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Nationalism in music refers to the use of materials that are identifiable as national or regional. This includes the direct use of folk music, and the use of melodies, rhythms, and harmonies inspired by folk music. Nationalism can also include the use of folklore as a basis for programmatic works or opera.

Nationalism is assigned to the Romantic era in the mid-nineteenth century, but evidence of this can be found as early as the late eighteenth century. National music usually comes from composers in peripheral countries and can be viewed as a reaction against German music and German expansion.

Countries most commonly linked to nationalism are Russia, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Finland, Spain, Britain, and the United States.



Until the nineteenth century, Russian music had been dominated by foreign musicians. Peter the Great (1689-1725) had begun this trend by importing foreign musicians in order to modernize his kingdom. As a result, very few Russian compositions of merit exist until Glinka.

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Mikhail Glinka was the first Russian composer to give an original voice to common musical styles of the day. After studying music and visiting Italy and Berlin, Glinka composed an opera about the Russian peasant and hero Ivan Susanin. The work was titled A Life for the Tsar, and used several aspects new to Russian music. It uses recitative instead of spoken dialogue, and has recurring themes. There are two Russian folk tunes in the opera, and several more tunes that have the feeling of folk music.

The Five

Moguchaya kuchka (The Mighty Handful) is a phrase coined by Russian music critic Vladimir Stasov to describe a group of five Russian composers whose purpose was to compose music in a Russian style. Members of the five were Mily Balakirev (1836-1910), the leader of the group, César Cui (1835-1918), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), and Alexander Borodin (1833-1887).

The Five felt that the folk and religious music of the Russian people should be used a basis for composition. Strict German counterpoint should be avoided, as should other Western techniques. Romanticism and realism were favored over Classical form.


Czechoslovakia is a country formed in 1918 by the combination of the Bohemian, Moravian, and Slovakian territories. These territories had been under the control of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a result, the imperial language, German, and the imperial religion, Catholicism had become a way of life for the Czech people.

In order to preserve the native language, a Provisional Theater was organized in Prague. This theater would promote the Czech language, composers, folk music, and programs using national themes.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Smetana was the first great Czech nationalist composer, a Bohemian. His first nationalist work was written in 1863, in Czech, as a contest entry to the Provisional Theater. He learned to read and write Czech to enter the competition. This opera, Branibori v Cechach (The Brandenburgs in Bohemia) has an historic plot, but the music does not represent folk song.

His second opera, Prodana nevesta (The Bartered Bride, 1863-1866), incorporates folk melodies, and was a success beyond Czechoslovakia. Also included in his nationalistic works are the six tone poems Ma Vlast (My Fatherland, 1872-1880).

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Dvořák was the most successful of the Czech nationalist composers. He performed viola in the Provisional Theater under Smetana, and was mentored by Brahms.

Dvořák included Bohemian themes and elements into much of his music. In 1871, he left the Provisional Theater and began to set a libretto by a Czech writer, Lobesky, titled Král a uhlíř (The King and the Charcoal Burner). Unfortunately, this opera was not successful. More notable for their national content are his six Slavonic Dances (1879) and the Slavonic Rhapsodies (1880).

Dvořák was invited to New York in order to direct the first national conservatory in America. While abroad, he studied African American and Native American music. Some say that these styles are incorporated into his American works: Symphony no. 9 op. 95 (From the New World), The “American” string quartet op. 96, and the “American” string quintet, op. 97.

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

Janáček did a lot of work researching and cataloguing Moravian folk music. His work inspired further reseach. Because of his interest in folk music, he was predisposed to modality and pentatonic scales which appear frequently in Moravian folk music. He generally wrote without key signatures, in order to freely move between modes.

His most famous opera, Jenufa (1904), was originally written in Czech and translated into German. Janáček was very careful in supervising the translation in order to preserve the integrity of the libretto.


Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Greig began composing national music after visiting Ole Bull, a violinist and researcher of folk music. His most notable pieces are the incidental music for plays, including his music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1874-1875). He also composed many piano works in a national style.


Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Jean Sibelius had strong patriotic feelings for Finland. He chose to write program music rather than base his works on Finnish folk music. For his contributions, the government awarded him a pension.

In 1899, patriotism was running high in Finland. Sibelius composed the symphonic poem Finlandia (1899) for a festival, and this rallied the Finnish citizens into a patriotic fervor. A portion of this tone poem has been arranged as a chorale; it remains an important national song of Finland, and is also present in many Protestant hymnals.


Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)

Albéniz studied at many of Europes premiere conservatories, including the Escuela Nacional de Música y Declamación in Spain. Many of his piano works reflect his Spanish heritage, including the Suite Iberia (1906-1909). In this piece the piano imitates the guitar and castanets, traditional Spanish instruments.

Enrique Granados (1867-1918)

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


In Great Britain, nationalist music was more prominent in Scotland, Ireland and Wales than in England. These countries have always had a strong connection to their heritage, and Romantic composers incorporated elements of British folk music into their works.

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(1878).

Charles Stanford (1852-1924)

Stanford incorporated Irish and English elements in his music, including five Irish Rhapsodies (1901-1914). He published volumes of Irish folk song arrangements, and his third symphony is titled the Irish symphony.

Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935)

Mackenzie prepared and published arrangements of Scottish folk songs, and many of his compositions contain folk elements. Included in these are his Highland Ballad for violin and orchestra (1893), and the Scottish Concerto for piano and orchestra (1897). He also composed the Canadian Rhapsody.

United States

Charles Cadman (1881-1946)

Cadman spent time on the Omaha and Winnebago Indian reservations and recorded their songs. He arranged and published some of them. Cadman presented a series of recitals with the Omaha princess Tsianina Redfeather, a mezzo-soprano, and composed an opera, Shanewis or The Robin Woman (1918), based on her life.

Arthur Farwell (1872-1952)

Farwell also worked with Native American music, but also studied Anglo American and African American folk songs, as well as Mexican and Cowboy music. He founded Wa Wan Press to publish his American Indian Melodies (1900) and works by contemporary composers.


Apel, Willi. 1968. Harvard Dictionary of Music. Boston: Harvard UP.

Grout, Donald J. 1960. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton.

Stolba, K. Marie. 1990. The Development of Western Music: A History. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, Inc.

Taruskin, Richard. n.d. Nationalism. Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 8 December 2005). [<>].

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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