Show/hide main menu

Position Papers

Seminar 1

Music: universal, national, nationalistic

It cannot be mere coincidence that the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001) has no references to “universalism” or “cosmopolitanism” but more than ninety references to “nationalism”. To understand the idea that music could embody something universal, we need to go back to eighteenth-century France. Writing about the “poème lyrique” in the Encyclopédie (1765), Baron Melchior Grimm appropriated the system of expression and communication that is “language” (“langue”) to music with the intention of elevating composers above poets because of the larger number of people musicians could address: “The advantage of a musician’s language to that of a poet resembles that of a universal language to a dialect. The poet speaks the language of his time and place only while the musician speaks the language of all nations and all times.” Grimm’s claim of music as a universal language had two corollaries: such a language had to be “vague” to enable comprehension and it had to be a language of “passions”. Grimm seemed to have no desire to test his thesis. However, music’s potential to facilitate communication beyond the territorial confines of verbal language was exploited by Gluck to lay to rest the century-old controversy between French and Italian writers about the relative merits of their music. In the preface to his Orphée et Euridice (1774)and with direct reference to Rousseau, who in the Querelle des bouffons had notoriously denied the existence of French music, Gluck boasted: “My intention was to try to adapt the new style of music, that I adopted in my last three Italian operas, to French words. I have noted with satisfaction that the accent of nature is a universal language.” By compositional means, especially in the accompanied recitatives, and performance directions (Orphée was to wail “as if his leg was being sawn off”), Gluck evidently believed that in his operas he had found a form of communication which everybody could understand. His reductionism found its counterpart in Chabanon’s (1785) conception of music as a universal language which supposedly “emanated directly from human organism”, although he conceded that to convey ideas a host of conventions had to be put into practice. In a similar vein, Lacépède (1785) acknowledged that music was not yet “that universal language which could so easily be listened to by all hearts.” For him it was a project.

Only five years later, on leaving Vienna for his first London season, Joseph Haydn allegedly declared: “My language is understood in the entire world.” Haydn, who had spent decades in the hinterland of the Austrian empire, could electrify his London audiences in subscription concerts without commanding the English language. His feat surpassed the success of eighteenth-century Italian opera across European court theatres in so far as Haydn had to rely on wordless rhetoric. To be sure: composers of the Mannheim School or violinists such as Viotti were also extremely well received in Paris. But they did not translate their success into Haydn’s euphoric judgement: his implications of a sharing of values.

If so far the emphasis has been on some eighteenth-century authors’ claim of music’s supra-linguistic status, the age-old competition between French, Italian and German authors, who all maintain the superiority of their music, illustrates the simultaneous existence of musical nationalism. There was no simple development in music or elsewhere from eighteenth-century universalism to nineteenth-century nationalism. Already in the eighteenth century Handel was adopted as an English composer, and in 1802 Forkel made a political statement by portraying Bach as a German composer (“Be proud of him, Fatherland, but also be worthy of him!”). Richard Taruskin has rightly distinguished between “nationality” (a “condition”) and “nationalism” (an “attitude”). In this part of our workshop, therefore, we should investigate the transformation in attitudes to music found among the members of national communities. How did music become part of nationalist projects? Compositional elements such as a chord progression, a melody or ¾ metre are not intrinsically national, let alone nationalistic. To acquire nationalist meaning a composition has to include some specific traits which can be decoded by a social group unified by language, geography and government. Here we do not need to revisit the elaborate discussions in political history between “perennialists” and “modernists” regarding the necessary attributes of nations. That is: we can leave aside the question whether a social group only becomes a “nation” after it has made the transformation from a cultural into a political community in the form of a state. But it concerns us that music was one of various cultural practices which fostered this transformation. Weber’s Der Freischütz acquired the status of a national opera less because of the composer’s chosen style, which was much indebted to opéra comique, than through its subsequent reception, in which growing antipathy against privileged Italian court opera played a crucial role. (Nationalism is not only in favour of something, it is also against something else.) In the well-established genre of national dances, Chopin’s Polonaises serve as another example. Jim Samson has shown how in 1829 the Polish critic, poet and university teacher Kazimierz Brodziński translated sections from Forkel’s Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (1788-1804), which described the “rhythmic and melodic characteristics of so-called ‘national’ musics”. Yet Brodziński now “assign[ed] them a generative role in creativity, and … view[ed] them as somehow emblematic of the spirit of the nation”. Through his piano teacher Józef Elsner or otherwise, Chopin was familiar with Brodziński’s ideas. This scenario, combined with the Polish uprising in 1830 and the composer’s own displacement, changed Chopin’s approach to the polonaise and mazurka. Thus, the general question should be asked: how generic were national dances at the beginning of the nineteenth century and in what ways did national features become so emphatic that they could be understood as such? What mimetic devices were employed to represent political meaning?

Composers and their scores were only two of the many cultural agents potentially promoting musical nationalism. Our topic revolves around ideas that were fervently embraced in written language. Benedict Anderson has reconstructed the development of “print languages” that functioned to unify “fields of exchange and communication” and “formed … the embryo of the nationally imagined community”. We earlier alluded to printed texts that appropriated a national or universal spirit to music. The development of musical literature and journalism in the first half of the nineteenth century facilitated middle-class communication about the sharing of taste and simultaneously reinforced the cultural substructures (canon-formation, cultural institutions, elites). Musical nationalism linked these enterprises with larger sections of the population. Musical festivals probably functioned as events as which the musical cum political sentiments could be aired. Here music could facilitate social mediation but also serve the ideological programme of those in power. 


F.M. Grimm, “Poème lyrique”, in Denis Diderot et al. (eds.), Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Neufchâtel, 1765), vol 12, 824.

C.W. Gluck, Orphée et Euridice (Paris, 1774), fol. 3; translated in Patricia Howard, Gluck. An Eighteenth-Century Portrait in Letters and Documents (Oxford, 1995), 123.

M. Chabanon, De la Musique considérée en elle-même et dans ses rapports avec la parole, les langues, la poésie et le théâtre (Paris, 1785/R 1969), 129 and 135. 

B.G. Lacépède, La Poétique de la musique (Paris, 1785/R 1970), II, 348.

A.C. Dies, Biographische Nachrichten von Joseph Haydn [1810], in V. Gotwals (ed.), Joseph Haydn: Eighteenth-Century Gentleman and Genius (Madison WI, 1963), 120.

J.N. Forkel, Johann Sebastian Bach (Leipzig, 1802/Berlin, 1968), 127.

Richard Taruskin, “Nationalism”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London, 2001), XVII, 689.

A.D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism (London, 1998), 19-24.

Ludwig Finscher, “Weber’s ‘Freischütz’: Conceptions and Misconceptions”, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 110/1983-4, 77-90.

Jim Samson, “Music and Nationalism: Five Historical Moments”, Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism. History, Culture and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations, ed. A.S. Leouissi and S. Grosby (Edinburgh, 2007), 55f.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 20062), 44.

Sitemap Site help Terms and conditions  Privacy policy  Accessibility  Modern slavery statement  Contact us

© 2020 King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS | England | United Kingdom | Tel +44 (0)20 7836 5454