Musical Nationalism in Western Europe

Reading Harold Schönberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers — a classic and a must-read for classical music fans — I’ve encountered some commentary on musical nationalism in the 19th century that puzzles me at bit. He opens his chapter “Russian Nationalism and the Mighty Five” by asserting that Brahms and Wagner and the rest of the great German and Austrian musicians of the 1800’s weren’t nationalist composers. “Rich countries with satisfied citizens do not normally produce nationalistic music, which in a way is a kind of propaganda — a musical call to arms.” But then he echoes Aaron Copland’s idea that you don’t have to try to compose nationalistic music: if you are a composer and an American, for example, then like it or not you will compose American music. “True nationalists do not have to quote [folk music] directly,” Schönberg says. “They are so impregnated by the melos that all of their music evokes, as a specific response, the music of their homeland.”

Is Schönberg is contradicting himself? It seems to me that if a composer does not have to try to evoke the folk music of his culture — if he will tend to do so whether he likes it or not, spontaneously and instinctively — then it would have happened with Brahms and Wagner just the same as with Glinka and Mussorgsky. Weren’t Brahms and Wagner just as “impregnated by the melos” of their homelands as any other composer? Wasn’t the High Classical symphony of Haydn and Mozart a nationalistic expression of Viennese culture, from the aristocratic perspective that was the zeitgeist of those times? And if nationalistic music is “a kind of propaganda,” it seems difficult to avoid identifying German and Austrian classical music as nationalistic in light of Germany’s use of it as a call to arms during its militaristic era, from the later 1800’s through the world wars.

I have to say I’m uncomfortable with Schönberg’s implication that German classical musicians were artists capable of rising above narrow-minded provincial sensibilities and  working on a higher plane, entirely in the abstract, whereas Russian, Eastern European, and Spanish composers could do no better than to transcribe and write variations on the folk music they grew up with.

Nationalism was a major element of all Western cultures through the 19th century, Germany and Austria included.

This entry was posted in Topics in Music History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply