Nationalism in nineteenth-century European music – a brief introduction

Posted on June 8, 2013


The nineteenth century was a time of much social upheaval across Europe, when liberal ideas came to challenge the dominating aristocratic dynasties. A movement towards freedom and equal rights was already on its way in the seventeenth century, but it became widespread in Europe after the French Revolution (1789-1799).  The declared aim of the leaders of the revolutionary movements in France, England and Germany was one of an egalitarian social construct, where “liberty, equality and fraternity” would be the ideals to follow. The result was different in every region, and the three ideals were achieved to very variable degrees, among the emergence of a new industrial bourgeoisie. In the same time, there was a movement towards increased secularisation in the society. In this chaotic milieu the idea of national identity emerged as a winner mechanism for social control, allowing – pretty much top down – social integration, with emphasis on the common folks’ rights, and even stronger emphasis on their duties. The widespread dissatisfaction with political leadership, the wide gap in the welfare of different social groups and the clash of national interests with the ruling aristocracy led to the European Revolutions of 1848. The Habsburg Empire found itself threatened and weakened from one the western side by a strengthening German nationalist current and on the eastern side by demands of independence of countries like Bohemia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and, in the south, by Italy.  Two other wars i.e. the Austro-Prussian war in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 defined Germany and France as competitive superpowers in continental Europe, mostly on the expense of the Habsburg Empire.

With the shift from agriculture towards industrialization the cities concentrated large masses of people, with very diverse cultural needs that became interwoven to some extent. Consequently, a strong music industry and infrastructure emerged in larger cities including opera houses, concert halls, saloons, theatres and cabarets, trying to serve different segments of the public. In the midst of all turmoil, Paris and Vienna remained the cultural epicenters of Europe, with the German cities like Munich, Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden providing strong and progressive competitive force.  In Paris Meyerbeer’s opera’s dominated the stage, along with operas by Charles Gounod and instrumental works by Berlioz.  Different “light” opera genres were created or re-invented, employing composers like Offenbach and Jules Massenet (‘drame lyrique’). Also in Paris lived and worked Frédéric Chopin in exile from his own country, a leading exponent of the Polish nationalist current. Numerous passages in his letters reflect his spiritual companionship with the faith of Poland, often painful in the shadow of political superpowers like Russia and Austria. He wrote at around sixty mazurkas and eighteen polonaises. Also, melodic elements and dancelike rhythms evoking his native country are included in numerous other musical pieces composed by him.

In Germany Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt set the standards for a progressive musical life, a strong synthetic force bringing together the results of different epochs of the German musical and theatrical heritage. Wagner’s work was explicitly aiming towards an amplification of German spirit, making the Teutonic legends one of the centre-points of his creative life. The German song (lieder) was elevated to high artistic level by Schubert and Schuman. The cult of symphonic, chamber and solo instrumental work continued in the works of the latter two composers, along with the works of Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Towards the end of the century Britain had seen an increased demand for original musical works designed to reflect national values and supported creative artists like Joseph Parry in Wales, Alexander Mackenzie in Scotland, Charles Stanford in Ireland as well as Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar in England. Nationalism was represented in Russia mainly by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, Milail Glinka and the “mighty handful” – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and César Cui. As nationalism became a major driving force in music each country produced eminent composers who created high cultural values from specific folk traditions. Most of these composers received varying levels of training along classical traditions, but most of them found support in their home country and were working in major musical centers, coming in contact with the characteristics of local folk music. Many of them – like the “mighty handful” Russian composers – deliberately avoided to use classical stylistic features. In many cities there was a clear separation between classicist music halls and ‘national theaters’, often with large sums of money being dedicated to building projects to represent national values in contrast with the shared European tradition dominated by the great classics. Examples would include Prague, Pest, Pozsony (Bratislava) and Warsaw.

In Hungary Ferenc Erkel composed operas in Hungarian language (Bánk Bán, Brankovics György) which were mainly successful between the borders of the country.  His works set the background for further development of Hungarian nationalist music leading to the Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, who produced the majority of their works in the first half of the twentieth century based on ethnographic research.

Franz Liszt composed music inspired by his Hungarian national heritage, most renown being the Hungarian Rhapsodies. There are Hungarian national elements in some of his music – Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, Historical Hungarian Portraits – e.g. using the dance-like figures (verbunkos) and scales characteristic to Hungarian music (Aeolian with augmented fourth). There was a strong tradition of Gypsy dance tunes in the nineteenth century Hungary, During his journeys to Hungary Liszt was keen to recreate the improvisations of Gypsy musicians, which inspired him when he composed his Hungarian Rhapsodies. Another composer very much influenced by Hungarian music and Gypsy dances from Hungary was Johannes Brahms, who, in the context of musical exoticism, wrote pieces such the Hungarian Dances, a collection of 21 compositions based on these tunes. His famous Violin concerto in D major op. 77 was partly inspired by Gypsy music. In fact, Gypsy music was so inextricably linked to the culture of the countries where they lived in larger numbers, that when we talk about nineteenth century Hungarian or Spanish Flamenco music, it is difficult to separate Gypsy music from the music of the dominant ethnic group. The example of Gypsy music and the painful discrimination suffered by this ethnic group in the past centuries reminds us about the fact that the „nation state” is a relatively recent (emerging in the late 18th – early 19th centuries) and very poorly defined, arbitrary political concept. Consequently, I think that a very important distinction needs to be made, the one between cultural nationalism, which emphasizes the preservation of local characteristics and certain styles in culture, and political nationalism, which advocates for exclusivist policies and fuels conflict around the world.

Tibor Kovacs


Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Wikipedia (2013) Nationalism [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed 07th June  2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Musical nationalism [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed 07th June  2013]

Greenberg, R. (2011) How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. 3rd ed. United States of America: The Teaching Company

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