Category Archives: 19th Century

Nationalism – Smetana and Dvorak


The Moldau River runs through Prague, the capital of modern-day Czech Republic

This lesson concerns Nationalism, a prevalent movement in many countries throughout the 19th century. As Europeans gradually became an industrialized workforce, as populations began to consolidate into the cities, and as the old political orders were beginning to crumble, many sought out a national identity as part of their self-expressio

In the mid-19th century, some of the modern European countries existed – countries like England, France, Spain, Holland, and Russia. However, much of the German-speaking world was split into large governing areas, each ruled over by a noble (a king, duke, prince, elector, or other title). Think of these lands like small states. However, unlike the United States for example, there was not a strong unifying government for all these independent regions.

Italy, too, was an assemblage of city-states or small regions, each ruled by a local nobleman. In the map below, each region is outlined by a different color.

Parts of Italy were under foreign control: France, Spain, and Austria all claimed governance over different parts of Italy. In additional, the Catholic Church (the Vatican) controlled a considerable portion of the peninsula, including Rome and the surrounding environs.

Now look at this map of German speaking lands from the same time period.

Each of these colored regions represents a different political authority, and you can see some familiar names. In the Northeast, the province of Brandenburg (blue) included Berlin, in the South the Kingdom of Bavaria (green) included Munich. Leipzig was part of the Kingdom of Saxony, while Hamburg was in the Kingdom of Hanover in the north (pink). On the right side of this map, you can see a vast area in orange – this was the remainder of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ruled by the Hapsburg family for centuries. This empire included Upper and Lower Austria, parts of Hungary, Bohemia (modern-day Czech republic), Moravia, and Silesia. Although German was the official language of the empire, many of the geographic regions spoke their own languages, as many had been annexed into the empire, either by diplomacy or by force.

In Bohemia, whose capital was Prague, the native population spoke Czech. However, in the cosmopolitan city of Prague, German was the dominant language, and many middle class Bohemians of the 19th century likely grew up without learning Czech.

In Bohemia, parts of Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, a strong nationalist agenda formed in politics and art in the 19th century. This feeling was fueled by a longing for collective identity, and art, music, poetry and literature often adopted a nationalist aim.

Click the movie below to continue. The password is czechyourhead:

Now listen to the Moldau in its entirety:

One of Smetana’s countrymen who followed his model of Czech nationalist composition was Antonin Dvořák (pronounced “D’vor-schak”). Like Smetana, he took Czech folk music as an inspiration. However, most often, Dvorak’s method involved composing an original melody using elements from Czech folk sources. These included melodies using the pentatonic scale, a five-pitch scale that is a common musical language in nearly all the world’s folk musics. Here’s the incredible vocalist Bobby McFerrin demonstrating just how natural it is for people of all different backgrounds to gravitate towards the pentatonic scale.

Other devices that Dvorak used to lend a Czech flavor to his music are heavily syncopated rhythms and rhythms borrowed from Czech or Slavic folk dances, such as the polka, mazurka, spacirka, and sousedská (the last two are Bohemian dances). Additionally, Dvorak styled some of his slow movements after the Russian dumka, a slow dance movement that often moves from melancholy to exuberance. These contrasting sudden bursts of energy in an otherwise plaintive movement are characteristic of the dumka, and Dvorak employed them frequently.

As an example of how Dvorak adopted the Bohemian folk style into his own original compositions, here is the second Slavonic Dance from his op. 72 set of 8 Slavonic Dances. This version is arranged for a violin and cello solo with orchestra, here played by the brilliant Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma

In 1892, Jeannette Thurber, the president of the National Conservatory of Music in America, offered Dvorak 25 times his salary at the Prague Conservatory to become the head of the New York City school. Dvorak took the offer and lived with part of his family in New York for three years, where he composed some of his most well-known works.

Dvorak was brought over not only because he was a very famous European composer, but because he was a nationalist composer. The Americans hoped that Dvorak would be able to create an American nationalist musical voice as he had done with Czech music (never mind that Dvorak was obviously not an American!).

Click below for the video, same password as the Smetana video above:

You can hear a version of “Goin’ Home” with the newly composed lyrics by one of Dvorak’s students in the version sung by Paul Robeson below. Here, his deep bass voice brings an additional layer of gravitas to the melody.

The ironic thing about Dvorak’s New World Symphony, as it became popularly known, is that many of the devices the composer used are not distinctly American at all. The pentatonic scale, as you saw in that Bobby McFerrin video, is common to practically all folk music cultures, and is certainly a strong aspect of Czech music. In fact, there is probably as much Czech national character in this symphony as there is American. Many believe that Dvorak wrote his famous Largo melody, the “Goin’ Home” melody, as a sort of homesick longing for his own country.

Still, many in the American public and press believed that Dvorak’s symphony was precisely the American musical style they lacked. This work premiered in 1892 at the recently constructed Carnegie Hall, and was an instant hit. However, some in the musical press, especially in Boston, adopted a racist criticism of the symphony. Some white Americans were uncomfortable with a national style rooted in the music of Native Americans and African-Americans, believing them to be inferior styles of music.

The statue of Antonin Dvorak in Stuyvesant Park, New York City, on 2nd Ave around 17th st

Dvorak’s legacy is important in America because he inspired many composers to follow his lead, writing music based on the folk music of the country (this ranged from Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, written on an Irish theme, to Edward MacDowell’s “Indian” Suite, inspired by Native American music). But Dvorak was equally important as an inspiration for composers to think that there was a better way to write American music, that there might be a national style that wasn’t imported from Europe and taught by a Bohemian.