The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau”

Last Friday I wrote of the beauty and power—the sheer joy—of Romantic music, a topic I’ve covered once before on this blog.  In writing last week’s post, I noted briefly that Romantic music is nationalistic, which was certainly true in a number of cases.

Europe following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was a hotbed of political activity and nationalist sentiment.  The Congress of Vienna (1815) redrew the map of Central Europe, reducing the hundreds of German principalities, bishoprics, duchies, baronies, and the rest into about a dozen political units, hoping these larger Germanic kingdoms would serve as a bulwark against future French aggression.  They did, and more—under the steady Realpolitik of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia gradually grew to unite these new lands into the Second Reich—a unified Germany.

Meanwhile, smaller nations chafed under Austrian or French influence.  Bohemia—now part of the Czech Republic—fought against Austrian political rule and the German language that came with it.  Bohemians championed the revival of their native Czech language, and began revisiting Czech folklore and music as the resting place of the national spirit.

This process was not unique to Bohemia or the Czechs, but today’s featured piece, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau, is a prime of example of how nationalist musical ideas can capture beautifully a sense of a place, while also transcending national identity and borders.

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