Twentieth Century Nationalism in the Music of Janacek, Britten, Revueltas, and Harrison

Musical nationalism took rise in the first half of the twentieth century in many regions of the world. Composers as diverse as Leos Janacek, Benjamin Britten, Silvestre Revueltas, and Lou Harrions sought to write music that was distinctly their own. In Central Europe and England, composers looked to move away from the dominant German idiom, while in the new world, composers from North and South America worked to lift their home-grown works to the level of international recognition. Several commonalities will be seen between each of these movements, primarily in terms of utilization of natural patterns of speech found in local languages, and the use of indigenous or local folk elements.

Nationalism in Central Europe largely took the form of composers striving to find a meaningful voice outside of the dominant German model. Two methods that proved fruitful for these composers were the use of and close adherence to native languages, and the use of local folk songs as source material. Both of these elements are exemplified in the music of Czech composer, Leos Janacek, particularly his opera, Jenufa. The musical material of this opera closely mirrors the natural inflections of the Czech language and much of the melodic content comes from local, Moravian folk songs.

The use of folklore and folk melodies in opera was certainly not a new concept when Janacek was writing his major works. What was unique for Janacek was where he was sourcing his material from, and what types of melodies he was using. As Hans Hollander points out in his article The Music of Leos Janacek: Its Origin in Folklore, the use of melodies from Bohemia, in the Western part of what is now the Czech Republic, had long been a source of inspiration for classical composers. These melodies typically have even phrase lengths of four or eight measures and diatonic harmonies, easily associated with Viennese classicism. Janacek found inspiration in folk melodies from the other side of the Morava river, in the Eastern portion of the country, which identifies more closely with Slovakia. The folk tunes of this part of the country often feature phrases of five or seven measures, with irregular rhythmic groupings tied to the natural inflections of the language. (1) Through the use of these types of melodies, tied so specifically to the composer’s native land, Janacek was able to create a national identity at the melodic core of much of his composition.

Daleko Široko, a dance chorus from Jenufa, displays an example of this use of folk material from the Eastern portion of the country. In this part of the opera, Janacek borrows the rhythmic structure from a love song common in Eastern Moravia. As Hollander points out, it is clear that Janacek was familiar with this song as he used its text in one of his choral compositions. In Jenufa, Janacek borrowed the rhythmic structure from this folk song, and also inverted fragments of it to make a larger structure. (2) In this way, Janacek was able to take a small amount of source material from his native land and spin it into a larger, organically composed section of the opera.

While Janacek certainly borrowed from the folk melodies of Eastern Moravia frequently, their influence on his original melodic construction was also significant in a more subtle manner. Folk music from this part of the country frequently favors minor tonalities and more importantly modality and the use of irregular, gapped-scales. While some of these scales have commonalities with traditional church modes, many are unique to the region and research has shown that these scales are derived from overtones which occurred naturally on irregular instruments traditionally played by shepherds and the like throughout the region. (3) It would be speculation to imply that Janacek was cognizant of the origins of the scales, but whether intentional or not, by using these scales in his own melodic construction, Janacek created music that was deeply tied to his native land and the traditions of his people.

Janacek’s keen ear for folk melodies and the scales on which they are based proved useful for another important aspect of his music, the emphasis on natural speech patterns and inflection in his text settings. Janacek payed close attention to the natural sounds of his native language and strove to imitate them melodically with his text settings. As Alex Ross describes, Janacek was constantly listening to the manner in which people spoke whenever he was in public spaces. He was acutely aware of how phrases would rise or fall at the end depending on to whom a statement was directed. Ross goes on to describe how Janacek put this attention to speech contours to use in Jenufa by creating melodies that matched the phrasing of each line of text. Further, he used these types of speech patterns to differentiate the melodic styles of each character based on how they would speak the lines. For example, Jenufa, the foolish village girl frequently sings easy going and melodically conjunct melodies to reflect her simple character. By contrast, the stepmother is given roughly-hewn phrases, often leaping over large intervals, reflecting her dominating character. (4) This type of melodic consideration based on the natural inflections of the spoken language is an important tool for a composer in creating a national style. If the work were translated to another language, the inflections would not match the speech patterns and the effect would be largely lost.

This type of melodic construction is quite different from the Bel Canto style, where composers would frequently create elaborate melodies based on simple fragments of text, thereby elevating simple texts to great works of art. Janacek worked in the opposite direction, finding great works of art in everyday speech. By so closely tying the melodic construction to the spoken text, Janacek created a distinctly Czech work.

The emphasis that Janacek placed on his native language and the detailed attention he payed to its natural inflections was mirrored in England where Benjamin Britten was also working toward a unique and nationalistic style. Possibly the most successful composer of English language opera, Britten avoided overt sentimentality in his music, a trait he associated with more “pastoral” English composers such as Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Interestingly, Britten also shied away from deliberately modern and obscure music, having a lukewarm attitude toward the developments of Schoenberg’s liberation of the dissonance. (5) Britten carved out a space for himself between these opposing styles, an idea presented in a lecture given in Aspen, Colorado, where Britten lamented the parallels between authoritarian nations’ demands of conservative musical culture and the voluntary embrace of the avant-garde in democratic nations; both of which worked to the detriment of the art of composition in his estimation. (6)

It is perhaps surprising that England did not produce a richer opera tradition prior to Benjamin Britten considering the depth of the English literary tradition, generating such luminaries as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Blake, Auden, Tennyson, and others. This fact is made even more curious when one notes the long standing English choral tradition. Certainly there were ample subjects to be set, and a wealth of trained singers. Perhaps this is due to the notorious difficulty of setting the English language, or quite possibly the dominance of German and Italian opera rendered this task seemingly unnecessary.

The setting and plot of Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, follows in a long tradition of English works programmatically featuring the English geography and proximity to the sea. The titular character, Peter Grimes is a fisherman and his tragedies naturally occur at sea. Britten lived most of his life along the coast of the North Sea and described the scenery as the inspiration for the vast majority of his works. (7)  As Alex Ross describes, the opening to Peter Grimes is a sonic portrait of the place of his youth, with grace notes in the orchestra’s upper register reflecting the calls of sea birds and bombastic brass imitating the power of the sea pounding on the shore. (8) This auditory depiction can perhaps be viewed as a powerful continuation of the English penchant for works connected with the sea.

As Janacek was focused on the delivery of musical lines that mirrored the exact inflection of everyday speech patterns, Britten was moving in the opposite direction. In regard to his setting of text, Britten said, “English writing for the voice has been dominated by strict subservience to logical speech-rhythms, despite the fact that accentuation according to sense often contradicts the accentuation demanded by emotional content.” (9) This idea may account for the somewhat idiosyncratic nature of many of Britten’s vocal melodies in Peter Grimes.

Peter Gutmann describes how Britten altered the natural pattern of speech accents to achieve a stronger emotional content at the end of the inquest scene where Grimes is told not to seek another apprentice. The text, “Peter Grimes, I here advise you,” would naturally have accents on “Grimes” and “vise” if spoken. Britten sets the entire passage with steady eighth notes, as if the lawyer is tolling out a solemn warning. Further, the syllables which naturally receive the accent are not the highest notes of the phrase, as might be expected. Instead, Britten sets “I” as the highest pitch, perhaps enforcing the ego and self-importance of the lawyer speaking to Grimes. (10) This type of emphasis on the placement of accents in natural speech patterns is very different from that of Janacek and marks a major difference between the two styles.

The rise of musical nationalism in the new world, i.e. North and South America reflected a desire for relatively young nations to assert their own cultural prominence on the world stage, stepping  out of the shadows of colonialism musically, as they had done politically in the previous two centuries. Not surprisingly, this movement found composers looking inwardly for indigenous melodies to use as source material. Just as Janacek was looking to local folk tunes in Moravia, Gershwin, Ives, and others were looking to African American spirituals, hymn tunes, country dances, and other uniquely new world sources. Musical nationalism in the new world, particularly in North America, also looked toward experimentalism and many free-spirited ideas were embraced by forward thinking composers. This is perhaps not surprising as composers working in North and South America did not have the weight of old Vienna and her masters looking over their shoulders. Further, the conservatory system in the new world was naturally not developed to the same degree as it was in Europe, perhaps leading composer into self-reliance and experimentation.

Silvestre Revueltas and his chief work, Sensemaya, became a major force for Mexican nationalism in music. Revueltas was chiefly interested in expressing the atmosphere of modern Mexican life, the roar of the crowd in the market, the excitement of local festivals, and the bright colors of everyday dress and the surrounding landscapes. This is a departure from Revueltas’s contemporary and close colleague, Carlos Chavez, who sought inspiration chiefly from indigenous melodies. (11)

Though Sensemaya is an instrumental work, its primary driving rhythm comes from a textual source. Inspired by a poem of the same title written by Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen, Sensemaya reflects on the Afro-Cuban slave experience. The poem opens with the line, “May ombe – bombe- may ombe!” which Revueltas translated into the the primary rhythmic cell of the work. (12) Here again, just as with Janacek and Britten, we see the importance of speech rhythm of regional language as a primary device for national styles. In this example we can clearly see how language has played such a central role in the development of national sounds. A rhythm such as this, derived from speech, would not be found in Slavonic languages, thus the development of very different sounding musics developed from largely the same processes utilized by composers on different continents.

Sensemaya is brimming with rhythmic activity. Sharp and irregular accents may remind the listener of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Revueltas’s frequent use of ostinatos seems to come from the indigenous musical traditions of pre-Colombian peoples living in modern Mexico mixed with imported African traditions brought to the new world through the slave trade. (13) Mining this unique confluence of influences and celebrating them as the defining characteristics of a nation are what made Revueltas’s work nationalistic. This fertile ground provided inspiration for many jazz and popular artists for decades after Reveultas passed.

The original poem, Sensemaya, bears the subtitle, “A Chant for Killing a Snake.” As Keith Ellis describes, this text can be ready as a call to arms against imperialism. (14) With this possible reading of intention in mind, the resulting work seems the perfect vessel for moving out of colonial shadows. Sensemaya makes use of advanced European harmonies, and on a textural level often approximates the works of Stravinsky. However, the ultra local rhythmic figures, driven by regional language and the heavy use of rhythmic ostinatos from indigenous folkloric tradtions serve to define this work as distinctly Mexican.

Nationalism in American musical culture has manifested itself in a number of ways through the pens of various composers. Attempts at using source material to form a national sound can be heard in the incorporation of jazz and African American spirituals by composers such as George Gershwin or the use of hymn tunes and country dances by composers such as Charles Ives. Specific musical devices such as two-part counterpoints written over pedals, as exemplified in the music of Carl Ruggles bring to mind a certain national quality. The music of Lou Harrison is unique in that it connects directly to two broad trends in American life, the influence and assimilation of immigrant cultures, and the spirit of rugged independence which has become commonly associated with the American West. Both of these uniquely American ideas are presented in Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra.

While Harrison is perhaps not traditionally regarded as a “nationalistic composer” when compared to figures such as Aaron Copland, Harrison’s music directly reflects the American experience of living on the West Coast and is presented in his music in a genuine way. This contrasts figures such as Copland who have spurred debate over whether or not “American elements” in their music were genuine or projected. An example of this debate stems from the fact that the title for one of Copland’s most well-known works, Appalachian Spring, was applied after the composition was finished. (15) It will be shown that Harrison’s use of elements of foreign musical cultures actually serves to further him as a nationalistic composer.

Lou Harrison had a lifelong fascination with music from various Asian nations, stemming from his roots on the Pacific Coast, where a rich traditional culture created by Asian Immigrants still exists today. This interest was further encouraged when Harrison encountered Henry Cowell through his “Music of the Peoples of the World” course at San Francisco State College. In this course, Cowell, who had recently returned from study in Berlin, the center of what would later be known as ethnomusicology, professed that throughout much of the world, Asia included, musical composition consisted of little more than a melodic line with a rhythmic accompaniment. (16) This aesthetic can clearly be heard in Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra, where a single melodic line is accompanied by a battery of percussion sounds. This example of the borrowing from an Asian aesthetic is more that mere exoticism and should be viewed as a type of American nationalism because it reflects the blending of sounds and aesthetic principles from several Asian nations with Western art traditions, a possibility that could have only occurred on the American West Coast.

Examples of composers borrowing from “oriental” traditions can easily be found in the music of Debussy and Ravel. These cases reflect more of an infatuation with exotic sounds and their insertion into well-known Western forms largely could have occurred anywhere a composer came into contact with them. It is of little surprise that they would develop in a major cosmopolitan center such as Paris. By contrast, Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra takes this influence as its central idea, affecting the form, instrumentation, and timbre. This level of immersion would likely not have been possible outside of a location so rich with Asiatic traditions as the American West Coast. This use of Asian elements as the core foundation for composition reflects the larger story of immigrants in America, where despite frequent marginalization for political purposes, immigrants are truly at the center of American cultural life.

Another distinctly American trait in Harrison’s music was his propensity for designing and building new percussion instruments. During a nine-month hospital stay in New York, Harrison encountered the ideas of another radical figure in the American musical landscape, Harry Partch. Harrison read Partch’s book, Genesis of a Music, which had recently been published, leading to an increase in his compositional activity with newfound focus on novel tuning systems and homemade instruments. (17) Though Harrison certainly had access to influential figures in American music such as Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg as teachers, his lifelong propensity toward autodidacticism no doubt resonated strongly with Partch’s homemade, do-it-yourself approach to music. This type of self-reliance and ingenuity is a longstanding trope in American life, particularly in the West, where all facets of life have trended toward a sense of rugged independence and freedom. Indeed settlers heading west a century earlier along the Oregon Trail defined these very traits that Harrison would exhibit musically throughout his career.

The idea of independence and self-reliance is reflected in the scoring for the Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra, which calls for a large battery of both traditional and non-traditional percussion. In addition to the use of standard instruments such as bass drum, snare drum, tam tam, and triangle, the score also calls for flower pots, muted brake drums, coffee cans and wash tubs. The idea of percussion scoring that seeks out novel timbres is not unique to America, Bartók certainly achieved this goal with his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. What is uniquely American and reflective of the spirit of independence pervasive in the American West, is the method used to achieve this colorful scoring. While Bartók used traditional percussion instruments struck with a variety of traditional implements to achieve his result, Harrison simply asks performers to use objects common to their surroundings as the actual instruments. This can be read as a rejection of high-minded European classicism and a move toward an American aesthetic rooted in the rugged independence of the early West Coast settlers.

Though Lou Harrison is often overlooked in the traditional narrative of nationalism in American music, he quietly played an important role in its development in two ways. Firstly, Harrison was an important figure in the popularization of the music of Charles Ives, conducting the premier of his Symphony No. 3. Ives certainly recognized this fact, giving Harrison half of his Pulitzer Prize winnings. Alex Ross describes the second and more subtle way in which Harrison, along with Cowell, shaped the future of nationalism in American music by laying the foundation for the minimalism of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, through their innovative use of non-Western techniques, often based in repetitive and atmospheric textures. (18) This newfound enjoyment of repetition, which took hold in California, marked an important turning point away from the ideologies of composers of the second Viennese school such as Schoenberg, who viewed repetition as unnecessary and to-be-avoided. (19)

As has been evidenced, nationalism took different forms in different regions of Europe, England, and the new world. Composers from each of these areas sought to express themselves with what was distinctly their own. Interestingly, this lead to several commonalities between their movements, chiefly an intense interest in speech patterns and local languages. The sourcing of local material for melodic construction was also an important commonality, whether that material came from folk songs in Eastern Moravia, indigenous peoples of Mexico, or Asian immigrant communities in California. By utilizing similar methods with different source materials, each of the composers presented formed a unique and nationalist style of composition, which likely could not have occurred elsewhere.

(1) Hans Hollander, The Music of Leos Janacek— Its Origin in Folklore in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 41 No. 2, (Oxford University Press, 1955),171-175.

(2) Hans Hollander, The Music of Leos Janacek— Its Origin in Folklore in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 41 No. 2, (Oxford University Press, 1955), 175.

(3) Hans Hollander, The Music of Leos Janacek— Its Origin in Folklore in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 41 No. 2, (Oxford University Press, 1955), 175.

(4) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 86-88.

(5) Martha Elliot, Singing in Style: A Guide to Vocal Practices, (Yale University Press, 2006), 274-275.

(6) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 449.

(7) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 448.

(8) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 449.

(9) Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes, accessed March 26, 2020,

(10) Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes, accessed March 26, 2020,

(11) Otto Mayer-Serra, Silvestre Revueltas and Musical Nationalism in Mexico, in The Musical Quarterly Vol. 27, no. 2, 127.

(12) Otto Mayer-Serra, Silvestre Revueltas and Musical Nationalism in Mexico, in The Musical Quarterly Vol. 27, no. 2, 143.

(13) Charles K. Hoag, Sensemaya: A Chant for Killing a Snake, in Latin American Music Review, Vol. 8 No. 2, (University of Texas Press, 1987), 172.

(14) Charles K. Hoag, Sensemaya: A Chant for Killing a Snake, in Latin American Music Review, Vol. 8 No. 2, (University of Texas Press, 1987), 173-174.

(15) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 330.

(16) Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, Lou Harrison, (University of Illinois Press, 2006),13.

(17) Lou Harrison. The Musical Times 144, no. 1882 (2003): 4. Accessed March 27, 2020.

(18) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 517.

(19) Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, (New York: Picador, 2007), 525.