Modern History Sourcebook:
Music and Nationalism
Nationalism was the most successful political force of the 19th century. It
emerged from two main sources: the Romantic exaltation of "feeling" and
"identity" and the Liberal requirement that a legitimate state be based
on a "people" rather than, for example, a dynasty, God, or imperial domination.
Both Romantic "identity nationalism" and Liberal "civic nationalism"
were essentially middle class movements. There were two main ways of exemplification: the
French method of "inclusion" - essentially that anyone who accepted loyalty to
the civil French state was a "citizen". In practice this meant the enforcement
of a considerable degree of uniformity, for instance the destruction of regional
languages. The German method, required by political circumstances, was to define the
"nation" in ethnic terms. Ethnicity in practice came down to speaking German and
sometimes just having a German name. For the largely German-speaking Slavic middle classes
of Prague, Agram (Zagreb) etc. who took up the nationalist ideal, the ethnic aspect became even more important than it had been for the Germans.
It was only later in the 19th century that nationalism spread to Slavic countries, some
of which which had been effectively dead as political entities for centuries, and where
languages survived only as peasant tongues. Among these groups nationalism tended to
develop and change in similar ways among each people.
The music here illustrates one common line developments:- generally from a
"cultural nationalism" to a more overtly political "liberal
nationalism", and then, all to often, to an exclusivist "triumphal
nationalism". It is presented in order of stages rather than in order of date
of composition. At any given moment, nationalist movements were often at different stages
in different countries.
Building on the ideas of Herder, and the Romanitic folklore movements of the early
nineteenth century, classical composers sought to revalue the heritage of their
"people" by using "folk" themes. Although German composers did
take such an approach, it is seen most clearly in the following peices.
Finland: Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Finlandia, Opus 26, 1899
Finland was a province of the Russian Empire in 1899, and Sibelius became his country's
national composer. His Finlandia was composed for a national pageant in 1899
which, under the guise of a charitable event, was aimed at the effort to
"Russify" the country. It, and especially its great central hymn immediately
became so identified with Finnish national aspirations that it was banned in 1917.
Bohemia: The Czechs: Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava (The Moldau)
from Ma Vlast (My Fatherland)
Smetana is one of the great Czech national composers. As a middle class youth, however,
he spoke German and indeed could not speak Czech until later in life.
- Bedrich Smetana: The Moldau,
from Ma Vlast M [MIDI]
- Bedrich Smetana: The
Moldau, from Ma Vlast M [RA]
Other "Cultural Nationalist" composers include:
- Norway: Edvard Greig
- Poland: Chopin
- Czechoslovakia: Dvorak
- Russia: Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsokov
Liberal nationalism, as for instance associated with the Italian leader Giuseppe
Mazzini, sought to establish liberal states based on the a "nation".
Nationalists always assumed that their "nation" existed in some
"natural" way. In practice the leaders had to work hard to create a national
sense, usually by emphazing common culture, and by focusing on some oppressive external
Italy: Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901): "Va, pensiero" (Chorus of the
Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco 1842
The "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves", (Va Pensiero), from Verdi's opera Nabucco
(1842) attained great political significance. Va Pensiero became the Italians' song of
liberation, for, in the oppressed Hebrews, they found a symbol of their own longing for
reunification with Lombardy, which was occupied by Austria. The unison chorus (one of the
few da capo choruses in all opera) became the underground "national
hymn". And the composer's name became V.E.R.D.I, a slogan meaning Vittorio Emmanuale Rei de Italia ("Victor Emmanual, King of Italy") - a reference to the sole native dynasty in
Italy and the focus of nationalist hopes for unity.
(The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco)
|Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
||Go, my thoughts on golden wings;
|Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli
||Go, settle on the cliffs and hills
|Ove olezzano tepide e molli,
||Where the sweet breezes bring
|L'aure dolici del suolo natal!
||The warm, soft fragrances of your native land
|Del Giordano le rive saluta,
||From Jordan, the river of salvation, and
|Di Sionne le torri atterrate.
||From the desolate towers of Zion.
|Oh, mia patrie si bella e perduta!
||Oh my fatherland so beautiful and lost!
|Oh, Membrenza si cara e fatal!
||Oh remembrances, so dear and so deadly
|Arpa d'or del fatidici vati,
||Golden Harps of our prophets and poets,
|Perché muta dal salice pendi?
||Why have you changed into weeping willows?
|Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
||The battered memory in my heart
|Chi favella del tempo che fu!
||Which speaks of the time which was!
|O simile di Solima ai fati
||Either like Solomon to the fates
|Traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
||You present a sound of crude lament,
|O t'ispiri il Signore un concento
||Or the Lord inspires in you a song
|Che ne infonda al patire virtu!
||Which takes courage into the depths.
Another piece by Verdi is used here to illustrate triumphalism. Aïda was
written in 1871 to celebrate the opening of the Suez canal, and became the model for later
choral operas. It is a work in the grand style, a tragic love story against a
freely-invented plot about a war between Egypt and Ethiopia. The "triumphal act"
depicts Egypt's victory over Ethiopia, whose prisoners are lead in chains across the
stage. The trumpets, one and half meters long, were specially designed for this opera.
Although Verdi, as well as being a great composer, was a famous Liberal, the triumphal
scene well illustrates the attractions of overbearing nationalism. In this opera, written
30 years after Nabucco, and we can hear a change in nationalism. It is no longer
cultural, or even a yearning to be free. Now it is triumphalistic, exalting one people
Italy: Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901): "Triumphal March" from Aïda 1871
(The Triumphal March from Aïda)
|Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside
||Glory to Egypt and Isis
|Che il sacro suol protegge!
||Protectress of the sacred land,
|Al Re che il Delta regge
||To the King who rules the Delta
|Inni festosi alziam
||Joyful hymns we sing
|Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!
||Glory!, Glory!, Glory!
|Gloria al Re
||Glory to Ra
|S'intrecci il loto al lauro
||Weave the lotus and the laurel
|Sul crin dei vincitori!
||Into a crown for the victors!
|Nembo gentil di fiori
||Let a soft cloud of flowers
|Stenda sull'armi un vel.
||Veil the steel of their arms.
|Danziam, fanciulle egizie,
||Let us dance, Egyptian maidens,
|Le mistiche carole,
||The mystic dances,
|Come d'intorno al sole
||As, around the sun,
|Danzano gli astri in ciel!
||The stars dance in the sky!
|Della vittori agl'arbitri
||Lift you eyes to the gods,
|Supremi il guardo ergete;
||The arbiters of victory;
|Grazie agli Dei rendate
||Give thanks to the gods
|Nel fortunato di.
||On this happy day.
England: Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No 1
The music here is Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 of 1902. During
World War I, it was used as the theme for part of a poem by A. C. Benson (1862-1925) , by
the music hall star Marie Lloyd. It was immediately adopted as perhaps the second most
sung national song after God Save the King. Perhaps the reason was that it can be sung
with much more gusto.
Dear Land of Hope, thy hope is crowned.
God make thee mightier yet!
On Sov'ran brows, beloved, renowned,
Once more thy crown is set.
Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.
Land of Hope and Glory,
Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee,
Who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider
Shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty,
Make thee mightier yet.
Thy fame is ancient as the days,
As Ocean large and wide:
A pride that dares, and heeds not praise,
A stern and silent pride:
Not that false joy that dreams content
With what our sires have won;
The blood a hero sire hath spent
Still nerves a hero son.
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©Paul Halsall Aug 1997, revised July 1998