Romantic Nationalism in Music


Nationalism was an essential characteristic of 19th century European politics, philosophy, and culture, including music. The concept of nationalism – that shared cultural, ethnic, linguistic or geographic traits could define a group identity, and was often equated with a political state – emerged in the late 18th century, primarily among German philosophers and historians. Politically, this coincided with the decline of absolute monarchies and the rise of liberal democratic movements, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing throughout the 19th century. Culturally, nationalism was intertwined with notions of romanticism, such as the discovery of the “folk,” which influenced literary styles and themes. In music, nationalism was evident in the development of distinct national styles of music, but it also influenced composers’ musical intentions as well as audience reception in ways that stretched beyond the notes.


  • Johann Gottfried von Herder was among German philosophers and historians who recognized the idea that people (Volk) could be grouped according to cultural or linguistic identities. He coined the term “Volkslied” (“folksong”) in 1778-79.
  • The concept of folksong influenced German romantic poets, such as Goethe, and subsequently influenced composers who tried to emulate folk style in art songs, such as those by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).
  • Music of German composers is not often considered to display a “national style,” but some composers, such as Richard Wagner (1813-1883), were very nationalistic in their musical and political lives. Wagner was a German social nationalist who carried those philosophies into his music and writings. He touted the virtues of German music and set out to create the highest form of “German” music in his music dramas (Gesamtkunstwerk).
  • National awakenings and uprisings spread across Europe, particularly in the multinational Hapsburg Empire. For Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), music was a vehicle to spread this political and cultural nationalism. His composition “Má vlast” (“My country”) is a series of six symphonic poems, each with a theme about the Czech landscape, legend or history.  The second piece, “The Moldau,” is about the river that flows through the Czech lands.
  • Russian musical nationalism also emerged by the end of the 19th century. Inspired by earlier works of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), a group of five composers called “The Mighty Handful” (Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin) set out to distinguish Russian symphonic music from German styles.

Exploration Questions

  • Do you think that Wagner’s understanding of German nationalism can be heard in his music, or is it mostly based on his writings and the reception of his works?
  • How did Rimsky-Korsakov create a “Russian style” of music? In what ways do you think it differed from German compositions?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think music is such an effective vehicle for spreading nationalism?
  • In what ways does nationalism in music require us to think about music beyond the notes? How might perceptions of musical nationalism change over time?
  • Can you think of other examples of nationalism or national styles in 19th century classical works? What about in popular or other music genres, and in the present day?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Curtis, Benjamin W. Music Makes the Nation: Nationalist Composers and Nation Building in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Cambria Press, 2008. 280 pages. Through examination of the composers Wagner, Smetana and Grieg, this book explores the concept of nationalism in music, and its association with 19th century European politics.
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  • Applegate, Celia and Pamela Potter, eds. Music and German National Identity. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 329 pages. Essays in this volume address the dominance of German music and composers in Western art music, as well as how German national identity has become associated with a musical identity.
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  • Taruskin, Richard. Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays. Princeton University Press, 2000. 616 pages. Taruskin is a leading scholar of Russian music and has written many books and essays, all of which provide fresh insight and perspective, and are captivating to read!
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