Music History 102

Music History 102:

Nationalist Composers

The nineteenth century was a time in which passionate nationalism was prevalent and which saw many political upheavals. Influenced by such “nationalistic” works as the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz Liszt, composers from many European countries became determined to develop a “national style” of music for their homeland. To do this they turned to the dances, folk songs, history, and national legends of their countries as a basis for their musical compositions. Of the countries that fostered a growth of such a movement, Russia, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), Finland, Spain, England, and the young United States of America produced several outstanding nationalist composers.

portrait of Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky

Born: Karevo, Pskov district, March 21, 1839
Died: St. Petersburg, March 28, 1881

In Russia, a group of composers emerged that was dubbed “The Mighty Five” by music critics of the day because of their attempts to endow Russia with music of a national flavor. Of these five, the most influential were undoubtedly Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and Modest Mussorgsky. Lacking a true musical training, Mussorgsky relied on his own unique sense of harmony and orchestration, and composed works of rare, unusual, and stark emotion. He completed only a few of his works, among them the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, (later brilliantly transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)), the song cycle Songs and Dances of Death, and what is considered the supreme masterpiece of Russian opera, Boris Godunov. The opera is based on a tragedy by the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, and concerns the rise to power of Czar Boris and his tragic reign and downfall. The Coronation scene from “Boris Godunov” is an example of Mussorgsky’s use of orchestral color to imitate the ringing bells of the Kremlin during the crowning of Boris. Many of Mussorgsky’s works were “touched up” and re-scored after his death by such composers as Rimsky-Korsakov. In their original scoring, however, one can fully appreciate the crude power and emotionalism Mussorgsky sought to bring to them, as in this performance of A Night on Bald Mountain , a symphonic poem representing a Witches’ Sabbath on a haunted mountaintop.

portrait of Antonín Dvorák

Antonín Dvorák

Born: Mühlhausen, September 8, 1841
Died: Prague, May 1, 1904

Certainly the greatest composer that Bohemia produced, Dvorák’s fame as a musician spread during his lifetime throughout Europe and to America, where he served as artistic director of the National Conservatory in New York City from 1892 to1895. Composing music in almost every conceivable genre during his career, many of his chamber works, symphonies, and concertos have entered the general repertory. The use of Bohemian folk dances in many of his works is typical, and among Dvorák’s most successful works are two sets of Slavonic Dances, originally composed for piano, four-hands, and which he later orchestrated. One of the most exciting of these is the Slavonic Dance, op. 46 no. 8. His nine symphonies are infused with the flavor of the Bohemian countryside, even his most famous, the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, nicknamed “From the New World”. It is in the third movements of many of these symphonies where Dvorák gives free rein to the music of his homeland, as he does in the Symphony no. 7 in D minor.

portrait of Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

Born: Hämeenlinna, December 8, 1865
Died: Järvenpää, September 20, 1957

Undoubtedly Finland’s greatest composer, Sibelius made his name principally as the composer of seven symphonies, a violin concerto, and a number of symphonic poems. He also wrote a great many songs and pieces for piano, but today these are known mainly in Finland only. Although he never actually quoted folk songs in his music and used traditional harmonies, by concentrating on Finnish legends and fiercely allying himself with Finnish nationalism, Sibelius became something of a national hero during his lifetime. He achieved renown in his own country with the composition of his tone poem Finlandia, a work of patriotic fervor not unlike the 1812 Overture of Tchaikovsky. But Sibelius’ true art is found among the symphonies, in which he developed a personal style of creating structures from fragments and bits of melody, synthesizing them during the course of a movement, such as in the final movement of the Symphony no. 5, op. 82.

Bildnis Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872 - 1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Born: Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, October 12, 1872
Died: London, August 26, 1958

Since the death of Henry Purcell (1649-1694), England had been called “the land without music.” Throughout the eighteenth- and for much of the nineteenth centuries, England produced no composers of any real consequence and made due by importing some of Europe’s finest and making them their own. Such composers as Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn had been extremely popular in England and wrote a great deal of excellent music for the British public. But it was not until the middle to late 1800s that a school of British composers began to emerge to rescue English music from a native slumber of over a hundred years.

Studying music mostly in his native England (although he did work for a time with Maurice Ravel in Paris), Vaughan Williams became extremely interested in British folk song, and incorporated several folk melodies into some of his orchestral compositions. The composer of nine symphonies, of which the “London” Symphony No. 2 is probably the most famous, Vaughan Williams also composed music for film and radio, choral works, and chamber music. His interest in the music of Great Britain’s cultural heritage extended to music of the Tudor and Elizabethan ages, and one of his greatest compositions is also one of his earliest, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The work is scored for strings only, itself a curiously English phenomenon, while the melody of the fantasia is in one of the ancient Greek modes. Vaughan Williams’ scoring allows for some very effective echo effects, as though the work were being heard in a great cathedral.

The turn of the century saw a number of emerging musical talents in Great Britain, including Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), Frederic Delius (1862-1934), Gustav Holst (1874-1934), and later Benjamin Britten.

Retrato de Manuel de Falla - Dibujo

Manuel de Falla

Born: 1876
Died: 1946

Spain awoke from years of musical slumber with the advent of Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), who wrote much music with a Spanish flavor for piano solo. Following in Albéniz’ footsteps were Enrique Granados (1867-1916), Joaquin Rodrigo (b. 1901), and Manuel de Falla. The final dance from the latter’s ballet The Three-Cornered Hat is of unmistakably Spanish origin, as is the music of each of these composers. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the music of these composers has been very successfully transcribed for the guitar by such masters of the instrument as Julian Bream, Andres Segovia, and John Williams.

Charles Ives

Born: Danbury, Conn., October 20, 1874
Died: New York, May 19, 1954

Music in early America had a distinctly British heritage, as much of the music of the American colonists consisted of English hymns and anthems. Later many American-born musicians went to Europe for their musical training, where they learned and absorbed the Old World traditions. Upon returning to the United States, American composers began infusing these traditional musical forms with styles that were inherent to America, among them African-American spirituals, blues, jazz, and ragtime, in an attempt to create a truly “American classical music.” Although the United States produced several popular composers throughout the nineteenth century (including song-writer Stephen Foster (1826-1864), pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), band leader John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), and jazz and ragtime composer Scott Joplin (1868-1917)) the first true great American composer would undoubtedly have to be Charles Ives. An American original who composed music using experimental techniques and ideas, Ives made his living as a prosperous insurance salesman. He studied music formally at Yale, but much of this music was never performed until after 1930, by which time Ives had ceased composing. Much of his music, including four symphonies, many orchestral pieces, piano and chamber works, incorporate traditional American hymns, songs and dance tunes. Ives sets these, however, using polyrhythms and polytonality, making much use of dissonant harmonies and tone clusters. One such work is “Putnam’s Camp” from Three Places in New England, in which one hears a brass band, a march tune, and an out-of-tune piano occurring at the same time within the first minute of the piece. Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Symphony No. 3, which he had composed in 1904. With the late “discovery” of Ives’ music, the path was cleared for a new breed of twentieth century American composers.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane