NPR Online

Nationalism in Music
with Frederick Starr

On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium, Martin is joined by Frederick Starr, a writer and former president of Oberlin College. Together they take us on a musical tour of the sights, smells, soil and texture of various countries as conveyed by 19th-century nationalist composers.

At the beginning of the 1800s, a transformation was underway in Western art. Previously, the highest goal of an artist was to express universal ideas. The new impulse was to look inward and embrace things that were unique to one's own country, like folk songs and traditions, landscapes and natural surroundings. Composers were moving away from general concepts towards specificity.

Musical nationalism took root in Germany in the early 1800s thanks largely to Carl Maria von Weber. At that time, Germans took pride in a pleasant way of life that was traditional, although not yet a rival economically or politically to England or France. In 1821, Weber wrote an opera about a lone hunter in the forest, using folk songs, fairy tales and woodland horns for inspiration. Within four years, Weber's romantic depiction of truly German music was charming packed opera houses in Vienna, New York and London. We listen to the "Hunters' Chorus" from Weber's opera "Der Freischuetz"--"The Free Shooter."

Part of the growing appeal of nationalist music was that it gave outside audiences a glimpse of distant and exotic cultures. Polish composer Frederic Chopin capitalized on the growing taste for foreign sounds and ideas when he entertained in the salons of Paris. Czech composers like Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana painted beguiling musical portraits of the flowing rivers and green meadows of their country. But not all composers relegated themselves to homegrown musical styles. Hungarian-born composer Franz Liszt had an affinity for assimilating exotic music elements from the other countries he visited.

Eventually, the widespread desire to compose uniquely national music had a reverse effect. By the late 19th century, common elements started to blur distinctions among national styles and many efforts began to seem cliched. Paradoxically, the movement towards localism and specificity had given way to a new commonality. Nevertheless, the nationalist movement had opened minds to other cultures, and brought an appreciation of things that were authentic and unspoiled by the increasing rate of change in modern culture.

The 20th century saw ardent nationalist composers like Hungarian Bela Bartok, who sought authentic national musical elements by recording and transcribing folk music throughout the countryside. Nationalist and exotic cultural themes would continue to appear in classical and the more recent interest in "world music." Martin introduces a fine example of American national themes as portrayed in "Hoedown" from Aaron Copland's rambunctious ballet "Rodeo".

Take a musical journey through different national cultures of the 19th century with Frederick Starr and host Martin Goldsmith--the latest installment of the Milestones of the Millenium series. Note: music parts have been edited from the commentary because of internet rights issues. (This stereo audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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