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Music and Nationalism

Nationalism was the most successful political force of the 19th century.  It emerged from two main sources: the Romantic exaltation of "feeling" and "identity" and the Liberal requirement that a legitimate state be based on a "people" rather than, for example, a dynasty, God, or imperial domination.

Both Romantic "identity nationalism" and Liberal "civic nationalism" were essentially middle class movements. There were two main ways of exemplification: the French method of "inclusion" - essentially that anyone who accepted loyalty to the civil French state was a "citizen". In practice this meant the enforcement of a considerable degree of uniformity, for instance the destruction of regional languages.  The German method, required by political circumstances, was to define the "nation" in ethnic terms. Ethnicity in practice came down to speaking German and sometimes just having a German name. For the largely German-speaking Slavic middle classes of Prague, Agram (Zagreb) etc. who took up the nationalist ideal as Slavs, the ethnic aspect became even more important than it had been for the Germans.

It was only later in the 19th century that nationalism spread to Slavic countries, some of which which had been effectively moribund as political entities for centuries, and where languages survived largely as peasant tongues. Among these groups nationalism tended to develop and change in similar ways among each people.

The music here illustrates one common line of development:- generally from a "cultural nationalism" to a more overtly political "liberal nationalism", and then, all to often, to an exclusivist "triumphal nationalism".  That is presented here in with reference to compositions by nationalist composers in order of stages rather than in order of date of composition. At any given moment, nationalist movements were often at different stages in different countries.

[Note: the music files on this page were originally old style MIDI files. As of 2023 they have been replaced with links to YouTube versions. YouTube links sometimes go bad or are changed. If that happens, just search ay YouTube for the music references.]

Cultural Nationalism

Building on the ideas of Herder, and the Romanitic folklore movements of the early nineteenth century, classical composers sought to revalue the heritage of their "people" by using "folk" themes.  Although German composers did take such an approach, it is seen most clearly in the following peices.

Finland: Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Finlandia, Opus 26, 1899

Finland was a province of the Russian Empire in 1899, and Sibelius became his country's national composer. His Finlandia was composed for a national pageant in 1899 which, under the guise of a charitable event, was aimed at the effort to "Russify" the country. It, and especially its great central hymn immediately became so identified with Finnish national aspirations that it was banned in 1917.

  • Jean Sibelius: Finlandia [BBC Symphony 1975]
  • Jean Sibelius: Finlandia [Sydney Youth Orchestra]

Bohemia: The Czechs: Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava (The Moldau) from Ma Vlast (My Fatherland)

Smetana is one of the great Czech national composers. As a middle class youth, however, he spoke German and indeed could not speak Czech until later in life.

  • Bedrich Smetana: The Moldau, from Ma Vlast [Vienna Philharmonic]
  • Bedrich Smetana: The Moldau, from Ma Vlast [Czech National Symphony]

Other "Cultural Nationalist" composers include:

Liberal Nationalism

Liberal nationalism, as for instance associated with the Italian leader Giuseppe Mazzini, sought to establish liberal states based on the a "nation".   Nationalists always assumed that their "nation" existed in some "natural" way. In practice the leaders had to work hard to create a national sense, usually by emphazing common culture, and by focusing on some oppressive external force.

Italy: Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901): "Va, pensiero" (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco 1842

The "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves", (Va Pensiero), from Verdi's opera Nabucco (1842) attained great political significance. Va Pensiero became the Italians' song of liberation, for, in the oppressed Hebrews, they found a symbol of their own longing for reunification with Lombardy, which was occupied by Austria. The unison chorus (one of the few da capo choruses in all opera) became the underground "national hymn". And the composer's name became V.E.R.D.I, a slogan meaning Vittorio Emmanuale Rei de Italia ("Victor Emmanual, King of Italy") - a reference to the sole native dynasty in Italy and the focus of nationalist hopes for unity.

Va Pensiero
(The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco)

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate; Go, my thoughts on golden wings;
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli Go, settle on the cliffs and hills
Ove olezzano tepide e molli, Where the sweet breezes bring
L'aure dolici del suolo natal! The warm, soft fragrances of your native land
Del Giordano le rive saluta, From Jordan, the river of salvation, and
Di Sionne le torri atterrate. From the desolate towers of Zion.
Oh, mia patrie si bella e perduta! Oh my fatherland so beautiful and lost!
Oh, Membrenza si cara e fatal! Oh remembrances, so dear and so deadly
Arpa d'or del fatidici vati, Golden Harps of our prophets and poets,
Perché muta dal salice pendi? Why have you changed into weeping willows?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi, The battered memory in my heart
Chi favella del tempo che fu! Which speaks of the time which was!
O simile di Solima ai fati Either like Solomon to the fates
Traggi un suono di crudo lamento, You present a sound of crude lament,
O t'ispiri il Signore un concento Or the Lord inspires in you a song
Che ne infonda al patire virtu! Which takes courage into the depths.


Triumphal  Nationalism

Another piece by Verdi is used here to illustrate triumphalism. Aïda was written in 1871 to celebrate the opening of the Suez canal, and became the model for later choral operas. It is a work in the grand style, a tragic love story against a freely-invented plot about a war between Egypt and Ethiopia. The "triumphal act" depicts Egypt's victory over Ethiopia, whose prisoners are lead in chains across the stage. The trumpets, one and half meters long, were specially designed for this opera. Although Verdi, as well as being a great composer, was a famous Liberal, the triumphal scene well illustrates the attractions of overbearing nationalism. In this opera, written 30 years after Nabucco, and we can hear a change in nationalism. It is no longer cultural, or even a yearning to be free. Now it is triumphalistic, exalting one people over another

Italy: Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901): "Triumphal March" from Aïda 1871

Gloria all'Egitto
(The Triumphal March from Aïda)



Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside Glory to Egypt and Isis
Che il sacro suol protegge! Protectress of the sacred land,
Al Re che il Delta regge To the King who rules the Delta
Inni festosi alziam Joyful hymns we sing
Gloria! Gloria! Gloria! Glory!, Glory!, Glory!
Gloria al Re Glory to Ra



S'intrecci il loto al lauro Weave the lotus and the laurel
Sul crin dei vincitori! Into a crown for the victors!
Nembo gentil di fiori Let a soft cloud of flowers
Stenda sull'armi un vel. Veil the steel of their arms.
Danziam, fanciulle egizie, Let us dance, Egyptian maidens,
Le mistiche carole, The mystic dances,
Come d'intorno al sole As, around the sun,
Danzano gli astri in ciel! The stars dance in the sky!



Della vittori agl'arbitri Lift you eyes to the gods,
Supremi il guardo ergete; The arbiters of victory;
Grazie agli Dei rendate Give thanks to the gods
Nel fortunato di. On this happy day.

England: Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No 1

The music here is Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 of 1902. During World War I, it was used as the theme for part of a poem by A. C. Benson (1862-1925), by the music hall star Marie Lloyd. It was immediately adopted as perhaps the second most sung national song after God Save the King. Perhaps the reason was that it can be sung with much more gusto.

Dear Land of Hope, thy hope is crowned.
God make thee mightier yet!
On Sov'ran brows, beloved, renowned,
Once more thy crown is set.
Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.

Land of Hope and Glory,
Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee,
Who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider
Shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty,
Make thee mightier yet.

Thy fame is ancient as the days,
As Ocean large and wide:
A pride that dares, and heeds not praise,
A stern and silent pride:
Not that false joy that dreams content
With what our sires have won;
The blood a hero sire hath spent
Still nerves a hero son.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.

©Paul Halsall Aug 1997, revised July 1998, , updated March 2023

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© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 6 October 2023 [CV]