• Jackson Harmeyer

67. Listening Recommendations – A Survey of Nineteenth-Century Nationalism


Last week I finished listening to my survey of nineteenth-century nationalism. For those who have been following my regular updates on Facebook, you know that this project started way back in September, and has seen me cover many of the major composers of the later Romantic Era. Let me now conclude this listening unit with a historical overview of the music I listened to plus some recommendations for your own future listening. Hopefully, this article will be the first in a series dedicated to tracing the major developments in music history within the context of my listening.

To begin let us first define nationalism. NATIONALISM is the pride in one’s own culture and heritage. In the second half of the nineteenth century, nationalism inspired composers to model their music on what they perceived as identifying elements of their people’s culture and history. Often this meant that composers would incorporate actual folk melodies into their compositions or create new melodies modeled from folk elements. It could also mean composers would look to national symbols – Modest Mussorgsky, for example, looked to Russian history when he created his opera Boris Godunov whereas Bedrich Smetana looked to Bohemian folklore and the natural landscape when creating his Má vlast. Another thing this meant was that the Italo-German tradition which had dominated music since at least the mid-1700s was challenged and ultimately defeated by the opening decades of the twentieth century.

PART I – ORIGINS. I break my survey of nineteenth-century nationalism into seven parts which are in most cases divided by geographic area. Part I, however, reconsiders in a nationalist context works by several composers whose music I have already listened to elsewhere. In particular, I re-listen to the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz Liszt, the mazurkas and polonaises (both Polish dances) by Frédéric Chopin, and a few highlights by Giuseppe Verdi. Liszt and Chopin are easily explained as nationalists: foreigners arriving in Paris, both composers presented to France and the rest of Europe the music of their homelands. Verdi’s nationalism is trickier to pinpoint: in the nineteenth century, Italy essentially had no need for “nationalist music” since Italian music was already a cornerstone across Europe. The Italian peninsula, however, had little political unity, and Verdi became a key figure in the reunification efforts going on in his day. His music was an inspiration for the Italian people with the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from his opera Nabucco becoming of special significance for the Italians hoping for reunification.

Listening Recommendations:

Chopin, Frédéric (1810-1849): Introduction and Polonaise brillante for cello and piano Listen Here!

Liszt, Franz (1811-1886): Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1 in E major Listen Here!

Liszt, Franz (1811-1886): Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in Eb major ‘Pester Karneval’ Listen Here!

Liszt, Franz (1811-1886): Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 in A minor ‘Rákóczy-Marsch’ Listen Here!

Verdi, Giuseppe (1813-1901): Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco Listen Here!

PART II – RUSSIA. My Russian listening begins with music by Mikhail Glinka – the father of Russian art music – and runs up to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The nineteenth century was really the beginning of Russia’s contribution to classical music, and a major question for many Russian composers was “What should Russian art music sound like?” Mily Balakirev posited that Russian music should be rough and unschooled in established Western music theory. With this agenda in mind, Balakirev assembled around himself a group of amateur composers he could guide and mentor; this group included César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and together with Balakirev they became known as ‘The Mighty Handful.’ Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky – while he had once considered following their approach – instead looked to create a Russian music better versed in Western practices. Eventually, Rimsky-Korsakov also embraced the Western conservatory approach as he continually refined and perfected his musical language. The younger generation – epitomized by Alexander Glazunov and Sergei Rachmaninoff – carried on this blended approach. As the Russian Revolution approached, Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, and Nikolai Myaskovsky learned what they could from these Romantics and imitated them in their early works; soon though, they became advocates of a more Modern approach which ultimately yielded international consequences.

Listening Recommendations:

Glinka, Mikhail (1804-1857): Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmilla Listen Here!

Borodin, Alexander (1833-1887): Symphony No. 2 in B minor Listen Here!

Borodin, Alexander (1833-1887): String Quartet No. 2 in D major Listen Here!

Balakirev, Mily (1837-1910): King Lear Overture Listen Here!

Mussorgsky, Modest (1839-1881): Mephistopheles’s Song in Auerbach’s Cellar Listen Here!

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich (1840-1893): Swan Lake, Op. 20 Listen Here!

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich (1840-1893): Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 Listen Here!

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich (1840-1893): Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathétique’ Listen Here!

Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai (1844-1908): Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36 Listen Here!

Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai (1844-1908): Christmas Eve Suite Listen Here!

Taneyev, Sergei (1856-1915): John of Damascus, Op. 1 Listen Here!

Glazunov, Alexander (1865-1936): The Seasons, Op. 67 Listen Here!

Scriabin, Alexander (1872-1915): Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 6 Listen Here!

Scriabin, Alexander (1872-1915): Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 26 Listen Here!

Rachmaninoff, Sergei (1873-1943): Suite No. 1 for two pianos, Op. 5 ‘Fantasie-Tableaux’ Listen Here!

Rachmaninoff, Sergei (1873-1943): Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 Listen Here!

PART III – BOHEMIA. The story of Czech nationalism in the nineteenth century is essentially the story of two composers – Bedrich Smetana and Antonín Dvorák – and their fight to escape German convention. Smetana encouraged Dvorák to look towards Bohemian folk music and subjects for inspiration, and in turn Dvorák inspired others, including his future son-in-law Josef Suk. The Bohemian nationalists, nonetheless, maintained close ties with other composers working in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Dvorák for example was close friends with Johannes Brahms.

Listening Recommendations:

Smetana, Bedrich (1824-1884): Overture to The Bartered Bride Listen Here!

Smetana, Bedrich (1824-1884): Blaník from Má vlast Listen Here!

Dvorák, Antonín (1841-1904): Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 13 Listen Here!

Dvorák, Antonín (1841-1904): Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76 Listen Here!

Dvorák, Antonín (1841-1904): Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33 Listen Here!

Dvorák, Antonín (1841-1904): Czech Suite, Op. 39 Listen Here!

Dvorák, Antonín (1841-1904): Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 Listen Here!

Suk, Josef (1874-1935): Fantasticke scherzo, Op. 25 Listen Here!

PART IV – THE UNITED STATES. My American unit is more about the origins of classical music in America than a precise exploration of American nationalism. The playlist begins with New England psalmodist William Billings who was writing at the time of the American Revolutionary War and in support of the patriots. In the early nineteenth century, composers William Henry Fry and Anthony Philip Heinrich were among the first American composers to write orchestral music; yet, their music is not explicitly American either, still very European in its resources. New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk was more original, but his music has little to do with the traditional progression through American history from the Atlantic coast gradually westward. Dvorák spent the years 1892 through 1895 in the United States, and helped point the domestic composers in a more fruitful direction – towards the folk melodies of African Americans and the Native American peoples. His most prominent American contemporaries have been remembered as the ‘Boston Six,’ and include Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach, George Chadwick, Horatio Parker, Arthur Foote, and John Knowles Paine. They taught many among the next generation of American composers – those who were to make an international name for themselves.

Listening Recommendations:

Billings, William (1746-1800): Chester Listen Here!

Fry, William Henry (1813-1864): Macbeth Overture Listen Here!

Gottschalk, Louis Moreau (1829-1869): Symphonie romantique ‘A Night in the Tropics’ Listen Here!

Dvorák, Antonín (1841-1904): Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’ Listen Here!

Dvorák, Antonín (1841-1904): String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 ‘American’ Listen Here!

Delius, Frederick (1862-1934): Florida Suite Listen Here!

PART V – THE NORDIC COUNTRIES. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland produced many gifted composers in the nineteenth century. Currently, however, my listening centers around Franz Berwald – an early figure – and three major players from fairly late in the story – Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius, and Carl Nielsen. Sibelius and Nielsen are, in fact, so late that much of their music exceeds the boundaries of Romanticism and the nineteenth century altogether. Unlike the Russians or Bohemians, a unified nationalist drive was not as strong for Nordic composers, it seems. Instead, much of the music written by the four Nordic composers mentioned above is the product of these composers’ highly-personal approaches to composition. Aspects of their respective Nordic cultures are, nonetheless, often reflected in their music.

Listening Recommendations:

Berwald, Franz (1796-1868): Symphony No. 2 in D major ‘Sinfonie capricieuse’ Listen Here!

Grieg, Edvard (1843-1907): From Holberg’s Time, Op. 40 Listen Here!

Nielsen, Carl (1865-1931): Hymnus amoris, FS 21 Listen Here!

Nielsen, Carl (1865-1931): Symphony No. 3, FS 60 ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ Listen Here!

Sibelius, Jean (1865-1957): Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 Listen Here!

Sibelius, Jean (1865-1957): Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 Listen Here!

Sibelius, Jean (1865-1957): Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 Listen Here!

PART VI – POLAND AND THE BALTIC STATES. Poland was not a unified state during the nineteenth century; instead, parts of what we today call Poland belonged to Prussia (Germany), Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Therefore, Polish composers often found themselves connected to these other countries, even if their Polish side would often come out in their music. Pianist-composer Franz Xaver Scharwenka, for example, became a colleague of Franz Liszt, and Liszt even went so far as to include him in his ‘New German School.’ Chopin, as previously mentioned, made his career in France. Violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski likewise began his career in France but also spent twelve years teaching in Russia, although his great ability as a violinist eventually allowed him to become an international figure. It is also important to understand that the greatest figures among Polish music in the nineteenth century were star performers writing showpieces; it would take until the twentieth century for Poles who were foremost composers to emerge and for an independent Poland to reemerge.

Listening Recommendations:

Scharwenka, Franz Xaver (1850-1924): Piano Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 82 Listen Here!

Paderewski, Ignacy Jan (1860-1941): Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 17 Listen Here!

PART VII – SPAIN. Spain unlike Poland was a unified country in the nineteenth century. Yet, the composers that music history remembers were still the star performers writing showpieces. Foremost among these were violinist-composer Pablo de Sarasate, guitarist-composer Francisco Tárrega, and the pianist-composers Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. Nonetheless, each of these four found themselves actively exploring Spanish folk music and creating a national voice for Spanish concert music. Sarasate through his international career even inspired many non-Spanish composers to explore a Spanish sound in their music – notably, Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso were both written with him in mind as soloist. Later it was Tárrega who would revitalize the Spanish guitar tradition which has remained the cornerstone of the classical guitar repertoire ever since.

Listening Recommendations:

Sor, Fernando (1778-1839): Fantasie No. 7, Op. 30 Listen Here!

Tárrega, Francisco (1852-1909): Gran vals for guitar Listen Here!

Albéniz, Isaac (1860-1909): Leyenda de Asturias, arranged for guitar Listen Here!

WHAT’S NEXT? Nationalism remained a prominent drive for much twentieth-century music as well. Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic would become some of the most important centers for national schools. Spain too would increase in prominence with several notable Latin American composers also joining the fray. And, as Italian composers attempted to redefine themselves as more than just practitioners of opera, Italy would also become an important ground for nationalist music. Meanwhile, countries like Russia and the United States would go from being mere nationalist outposts in the nineteenth century to major players alongside Germany and France in the twentieth century. Before exploring twentieth-century nationalism, however, I must first change direction and look into the final generation of Romantics in Italy, France, and Germany plus the surprise reemergence of international figures in British music.

JSH 16.02.24

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a composer, music scholar, and advocate of music. He is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ College – Louisiana’s designated honors college located on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. While there, Jackson completed an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” He has followed classical music around the world, attending the BachFest Leipzig in Germany, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and many concerts across Louisiana and Texas. Resident in Alexandria, Louisiana, Jackson works with the Arts Council of Central Louisiana as Series Director of the Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series. He also writes the program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, blogs at MusicCentral, and continues to study other aspects of music in his spare time. His four-movement Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 at Abendmusik Alexandria.


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