Nationalism, Chauvinism and Racism as Reflected in European Musical Thought and in Compositions from the Interwar Period

by Andrzej Tuchowski (Author)
©2019 Monographs 260 Pages
Open Access


This book concerns the ways in which many different types of nationalism, chauvinism and racism penetrated into musical thought in the interwar period, and how the leading artistic personalities of that period reacted to these ideologies. The concept of "nationalism" is understood broadly in this book and covers the entire spectrum of its positive and negative aspects. The topics listed in the book’s title have been discussed on the example of selected four countries, significant with respect to population and territory and representing different social-political systems: Germany (mostly after 1933), Italy, Poland (after 1926) and Great Britain. This selection is also representative of the main ethnic groups in Europe: Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Latin-Romance and Slavic.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. The National and Universal Dimensions of Music in the Aesthetic Thought of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Karol Szymanowski
  • II. The Racist Foundations of the National-Socialist Thought on Music
  • 1 “Was ist Deutsch in Deutscher Musik?”: Concerning the Germanic and Nordic Racial Features in German Music
  • 2 ‘Judentum in Musik’ – Around the Musical Activity of the ‘Anti-Race’
  • 2.1 Organic Harmonic-Tonal Unity
  • 2.2 The Organic Unity of Formal Structures
  • 2.3 The Organic Aesthetic-Social Unity
  • III. Das Volk, die Volksgemeinschaft, der Volkskomponist: The Concept of the “Community of Blood” and the Debate Concerning National-Socialist Normative Musical Aesthetics
  • IV. Between Thought and Action: Nazi Racial Doctrines and the Consequences of Their Implementation in the Context of the Reactions of Europe’s Music Circles in the 1930s
  • 1 Journalism and the Music Environment in Interwar Poland: “…Far-Reaching Caution Is Recommended”
  • 2 Protecting Elitism: Szymanowski, the Grand Polish ‘Aristocratic’ Traditions and the ‘Jewish Question’
  • 3 The Polish “Rassenkunde”: Józef Reiss and His Research on “The Jewish Spirit in Music”
  • 4 Zofia Lissa: The Problem of Race in Music
  • 5 Chopin and the Question of ‘Racial Purity’
  • 6 The Reactions of British Music Critics, the Appeasement and the British-German Policy for the Musical Cooperation of “Germanic Sister Nations”
  • 7 The Ideological Counter-Offensive of British Great War Generation Artists – Pacifism against Racism and Chauvinism
  • 8 1938 – The Breakthrough Year: Benjamin Britten’s and Michael Tippett’s Politically Involved Works in Relation to Events in the Third Reich
  • V. The Italian “National Awakening” and Historical-Imperial Nationalism. Art in the Context of the Fascist Myth of Romanità
  • 1 Modern Art or Degenerate Art? Modernism and Its National Aspects in Fascist and Nazi Ideologies
  • 2 The Musical Apologies of Rome in the Service of Fascist Imperial-Historical Nationalism
  • 2.1 “Salve Roma divina!”: Hymn to Rome by Giacomo Puccini
  • 2.2 “Tutto che al mondo è civile, grande, augusto, egli è romano ancora!” Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Trilogy and the Nationalist Musical Aesthetics of the Fascist Era
  • 2.3 From Rimsky-Korsakov to Giannotto Bastianelli: Transformations in Respighi’s Aesthetic Stance on His Way to the “National Revival”
  • 2.4 Prophetic Aspects: The Roman Trilogy in the National and International Context
  • VI. From the Myth of Romanità to Fascist Racism: Italian Musical Thought in the Face of Political-Ideological Changes in the late 1930s
  • VII. The “New Rome” Clashes with the “Third Greek Civilisation” – The Decline of the Myth of Romanità
  • VIII. Postscript: The Decline of Racism and Chauvinism, “Crypto-Nationalism” and the Demythologisation of Nationalist Concepts of Tradition after World War II
  • 1 “Crypto-Nationalism” and “National Musicologies”
  • 2 From Nationalism to Universalism
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The concept of “nationalism” usually does not evoke positive associations in Poland. Nationalist beliefs, views and attitudes are for the most part associated in articles on social and cultural subjects with unjustified claims concerning the superiority of everything that is “our own” over all things “foreign” or “alien”, with feelings of aversion or at best suspicion toward other cultures, and with the desire to isolate one’s own nation viewed as a kind of besieged fortress. In the West, on the other hand, nationalism is for many historians and journalists a neutral concept referring to a certain type of social-political and cultural awareness which developed in the early 19th century and was based on the conviction that the interests of a nation are superior to the interests of individuals, social groups and classes. This concerned first and foremost the problem of power and control since – as Anthony D. Smith1 observes – the key feature of all nationalism is the conviction that the nation is the most important, ultimate source of political power, which dominates over all other forms of legitimacy. One might well challenge this thesis by pointing to nationalisms that flourished in 19th-century imperial monarchies, such as tsarist Russia, which combined national messianism with the doctrine of the divine origins of the emperor’s authority. However, in the reality of the 20th century, and especially in the face of the clear tendency to form ethnically tightly-knit and cohesive national states in the period between the two world wars (which we will herein refer to as the “interwar” period) – this thesis could well prove valid. Another element common to all forms of nationalism is a strong attention to, and emphasis on, the separate identity of one’s own national traditions and culture, as well as the emotional affirmation of that identity, which sometimes leads to heated, emotionally charged debates concerning national subjects. Hence the not infrequent claim that nationalism and patriotism are in fact one and the same phenomenon. This claim, however, was criticised by Zygmunt Balicki (a leading Polish National Democracy or “Endecja” ideologist and activist) who claimed that – even though the two are indeed inseparable – patriotism is a thing of the heart, and nationalism – of the brain:

“If patriotism is a national sentiment,” wrote Balicki in 1912, “then nationalism is the thought of the nation, which – though it cannot be conceived and grow without this emotional foundation – is nevertheless a more complex spiritual phenomenon, since it ←9 | 10→presupposes the existence of at least some degree of organisation in the community, or in any event – some binding directives that determine public opinion. (…) Patriotism only concerns the sphere of the dispersed experience of internal states and external events by the masses, and spontaneous or emotional reactions to those states and events. But as soon as a central thought or idea appears in the nation, which aims to carry out some plans with regard to the nation’s defence, strengthening and expansion – we already witness the appearance of the first germs of nationalism within a nation.”2

The strategic priorities identified by Balicki as “the nation’s defence, strengthening and expansion”, corresponding to his concept of “national egoism”3 (from which many Endecja activists, including Roman Dmowski himself, distanced themselves at that time) prove that Balicki thought of national ideology primarily in “defensive-offensive” terms – which is understandable given the historical circumstances of that period.4 Statements in a similar vein were made – as we will further demonstrate – by numerous composers, music critics and writers commenting on the mission of national music in the first three decades of the 20th century. The said priorities notably correspond to Hans Kohn’s5 vision of ←10 | 11→historical transformations in European nationalisms during the 19th century. While the early-19th-century nationalism that developed mainly in Western Europe (described by Kohn as “cosmopolitan” or “open”) was famous for its favourable disposition toward other nations, in the second half of the same century, nationalism in some countries paradoxically began to demonstrate arrogant, and finally – aggressive qualities as it transformed into its “closed” variety. While the first type of (for instance, Polish Romantic6) nationalism embraced the idea of international solidarity and acted as a positive factor that facilitated the integration of the international community, the other type – which rejected the concept of a community of different nations and demonstrated more or less arrogantly its superiority – turned out to be a potential threat. In this manner, nationalism may well transform into its degenerate form, tantamount to chauvinism, which inevitably provokes a defensive reaction in the neighbouring countries. Though Kohn (who refers mostly to German history)7 does present a certain model of historical transformations, one cannot help but notice that that the extreme types of nationalism he distinguished are also relevant as supra-historical categories – as attitudes that are potentially present in every place and time.

As for assessing whether a given national ideology is considered to be nationalistic or rather chauvinistic – this depends largely on the commentator’s political stance, as Roman Dmowski observed with considerable irritation in 1903. He claimed that the term “chauvinism” is abused and misinterpreted in Poland, mostly as a result of socialist propaganda. In the eyes of the socialists, Dmowski argued, even someone’s conviction that “Polish songs work better on my soul than Dubinushka [Russian folk song]” is already chauvinistic. What is more – he adds maliciously as Endecja’s chief ideologist – “for all kinds of Russophiles the ←11 | 12→term ‘chauvinism’ in the sense in which it is used by the socialists comes very handy indeed.”8

In his defence of nationalism against accusations of being chauvinistic, Dmowski eventually quotes the following, very apt argument:

“If chauvinism – as understood by every civilised person – is a blind belief in the virtues of one’s own nation and its superiority over others, then please note that the democratic-nationalist movement in Poland, like no other political option today, sharply criticises our national vices and looks for ways to overcome them, working more than anyone else in the educational field.”9

Dmowski was undoubtedly right here. His cutting retort reveals another line of division between “self-critical” nationalisms which aim to eliminate what is considered as the nation’s vices, and “apologetic” ones, prone to the unquestioning mythologisation of everything “native”. The Polish Romantic national thought was sometimes close to the latter stance. An extreme example of this is the messianic vision of Poland as “Christ of the Nations”. Here one should recall the historical contexts of nationalisms and their interactions with other ideologies. The Polish nationalism of that era, rooted in the Romantic ethos of combat and fed by the cult of successive Polish uprisings, was in a way forced to mythologise and beautify its object because of the need for strong national integration. It was meant to motivate the nation and then to take up arms. This type of nationalism depended more on elements of “propaganda of war” than on long-term educational processes and their effects. Endecja’s nationalist ideology – highly critical of revolutions and rebellions and embracing many of the positivist ideals – as well as the pro-European, modernist nationalism of Young Poland (as represented by Przybyszewski10) developed in different conditions altogether. Characteristically, notwithstanding their different viewpoints and spheres of activity, Dmowski, Balicki, Szymanowski, Karłowicz, Przybyszewski and Paderewski all postulated a modernisation of Polish economy, culture and national mentality. They recommended education and systematic work rather than armed campaigns as a remedy for civilizational backwardness. Even though Polish nationalism was ←12 | 13→prone to exaltation, to a mythologisation of the Commonwealth’s history and an apology for its heroic achievements – its pioneers were also capable of more profound thought which frequently anticipated the ideas of later theoreticians and historians of that ideology. The very fact that Mochnacki and Libelt – the founders of Polish nationalist ideology in Chopin’s time – asked questions such as “What is a nation?” – places them in the avant-garde of more profound nationalist thought. Mochnacki’s answer anticipates in fact the conclusion made by a contemporary theoretician of nationalism, Ernest Gellner, that nationalism creates the nation, and not vice versa.11 This observation is prefigured in Maurycy Mochnacki’s definition of a nation:

“…a nation is not merely the sum total of people inhabiting a certain area delimited by some borders. The essence of a nation is the collection of all its ideas, concepts and sentiments related to religion, political institutions, law and customs, and even closely connected with geographic context, climate and other empirical conditions of life.”12

The thusly defined “essence of a nation” leads to the necessity “to accept oneself in one’s own being” and to confirm this “acceptance” in written testimony and works of art, in other words – in the form of “moral, mental and aesthetic” representations. If such national self-awareness, confirmed by the said testimony (which Gellner identifies with nationalist thought) does not manifest itself – the nation remains a mere collection of individuals “like particles of matter loosely connected by mechanical principles, which can easily be pulled away and separated by mechanical means.”

As mentioned above, similar questions were asked by Karol Libelt – a Poznań-based philosopher and pupil to Hegel himself. Libelt agreed with his colleague from Warsaw as to the importance of “shared ideas, sentiments and concepts” for the essence of a nation, and he emphasised the fundamental role of high-quality literary works in the process of confirming the former. In his definition of a nation, however, Libelt places his accents differently from Mochnacki. Nations are, he claims, a natural phenomenon and each of them carries out its own mission given to it by God, which is identical with the aspiration for “progress, freedom, and light.” Libelt emphasises the significance of historical and communal contexts for the formation of a nation. He concludes that the very notion of a nation (Polish naród) derives from the word for “clan” or “family” (Polish ród), ←13 | 14→and thus it points to the tribal and familial roots of every nation. Crucial for the emergence of Polish nationhood were the historical moments of inducting unrelated families into the same Polish coat-of-arms (thus forming heraldic clans) – which was done for the Lithuanian nobility by King Władysław II Jagiełło, and for the Ruthenian nobility by King Władysław IV. In this way, Libelt claims, “families of different tribes were united into one set of clans, like tributaries flowing into one main river of history.”13 Finally Libelt claims, making use of a musical metaphor, that the ethnically heterogeneous regions of the old Commonwealth were united into one organism, like “variations in which a person can hear one and the same melody, imbued with the spirit of the nation – and this unity, this melody, depends on the community of clanship.”14 Thus for Libelt the dominant nation-building factor is the historical community of clans, which explains the identification of the Polish “nation” with the nobility (before the 18th-century partitions of Poland). In this sense, a Lithuanian or Ruthenian nobleman is a part of the Polish nation (even regardless of the language of everyday communication) more than an ethnically Polish burgher or peasant.

Even though both of the above-quoted definitions concern Polish national thought, the differences between them can also be considered on a more universal level. They illustrate the multiplicity of definitions of a nation, some of which focus on the historical and/or social-class community, while others point to the community of language, culture, territory, race, etc. For this reason, as John A. Hall has amply demonstrated15, one universal theory of nationalism cannot be formulated. All classifications of nationalisms are vague and sometimes even dubious. Except for the extreme examples, it is also frequently not easy to clearly distinguish nationalism from chauvinism. Apart from the above-mentioned political context, the subjective intention of the following /or/ aforementioned author should also be considered.

In order to apply the above considerations to the world of music, one could well ask whether the title of Józef Reiss’s well-known publication “Polish Music is Most Beautiful of All” proves that its author was a chauvinist. One could make that argument if he had used his musicological expertise and analytic-critical skills to prove the thesis contained in this statement by means of a comparative ←14 | 15→study of the music of Poland with other nations. However, the same title can also be interpreted as a type of “mental shortcut”. In the subjective view of the author as a patriot, Polish music simply sounds most beautiful, independent of the possible intersubjective opinions of the international music community. The same can be postulated concerning the message contained in (the former first stanza of) the German national hymn Deutschland über alles. That Germany is the highest value for German patriots, priced above “everything in the world”, only confirms their praiseworthy patriotic sentiment without precluding the possibility of retaining a friendly and positive attitude toward other nations. However, once one begins to interpret the phrase über alles in der Welt as plain belief in the superiority of one’s own nation over others – the chauvinistic character of such a proposition becomes unquestionable.

“Open”, positive nationalism could often be the driving force and a creative stimulus for culture – as exemplified by the works of composers belonging to various national schools. Racism, on the other hand, left a negative mark on history, not only in the form of the once common call for racial segregation in public life, but also as the deceptive and dangerous “science” appropriated by the Nazis, which led in the 20th century to genocide on an unprecedented scale. However, racism also manifested itself in many different variants (cultural, biological, colonial-type, etc.), thus it seems reasonable that we should follow Claude Levi Strauss’s rather broad definition: “Racism is a doctrine that claims to see the mental and moral characteristics of a group of individuals (however the group may be defined) as the necessary effect of a common heritage.”16 This definition accurately identifies the gist of the racist doctrine and can constitute a point of departure for a study of its consequences and their scale. Also in this case, there is a notable difference between the doctrine itself (consisting of relatively harmless academic speculations reflecting the current state of knowledge) and the results of putting this doctrine into practice. One could also distinguish different forms of racism, some causing less (or some more) evil. What we must not do, however, is apply our present-day civilizational standards and state of knowledge to past periods and assess the attitudes and achievements of the previous generations on the basis of our current standards and knowledge. Just as 19th-century academic medicine saw “impure blood” as the cause of tuberculosis – which led to the application of blood-letting as a form of therapy17 – so also for 19th-century ←15 | 16→anthropology the inequality of human races was something obvious, and it affirmed the mental superiority of white people while possibly accepting that dark-skinned ones may be physically stronger and fitter. Some educated people – such as Josiah Clark Nott, a 19th-century physician from the Southern United States – even entertained the idea that people of African descent may be the link between the animal and the human worlds, which resulted in accepting slavery as a “natural” state.18 Seeing the qualities of various human groups as the inevitable consequence of their common genetic heritage led to a hierarchical view of humanity which frequently sanctioned the authority of a “racially superior” group over the other groups.

From the early 20th century onward, this doctrine also began to incorporate more and more frequently, divisions within the globally dominating white race. Thus conceived, racism reached its peak in the interwar period, when two types of racism co-existed. These two differed in the attitude of the “dominant” race toward the “inferior” races. The first type, which we may label as “pragmatic”, aimed at a co-existence of races based on submission, segregation and exploitation, but also – for instance in the case of British colonial racism – on missionary, educational and civilizational activity directed toward the subordinated peoples. The other, “fundamentalist” type – characteristic of Nazism – aimed solely at ruthless exploitation or at extermination.

If we accept the statement (attributed to Einstein) that nationalism is “an infantile disease (…) the measles of mankind” – then it follows that probably the most dangerous of those “diseases” was racism itself. It is also evident that the two decades that separated the two world wars were – to extend Einstein’s medical metaphor – the years of a veritable “epidemic” of such “maladies”, of which humanity seems not to have been aware for the most part. The political situation facilitated their development. The newly created or revived countries ←16 | 17→exploited their (authentic or reinvented) traditions of national culture, which gave credence to their political presence, while nationalist sentiments were also rising in the countries traditionally considered as the great European powers. In the defeated Germany nationalism evolved into chauvinism, which was accompanied by a brutal struggle against left-wing forces, which were growing in strength. In the victorious Great Britain, nationalism was an integrating factor which counteracted the disintegrating tendencies in the British Empire. Italy – also victorious, but left with a ruined economy- was experiencing the euphoria of a “national revival” under the influence of a (politically manipulated) nostalgia for the lost Roman-imperial roots. All these phenomena were influenced by the Great Depression, by problems with national minorities, by widespread faith in the efficacy and smooth functioning of ethnically uniform national countries, and in the progress of technology and science. The latter raised hopes that suitable state policies combined with eugenics could improve the quality of the “race” and help create a healthier, stronger, and physically and mentally fitter population. The former (owing to the popularisation of the radio and to the mass impact of the cinema) opened up previously unknown possibilities for state propaganda intending to manipulate public opinion. The huge potential of this propaganda manifested itself in the (also previously unknown) totalitarian systems. By applying censorship, the systems took care to eliminate from public space all ideas, views and attitudes that could compete with those officially advertised.

This collection of studies concerns the ways in which many different types of nationalism, chauvinism and racism penetrated into musical thought in the interwar period, and how the leading artistic personalities of that period reacted to these ideologies. The concept of “nationalism” is understood broadly in this book and covers the entire spectrum of its positive and negative aspects. The book discusses 20th-century schools of composition that emerged on the wave of patriotic enthusiasm at periods of “national revival”, aesthetic systems tinged with national ideas, the relation between “rooting in one culture” and universal values, as well as historiosophic concepts that upheld the given nation’s claims for a hegemonic position. Our studies also deal with chauvinist propaganda in totalitarian states. The negative, chauvinistic type of nationalism degenerated – in extreme cases (such as the Third Reich and fascist Italy) – into racism.

In order to respect Maciej Gołąb’s19 postulate of subjecting historical studies to theoretical rigour, and because of the impossibility of creating one comprehensive ←17 | 18→theory of nationalism (already signalled above, and demonstrated by John A. Hall), we have adopted the method of presenting the topics listed in the book’s title on the example of selected major countries, significant with respect to population and territory and representing different social-political systems.

Our selection is justified by the fact that the extent to which the said ideologies could function in public life depended on specific systems of authority and on limited freedom of speech. In democratic countries they had to compete in public with other concepts, and the debate was in no way limited by the state. In totalitarian countries the situation was diametrically different. There, those ideologies were the main instrument of control over the masses and the foundation of state propaganda. For the subject of our studies we have selected exclusively European countries, representing cultures based on Greco-Roman civilizational foundations and shaped by the Western forms of Christianity (Catholic and Protestant). I assume that a highly representative image of the phenomena in question can be derived from the study of Germany (mostly after 1933), Italy, Poland (after 1926) and Great Britain. This selection provides us with a full palette of political systems from “absolute” totalitarianism (the Third Reich) to “relative”, less oppressive totalitarianism, somewhat operetta-like in character (the fascist Italy), to authoritarianism with a wide margin of preserved civil liberties (the 2nd Polish republic after 192620), to full pluralist democracy with guaranteed freedom of public speech (Great Britain). This selection is also representative of the main ethnic groups in Europe: Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Latin-Romance and Slavic. Moreover:←18 | 19→

two of the selected countries were undoubtedly superpowers (Great Britain and Germany), while Italy and Poland aspired to this kind of status.

Germany and Italy were traditional historical leaders of musical development, while Poland and Great Britain worked hard to “catch up” and to form their own solid, national schools of composition.

The 3rd German Reich was the only country in that period which (from its inception in 1933) began to implement racist doctrine in all areas of life (including music history and theory) and used it as the foundation of official ideology, gradually combining Great German chauvinism with biological-type racist ideology.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (August)
ideology and music politics and music music in the 3rd Reich music in fascist Italy music in pre-war Poland music in the pre-war UK
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019., 258 pp.

Biographical notes

Andrzej Tuchowski (Author)

Andrzej Tuchowski, a musicologist and composer, is a professor of music theory at the Zielona Góra University and Karol Lipiński Music Academy in Wrocław. He specialises in 19th- and 20th-century music history and theory as well as in the socio-political aspects of music in the 20th century.


Title: Nationalism, Chauvinism and Racism as Reflected in European Musical Thought and in Compositions from the Interwar Period
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262 pages