The 19th century saw a rise in nationalist sentiment, and this cultural current was mirrored in the music of the day. Many composers used program music to depict nationalist themes. Others used elements of folk music in their compositions.


As a musical movement, nationalism emerged early in the 19th century in connection with political independence movements, and was characterized by an emphasis on national musical elements such as the use of folk songs, folk dances or rhythms, or on the adoption of nationalist subjects for operas, symphonic poems, or other forms of music (Kennedy 2006). As new nations were formed in Europe, nationalism in music was a reaction against the dominance of the mainstream European classical tradition as composers started to separate themselves from the standards set by Italian, French, and especially German traditionalists (Miles n.d.).

More precise considerations of the point of origin are a matter of some dispute. One view holds that it began with the war of liberation against Napoleon, leading to a receptive atmosphere in Germany for Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (1821) and, later, Richard Wagner’s epic dramas based on Teutonic legends. At around the same time, Poland’s struggle for freedom from Czarist Russia produced a nationalist spirit in the piano works of Frédéric Chopin, and slightly later Italy’s aspiration to independence from Austria resonated in many of the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (Machlis 1979, 125–26). Countries or regions most commonly linked to musical nationalism include Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Scandinavia, Spain, UK, Latin America and the United States.