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Music In The Romantic Era

Musical Nationalism

Peter Kun Frary


Musical nationalism began in nineteenth century Europe and was characterized by the use of folk music and/or nationalist subjects. Sometimes nationalism was connected to political movements but was often a cultural reaction against the dominance of mainstream European art music, especially German Romanticism.

The Spanish Singer | Édouard Manet (1832–1883) | Metropolitan Art Museum

The German-Austrian style as exemplified by composers such as Schumann, Brahms and Wagner, dominated the art music world. Countries outside of the musical mainstream, e.g., Spain, Russia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, strived to distinguish themselves from this international style by drawing upon their traditions of folk music and folklore.


When a composer incorporates musical material from outside his or her culture—e.g., a French composer uses folk music from Japan—it is known as Exoticism. While the uninitiated listener may find Exoticism and Nationalism difficult to distinguish aurally, their origins are fundamentally different: Nationalism draws on one's own cultural roots while Exoticism appropriates the culture of others.

Bullfight in Divided Ring | Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Isaac Albeniz

Isaac Albeniz (1869-1909), a Catalan pianist and composer, is best known for his piano works based on Spanish folk music idioms. A child prodigy, young Isaac toured internationally under the protection of his father, a Spanish customs agent. In 1876, at age seven, he studied at the Leipzig Conservatory and later the Royal Conservatory of Brussels under a royal grant.

Isaac Albeniz (1869-1909) | c. 1890

Albeniz wrote about two hundred-fifity piano works. Although he composed operas and zarzuela (Spanish musicals with mixed spoken and sung scenes), Albeniz is best known for his later piano works, especially Chants d'Espagne (1892) and Iberia (1908), a suite of twelve piano pieces inspired by different regions of Spain. Because Spanish folk music revolves around guitar playing, these piano solos imitate textures, harmony and melodies of Spanish and Flamenco guitar styles.

Listen to Zambra from Isaac Albeniz' Piezas características. It was originally composed as a piano solo in 1888 but sounds like flamenco due to extensive use of flamenco scales, harmony and guitaristic techniques and textures, e.g., open bass string pedal tones (drones), descending flamenco chord progression, tremolo, rasgueado, ligado, etc. While these pieces sound like flamenco, they are precisely composed in music notation and involve no improvisation. ng pedal tones (drones), descending Flamenco chord progression, strums, etc.

Zambra from Piezas características Op. 92 (1888) | Isaac Albeniz

Bedřich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) pioneered Czech musical nationalism by drawing upon folk songs, dances and folklore of his native Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Nineteenth century Bohemia was ruled by Austrian overlords. They attempted to turn the people of Bohemia into Austrians by forcing them to speak German, rather than Czech. The heavy-handed rule and oppression of their culture by outsiders resulted in decades of unrest and helped generate intense feelings of nationalism among the Czech population.

Ring O' Roses 1850 | Thomas Webster (1800-1886) | Yale Center for British Art | Nationalistic music often used folk dance and folk song as material or inspiration.

Smetana’s musical gifts were evident as a child and he studied violin and piano with local teachers, reaching a high level of achievement. After secondary school, he was unable to afford a conservatory education but studied music theory and composition privately under Josef Proksch in Prague.

Smetana’s first nationalistic work was written during the 1848 Prague uprising, in which he participated as a member of the armed Citizen Corps. The revolution failed and the Austrian overlords came down hard on the resistance. There was little chance of a musical career under such oppression so Smetana fled to Sweden where he taught music and composed symphonic poems (single movement programmatic symphonies).

Smetana Money | Smetana is so revered in the Czech Republic that he's on their money!

By the 1860s, the Austrians had made major concessions to the Czech people: released political prisoners, ceased censorship and allowed operation of theaters. Thus, Smetana returned and dove headlong into the musical life of Prague, producing successful nationalist Czech operas such as The Bartered Bride and working as a conductor, pianist and teacher.

By the end of 1874, at the age of fifty, Smetana had become completely deaf and withdrew from conducting and theatre duties, devoting himself to composition. Ironically, like Beethoven, many of Smetana’s greatest works were produced after losing his hearing. A cycle of six symphonic poems, Má vlast (My Homeland), is among his finest achievements, depicting the history, legends, landscape and folk music of the Czech countryside.

View of Prague with the Charles Bridge crossing the Vltava, 1834 | Adam August Müller (1811-1844) | Wikimedia Commons

Vltava | The Moldau

Our listening example, Vltava, is the second piece from the Má vlast cycle. It is known outside the Czech Republic under its German name, Die Moldau or in English, The Moldau, and was composed in 1874. Vltava is the name of a mighty river than flows through the heart of the Czech countryside, eventually reaching Prague and beyond. Smetana's symphonic poem, Vltava, was inspired by a cruise down the river near the St. John Rapids. He describes the message of Vltava:

The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).

Individual sections of the work depict the the scenes and activities along and in the river: movement of water, villagers dancing at a wedding, hunting horns, etc. The river is symbolized by an epic recurring theme:

Vltava (The Moldau) | Bedřich Smetana (14:40)


Nationalism, Exoticism, symphonic poem

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved