Nationalism In German Music During The Early Romantic Period Until the nineteenth century, music was generally regarded as an international language. Folk music had always been in place and linked directly with particular regions. On a larger scale though, European music was a device for expression through the application of Italian techniques and styles. In other words, its technical vocabulary was Italian, and from the time of the early baroque, European music, in general, had evolved its styles and technical devices from the developments of Italian composers. Furthermore, court opera was nearly always performed in Italian, whether in Dresden or in London, no matter who composed it or where it was performed.
For example, in 1855, Queen Victoria suggested to Richard Wagner that he translate his opera Tannhauser into Italian so that it could secure a production in London. Thus, European music, regardless of where it was composed could be (and was) performed throughout Europe and understood through the common Italian commands, descriptions, and styles. It was unacceptable for most to compose in any other way. The international idea began to collapse in the early nineteenth century as embattled nations or nations subjugated by a foreign invader began to think of music as an expression of their own national identity, personality, or as a way of voicing national aspirations. In Germany, the ideas of nationalism were prevented from finding an outlet in the world of political ideology and instead found outlets in music. This started in a very subtle manor.
Take for example the increasing use, by Beethoven, of the German language in his instructions in his music. In his Adieux Sonata (op. 81a), Beethoven’s farewell to the Archduke Rudolph, the master progressively uses increasing amounts of German in his instructions and by the third movement, little Italian at all. Sonatas written a few years later are designated for the Hammerklavier and not for the pianoforte, Italian for piano. Such subtle changes in traditional composition direction foreshadowed ever-increasing tendencies toward German nationalistic ideas in music.
As Henry Raynor puts it, the Napoleonic invasions which turned Beethoven from a simple revolutionary into a patriotic Austrian revolutionary seem to have made him feel that his own language was a perfectly satisfactory way of telling pianists how he wanted his music played. These early feelings of nationalism, if not just for Beethoven, stemmed from the years of unity under the auspices of Napoleon’s Empire, which gave a considerable portion of central Europe reason to realize their collective similarities. This large area shared a common language and historical legacy. Traditions were similar as were aspirations. Indeed, the complex that was to become the German Empire presented a more or less homogeneous state, united by language and culture but forced by political organization into political disunity Nonetheless, the idea of German unity had surfaced years earlier, long before the revolutionary borders of Central Europe were rationalized by Napoleon and before Beethoven’s use of German vocabulary for instruction in his music. The prominent German Enlightenment thinkers Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte had espoused that nationalism in Germany was found in the unity of culture and not in the political situation of the region. Herder though that if the German-speaking world obtained a unity of culture and education, political unity would follow.
More importantly, it was the personality of the German people or Volk and their awareness of a common culture that would create the less vital political unity. Herder was concerned with the cultural character exclusively in his nationalism. Also, his brand of philosophical nationalism was applicable to others, and not exclusively Germans. Somewhat conversely, Fichte believed that a nation was not merely the combination of people and a certain geographical area but was a spiritual unity created through shared culture and aspirations, a result of religious, social, economic, and political pressures. Fichte was twenty years younger than Herder and promoted a more intense brand of German nationalism that surfaced later in the nineteenth century. Of great importance though, Fichte, unlike Herder, attributed to the Germans an originality and a genius not possessed by other peoples.
Conversely altogether is the thinking of Hegel. His viewpoint was that the state, its policies, and the order it enforces were the only embodiment of nationalism or national culture. In other words, it was the duty of the state to ensure the independence of the arts and have the state maintain the embodiment of national culture. It can be assumed that this view was not appealing Beethoven or Wagner. Thus, the collision of cultural and idealistic nationalism with the ambitions of Napoleonic France effectively caused the German people to justify the political actions of their rulers, if not to find expression in a political sense.
The German states were without a center without Austrian influence, as the Congress of Vienna had refused any Austrian influence in Western Europe. This created a gap, which remained until the creation of the German Empire under Prussian leadership. However, the cultural unity that existed in Germany, the unity of a common language, national folklore and national traditions, which were claimed as the real basis for national identity according to Fichte and Herder, all set the background for a desire for political unity. Thus, the thoughts of Hegel began to create a sense of urgency in the minds of many Germans, an urgency for political nationalism. According to Raynor, the outcome of this sense of national unity thwarted by a threadbare, repressive political system underlay the longing for national unity which persisted until the creation of the German Empire. So, lacking a cultural center and capital, Germany expressed its uniqueness through music more than literature, art, or political structures.
The lack of national political unity also encouraged a national sense of inferiority. The Germans had the sense of nationalism, no political outlet, and were surrounded by strong unified countries such as Austria and France. By the 1830’s, Wagner was convinced that he had been born to save German opera and felt he might accomplish this through Italian lessons. Wagner’s thought was, at its core, wholly national. He was convinced that German opera composers had lost their ability to win over the hearts of the people.
According to an article in a Leipzig magazine of 1834: We are too intellectual, too learned, to create warm human figures. Mozart could do so, but he animated his characters with the beauty of Italian song. Since we have come to despise this, we have wandered further and further from the path that Mozart beat out for the salvation of our dramatic music. Weber never knew how to handle song, nor does Spohr understand it much better. But song is the organ through which a human being can communicate himself musically; and so long as this is not fully developed, he lacks genuine speech.
This is where the Italians have an enormous advantage over us; with them, beauty of song is second nature. For Wagner and other opera composers, the ultimate form for this national cultural unity was opera and song. The ability to distinguish a national theme was a testament to the national music of a country. In this quotation, Wagner is stating that the Italians are the best for this. In other words, the Italians are the authority on creating song that is at once recognizable as Italian, much like we can recognize national melodic types today, and this is just what German music, and opera, needs. Wagner occasionally wrote blatantly nationalistic works, marches, for example, Huldingungs Marsch for King Ludwig II of Bavaria, or The Kaisermarsch, celebrating the German victory over France in 1870.
These works celebrate the political nationalism that was not espoused by Wagner directly, and certainly not found in other works of his like The Ring, in which German mythology universalizes a nationalism that runs much deeper than its obvious political statements. In another work, The Mastersingers, Wagner depicts the Volk, themselves, as the guardians of artistic tradition and progress. Thus, Wagner becomes the s …