Musical nationalism

Musical nationalism refers to the use of musical ideas or motifs that are identified with a specific country, region, or ethnicity, such as folk tunes and melodies, rhythms, and harmonies inspired by them.


As a musical movement, nationalism emerged early in the 19th century in connection with political independence movements, and was characterized by an emphasis on national musical elements such as the use of folk songs, folk dances or rhythms, or on the adoption of nationalist subjects for operas, symphonic poems, or other forms of music (Kennedy 2006). As new nations were formed in Europe, nationalism in music was a reaction against the dominance of the mainstream European classical tradition as composers started to separate themselves from the standards set by Italian, French, and especially German traditionalists (Miles n.d.).

More precise considerations of the point of origin are a matter of some dispute. One view holds that it began with the war of liberation against Napoleon, leading to a receptive atmosphere in Germany for Weber's opera Der Freischütz (1821) and, later, Richard Wagner's epic dramas based on Teutonic legends. At around the same time, Poland’s struggle for freedom from Czarist Russia produced a nationalist spirit in the piano works of Frédéric Chopin, and slightly later Italy's aspiration to independence from Austria resonated in many of the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (Machlis 1979, 125–26). Countries or regions most commonly linked to musical nationalism include Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Scandinavia, Spain, UK, Latin America and the United States.


Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849)

Frédéric Chopin was one of the first composers to incorporate nationalistic elements into his compositions. Joseph Machlis states, "Poland's struggle for freedom from tsarist rule aroused the national poet in Poland. ... Examples of musical nationalism abound in the output of the romantic era. The folk idiom is prominent in the Mazurkas of Chopin" (Machlis 1963, 149–50). His mazurkas and polonaises are particularly notable for their use of nationalistic rhythms. Moreover, "During World War II the Nazis forbade the playing of ... Chopin's Polonaises in Warsaw because of the powerful symbolism residing in these works" (Machlis 1963, 150).

Stanisław Moniuszko (1819–1872)

Stanisław Moniuszko has become associated above all with the concept of a national style in opera. Moniuszko's opera and music as a whole is representative of 19th-century romanticism, given the extensive use by the composer of arias, recitatives and ensembles that feature strongly in his operas. The source of Moniuszko's melodies and rhythmic patterns often lies in Polish musical folklore. One of the most visibly "Polish" aspects of his music is in the forms he uses, including dances popular among upper classes such as polonaise and mazurka, and folk tunes and dances such as kujawiak and krakowiak.

Henryk Wieniawski (1835–1880)

Henryk Wieniawski was another important composer using Polish folk melodies—he wrote two popular mazurkas for solo violin and piano accompaniment (the second one, Obertas, in G major).


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

Edvard Grieg was an important Romantic era composer whose music helped establish a Norwegian national identity (Grimley 2006, ).


Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

Jean Sibelius had strong patriotic feelings for Finland. He composed Finlandia.


Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960)

Studied at the music conservatory in his hometown, Stockholm. In addition to being a violinist, conductor, and composer, he was also a painter. He is perhaps best known for his five symphonies and three Swedish Rhapsodies.


George Enescu (1881–1955)

George Enescu is considered Romania's most important composer (Malcolm and Sandu-Dediu 2015). Amongst his best-known compositions are his two Romanian Rhapsodies and his Violin Sonata No. 3 (in Romanian Folk Style), Op. 25.


Béla Bartók (1881–1945)

Béla Bartók collaborated with fellow Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály to document Hungarian folk music, which they both incorporated in their musical pieces (Stevens 2016).

Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967)

Zoltán Kodály studied at the Academy of Music in Hungary and had an interest Hungarian folk songs and would often take prolonged trips to the Hungarian countryside to study the melodies which were then incorporated into his music compositions (Anon. 2014).


Enrique Granados (1867–1916)

Granados composed his work Goyescas (1911) based on the etchings of the Spanish painter, Goya. Also of a national style are his Danzas españolas and his first opera María del Carmen.


A nationalistic renascence in the arts was produced by the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920. Álvaro Obregón's regime, inaugurated in 1921, provided a large budget for the Secretariat of Public Education, under the direction of José Vasconcelos, who commissioned paintings for public buildings from artists such as José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siquieros. As part of this ambitious programme, Vasconcelos also commissioned musical compositions on nationalistic themes. One of the first such works was the Aztec-themed ballet El fuego nuevo (The New Fire) by Carlos Chávez, composed in 1921 but not performed until 1928 (Parker 1983, 3–4).

Manuel M. Ponce (1882–1948)

Manuel M. Ponce was a composer, educator and scholar of Mexican music. Among his works are the lullaby La Rancherita (1907), Scherzerino Mexicana (1909) composed in the style of sones and huapangos, Rapsodía Mexicana, No 1 (1911) based on the jarabe tapatío, and the romantic ballad Estrellita (1912).

Carlos Chávez (1899–1978)

Carlos Chávez was a Mexican composer, conductor, educator, journalist, and founder and director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra and the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA). Some of his music was influenced by indigenous Mexican cultures. A period of nationalistic leanings initiated in 1921 with the Aztec-themed ballet El fuego nuevo (The New Fire), followed by a second ballet, Los cuatro soles (The Four Suns), in 1925.

United Kingdom

Joseph Parry (1841–1903)

Parry was born in Wales, but moved to the United States as a child. In his adulthood, he traveled between Wales and America, and performed Welsh songs and glees with Welsh texts in recitals. He composed the first Welsh opera, Blodwen, in 1878 (Rhys 1998, ).

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)

Best known for the Pomp and Circumstance Marches (Moore 1984, ).

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)

Stanford wrote five Irish Rhapsodies (1901–1914). He published volumes of Irish folk song arrangements, and his third symphony is titled the Irish symphony. In addition to being heavily influenced by Irish culture and folk music, he was particularly influenced by Johannes Brahms (White n.d., 205).

Alexander Mackenzie (1847–1935)

Mackenzie wrote a Highland Ballad for violin and orchestra (1893), and the Scottish Concerto for piano and orchestra (1897). He also composed the Canadian Rhapsody.

In his life, MacKenzie witnessed both the survivals of Jacobite culture, and the Red Clydeside Era. His music is heavily influenced by Jacobite art (White and Murphy 2001, 224–25).

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Vaughan Williams collected, published, and arranged many folksongs from across the country, and wrote many pieces, large and small scale, based on folk melodies, such as the Fantasia on Greensleeves and the Five Variants on "Dives and Lazarus. Vaughan Williams helped define musical nationalism, writing that "The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation" (Vaughan Williams 1934, 123).

United States

Aaron Copland (1900–1990)

Ironically, Copland composed "Mexican" music such as El Salón México in addition to his American nationalist works (Piston 1961, 25).

Edward MacDowell (1860–1908)

MacDowell's Woodland Sketches, op. 51 (1896) consists of ten short piano pieces bearing titles referring to the American landscape. In this way, they make a claim to MacDowell's identity as an American composer (Crawford 1996, 542).


In Ukraine the term "Music nationalism" (Ukrainian: музичний націоналізм) was coined by Stanyslav Lyudkevych in 1905 (Hrabovsky 2009, ). The article under this title is devoted to Mykola Lysenko who is considered to be the father of Ukrainian classical music. Ludkevych concludes that Lysenko's nationalism was inspired by those of Glinka in Russian music, though western tradition, particularly German, is still significant in his music, especially instrumental.

V. Hrabovsky assumes that Stanyslav Lyudkevych himself could be considered as significant nationalistic composer and musicologist thanks to his numerous composition under Ukraine-devoted titles as well as numerous paper devoted to use of Ukrainian folk songs and poetry in Ukrainian classical music (Lyudkevych 1905).

Inspiration by Ukrainian folklore could be observed even earlier, particularly in compositions by Maksym Berezovsky (1745–1777) (Kornii 1998, 188), Dmytro Bortnyansky (1751–1825) (Kornii 1998, 296), and Artem Vedel (1767–1808) (Kornii 1998, 311). Semen Hulak-Artemovsky (1813–1873) is considered to be the author of the first Ukrainian opera (Zaporozhets za Dunayem, premièred in 1863). Lysenko's traditions were continued by, among others, Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882–1922), Mykola Leontovych (1877–1921), Yakiv Stepovy (1883–1921), Alexander Koshetz (1877–1944), and later, Levko Revutsky (1889–1977).

At the same time the term "nationalism" is not used in Ukrainian musicology (see for example Yutsevych 2009, where such term is missing). Moreover, the article "Music Nationalism" by Ludkevych was prohibited in the USSR (Hrabovsky 2009, ) and was not widely known until its publication in 1999 (Lyudkevych 1999).


Further reading

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