Music and Nationalism: The Complex Relationships of Sibelius, Bach and Shostakovich with their Respective Countries

Deena Rizkalla


One of the most defining characteristics of the nineteenth century is the global phenomenon of nationalism. In the wake of the French Revolution, countries began to conceive of national self-determination, a concept which “holds that every ‘nation,’ a unified community of people with a desire and capacity for self-governance, is entitled to exclusive control of its own territorial state” (Keitner 2007, 2). In order to strengthen national identity, countries needed to foster a sense of belonging in their population, and the most prominent way they achieved that was through the cultivation of culture. Literature, art, and music bonded people together with a sense of shared cultural values (Keitner 2007, 129). The three pieces performed on this recital—the first movement of the Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 by Jean Sibelius, Grave and fuga from Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003 by J.S. Bach, and the first two movements of Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134—are all by composers who have contributed to the national identity of their respective countries and have heavily influenced the standard canon of violin repertoire. Music is a powerful force and was recognized as such by the cultural leaders of Finland, Germany, and Russia. This paper will therefore discuss the cultural climate of Finland, Germany, and the Soviet Union during eras where national self-determination permeated nearly all aspects of everyday life, and how that intersected with the music of Sibelius, J.S. Bach, and Shostakovich.