Show Mobile Navigation
The Arts |

Top 10 Composers Who Embody Nationalism

by fliegendehollander
fact checked by Alex Hanton

Classical style music has often gone hand in hand with the virtue of patriotism – especially in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century. This list looks at ten composers (mostly Classical and Romantic) who epitomize the practice. Be sure to add your own selections to the comments.


Giacomo Puccini


The Italian composers are most associated to operas, and what operas they were! The Italian operas embodied the entire opera tradition of western classical music, with the use of arias and overtures.

Puccini is, with much competition from the likes of Rossini and Verdi, my choice for the great Italian operas. They range from the exotic oriental settings of Madama Butterfly, the comedy of Gianni Schicci to the Romance of La Boheme. He composed, as he said, like an Italian, with desperate passion.

His operas have far reaching influences. As those that have watched Mr Bean’s Holiday remember, Mr Bean lip-synced O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicci. Also, Pavarotti had brought the aria Nessun Dorma to popular culture, although it is a little known fact that it came from the opera Turandot. I have chosen an even less well known piece for you to listen to – it is Senza mamma from the one act opera Suor Angelica about a nun who gives up her illegitimate child. It is probably the most emotional aria by Puccini.

Further Listening: Un Bel di Vendremo from Madama Butterfly, Sì, Mi Chiamano Mimì from La Boheme and Vissi D’Arte, Vissi D’Amore from Tosca.


Edward Elgar
Sir Edward Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance March No.1

The land of England had, rather unfortunately, been barren of musical talent in the great composing period of the early romantics. With the exception of the Baroque composer Henry Purcell, England was almost devoid of musical talent (Handel worked in England. However, he was German).

Then along came Edward Elgar. He single-handedly revived English music, incorporating tunes unique to the British Isles into his sweeping romantic style. His music resounded with British patriotism, which became prominent at the onset of the Great War.

His Pomp and Circumstance March no.1 is without doubt his most famous piece (above). The chorale part, Land of Hope and Glory, became the unofficial anthem of England. The march is regularly played at graduation ceremonies in North America. Also, the movement Nimrod from the Enigma Variations is played at Memorial Day.

Further Listening: Cello Concerto (especially if performed by Jacqueline du Pré), Symphony no.1.


Soviet Union
Dmitri Shostakovich
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor (II)

Music and arts in the Soviet Empire was a dangerous matter, a slight misinterpretation could land you in the Gulags. Amongst this oppression and secrecy, a new art movement was born: Socialist Realism.

And only one composer could blend in this new art form so perfectly with music. Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the few composers that did not flee Russia when the revolution took place. Under the watchful eye of Stalin, he composed. His music was condemned twice, and he himself was kept under close scrutiny.

It was under this circumstances where he composed his great symphonies. These symphonies were not extravagant, large-scale ones like the Germans, but rather economical and realistic. They all told stories, for example the siege of Leningrad (Symphony 7), the October Revolution (Symphony 2) and the 1917 revolutions (Symphony 11). I have chosen the second movement of one of his eight String Quartet because it epitomizes the struggle Shostakovich was under – he wrote music to condemn communism whilst trying to veil it in such a way that it would not be obvious. This string quartet has a musical motif which connects back to one of the symphonies, and then, in turn, to a little known song he wrote called the Barbaric Artist which describes the destruction of a beautiful painting (Russia) by a barbaric artist (communism). The emotion in this quartet is palpable. I strongly recommend listening to all movements.

Further Listening: String Quartet no.8, Jazz Suite no.1, Symphony 15.


Edvard Grieg
The great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg: ”Morning Mood”

The Scandinavian countries had produced their fine breed of composers, composing music full of Nordic influence. Amongst their subjects were the Gods, elves and monsters of Nordic paganism.

Grieg took all of that, and expanded it in such a way that people today are still humming his tunes. Virtually everyone has heard of his In the Hall of the Mountain King and Anitra’s Dance, even if they did not know it’s origins. He wrote incidental music to nationalistic plays, and wrote songs full of Norwegian pride. His music, in his words, had the taste of codfish.

Further Listening: Piano Concerto, Peer Gynt Suite, Holberg Suite.


Antonín Dvo?ák
Antonín Dvořák Czech Suite [Bohemian Suite] Op. 39

Dvo?ák has the hardest name to type and pronounce (Duh-VOR-Zhak). This typographic difficulty did nothing to stop him from being one of the most popular composers in history. Bohemia is more of a ethnicity than a nation – it was then under the Austrian Empire, now under the Czech Republic. It had a history of being oppressed by other languages and cultures, thus when Bohemian composer Smetana wrote his operas in the native tongue, it became a roaring success.

Dvo?ák attempted to reignite the Bohemian flame. He tried writing operas throughout his life, though he never did succeed. His fame came mostly through his symphonies and chamber works. Dvo?ák was invited to conduct in America, and seeing better prospects, he left Bohemia. In a way, his life was ironic. He strove to promote Bohemian culture and music, yet his everlasting memory would be a Symphony dedicated to America. The piece above is the Cello Concerto played by Jaqueline Du Pre – her recording far surpasses any other and will probably never be improved upon. I have chosen the second movement because it shows the greatest part of Du Pre’s playing (from around 1:40).

Further Listening: Symphony no.9 ‘From the New World’, Symphony no.8, Cello Concerto, Humoresque.


Claude Debussy
Debussy : Clair de lune

At the end of the 19th century, new music exploded. Serialism became the vogue of the day, rejecting melodies for its ‘sissy’ characteristic. Impressionism, however, bloomed in France, celebrating the beauty of simplicity. Claude Debussy was, undoubtedly, the foremost composer for impressionist music. He drew inspiration from the Orient, utilizing the Pentatonic scale of oriental music, as well as the similarly exotic whole tone scale.

His music resembles the paintings of that time – calming and having an emphasis on ‘movement’. Remember the piano music in Twilight? That was his Clair de Lune, his everlasting epitome.

Further Listening: Arabesque, Clair de Lune, La Mer, Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune


Bela Bartok

Bartok was an amazing 20th century composer whose music is far too infrequently heard these days. He spent a lot of time traveling around his native Hungary capturing the sounds and tunes of folk music. He was, as a result, considered one of the founding fathers of ethnomusicology. His love for his land permeates all of his music. Above is one of his most famous works, the Miraculous Mandarin which is full of glitz and drama that is not uncommon in his work. You should definitely listen to more of his music – starting with the recommendation below. The added bonus to the above video clip is that we see Austin Powers conducting. Just kidding – it is Dohnanyi.

Further Listening: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (Opera).


Krzysztof Penderecki
Grammy award-winning Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki dies at 86

Yes. Not Chopin! Chopin was an amazing composer, but I do not believe that he composes in a Polish style as much as Penderecki. Penderecki utilizes Polish tunes and text in his composition, resulting in a uniquely Polish composition. Penderecki is a 20th century composer, who rose to fame through his composition ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’. This composition makes use of extended techniques, resulting in a unique and horrifying sound – push play above but be prepared – it gets straight to the point.

In his Polish Requiem, Penderecki uses the Roman requiem mass and adds a Polish hymn at the end, resulting in a Mass that is truly Polish.

Further Listening: Stabat Mater, Credo, Lacrymosa, Te Deum.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

It is hard to differentiate the music of Austria and Germany – both countries were historically together and share many cultural aspects, even language. From Austria, however, was born a composer that changed the course of history: Mozart. He took the new forms that Haydn created, the Symphony and String Quartet, to such new levels that the position of music changed from worship to a pure art form.

He died, however, at a young age, with his Requiem incomplete. The Requiem, however, will contain some of the most memorable music you have heard, including the Kyrie, Dies Irae and Lacrymosa. In short, he wrote Symphonies, Operas, Masses, Concerti, String Quartets and Sonatas. Amazing. I have chosen the “Ave Verum Corpus” for the above clip – it is an astoundingly beautiful piece of Mozart music that most will probably not know – but will be glad to know after listening.

Further Listening: Requiem in D minor, Der Hölle Rache from Die Zauberflöte, Piano Concerto 21, Symphony no.40, Coronation Mass.


Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner – Ride of The Valkyries

Germany has been the epicenter of classical music, with the presence of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, the Strauss family, Bruckner etc. However, none of them embodies the German spirit as much as Richard Wagner. Wagner remains the most controversial composer. His anti-semitism led him to become Hitler’s favorite composer, and his music is still commonly associated with Fascism.

Wagner wrote operas. Huge, purely Wagnerian operas that no one has ever attempted. He threw away the Italian tradition, and created his own, purely German opera. His subject matter concerned love (Tristan und Isolde), mysticism (Der fliegende Holländer) and Nordic mythology (the Ring cycle). His most immortal work would definitely be his immense Ring cycle, usually running 15 hours. the Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), consists of four operas, each a story in its own way. However, put together, they represent what Wagner visualizes as total artwork: Music, Drama, Poetry and Mythology. I was going to choose something obscure for the clip, but let’s face it – everyone loved the Ride of the Valkyries so that is what you get.

Further Listening: Der Ring des Nibelungen- Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung. Tristan und Isolde. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Der fliegende Holländer.


Charles Ives
The Unanswered Question

It was a tough choice between Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives, but as I have a soft spot for Ives, he won. Ives as a young man would try to mimic the sounds of New England from his youth – parades, parties, etc. He used pastiche to combine these sounds with more traditional (and often very new) styles of music. There is no doubt that Ives is technically the greatest American composer to have lived – with Copeland only possibly beating him in the area of popularity. The piece above is “The Unanswered Question” – an astonishingly beautiful piece of music with some very surprisingly weird moments (starting around the 1:35 mark). Note for novices: the strings, brass, and woodwinds are all playing in different keys – intentionally.

fact checked by Alex Hanton