The concept of nationalism refers to the ideology that focuses on the concept of a 'national identity'. This 'national identity', is based upon ideals first formed during the Romantic period (1815-1910) that a nation, and its cultural and political borders, are defined not by its government or its ruling class, but by its people and their shared cultural heritage (Richard Taruskin, Nationalism). Nationalism, therefore, is a social and political movement that is based upon the idea that a nation is defined by its people and those common elements which unify 'the people' into a national community, sharing common languages, cultural and social practices and experiences. Notable nationalist composers from the Romantic era include Bela Bartok, Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetena and Frederyck Chopin. Nationalism, however, is not a concept limited to the Romantic era. Charise L. Cheney argues that the rise of politicised African-American rap in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s allowed the genre to be a “vehicle for disseminating political discourse”, creating a “post-modern heir” to African-American cultural expression of the mid-Twentieth century: rap nationalism. This contemporary example of nationalist music demonstrates that, while the concept was a powerful influence on Romantic-era music, it is still a highly influential concept on contemporary music.
Nationalism appears to be regarded as a driving political movement in the late Romantic era; an attempt to redefine a sense of national identity and regain the political and cultural borders of a social group. A common train of thought in the essays by Taruskin and Miles is that nationalism in music was a product of political unrest and cultural oppression. Miles states that it was a reaction to the end of the Napoleonic wars, where the “cruel distribution of European boundaries” had placed many countries such as Poland, the Czech republic under imperial rule. Nationalist music is highly influenced by traditional folk music and dance rhythms; Taruskin refers to the ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder that communities define themselves through a shared language and cultural practices, and individuals use folk music and dances to identify themselves with the national community. Miles states that the use of folk dances in nationalist music was to 'authenticate' a particular piece’s themes of patriotism and nationalism, because “folk music expresses the spirit of the people.”
Nationalism in music aims to express these sentiments of nationalism, by appropriating ‘national’ musical idioms, dances, rhythms and instruments evocative of the composers’ country of origin, in order to establish a sense of national identity. Depending on the political context in which a piece was written, nationalist music can have two motives: a political motive, where music celebrates a shared language and culture to provide an image of a unified nation, or a cultural motive, where the music celebrates the unique idioms and culture of a social group, establishing a sense of a national identity (Taruskin). A piece which can be seen to have a political motive is Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage” (1988), which presses the need for the expression and assertion of cultural identity: “They tell lies in the books/That you’re readin’/It’s knowledge of youself/That you needin’…We have a reason why/To debate the hate.” An example of culturally nationalistic piece is Bartok’s “Dance Suite” (1923), which “imitates [Hungarian] peasant music” (Sofai).
Overall, nationalism can be defined the concept that a nation and its identity is defined by its people and its culture. In music, the ideals of nationalism are expressed primarily through the incorporation of local idioms, rhythms and melodies into compositions, establishing a sense of national identity through the celebration of a nations people and unique culture in music.
Miles, John. Nationalism and its Effect on Music in the Romantic Era, 1985. Published in http://hunsmire.tripod.com/music/nationalism.html.
Taruskin, Richard. Nationalism. Published in Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/50846.
Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts and Autograph Sources Budapest: Akkord Zenei Kiadó. Originally published in: Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Rita Honti Principles of Pitch Organization in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
Cheney, Charise L. Brothers Gonna Work It Out : Sexual Politics in the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism, NYU Press, New York, NY, USA, 08/2005