largely Austro-German) music in the long 19th century. Argues that Wagner nationalized music by making it a discourse of identity rather than subjectivity. Sections on Brahms, Verdi, Dvořák, Debussy, Bartók, and Janáček examine how their music processed and subverted the Wagnerian inheritance of nationalist ideology, giving voice to the “people” rather than the “nation.”

  • Stokes, Martin, ed. Ethnicity, Identity, and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Eight essays address how musical behavior can construct categories of identity and senses of place. Primarily relevant for ethnomusicology and cultural studies. Considers folk, high art, popular, and non-European songs.

  • White, Harry, and Michael Murphy, eds. Musical Constructions of Nationalism: Essays on the History and Ideology of European Musical Culture, 1800–1945. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2001.

    Shows the great variety of nationalism in art music. Compositions could be appropriated by nationalists or overtly nationalist. Composers could draw from urban or rural sources or be politically left or right. Looks at big names such as Stravinsky, Bartók, and Debussy but also Szymanowski, Nielson, Grove, Moniuszko, and Johansen.

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