Nationalism and Impressionism
By Nina Pinzarrone
From the 1850s to early 1900s, the nationalist movement arose in music, a reaction both to the abstract style in vogue among Germanic composers, and to the wars and revolutions then restructuring much of Europe. Musicians of conquered nations composed music intended to express national pride, often drawing upon popular songs, folk music, and folk dance rhythms (for example Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises).
Culturally isolated Russia was at the movement’s forefront. With his operas, A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), Glinka became known as the father of the Russian nationalist school. In the 1860s, the circle known as the Russian Five—Balakirev, Borodin (Prince Igor, excerpted for Fokine’s 1909 Polovtsian Dances), Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov (Scheherazade, used for Fokine’s 1910 Scheherazade and Neumeier’s 2000 Nijinsky)—worked to develop a Russian compositional style.
Nationalist music also arose in Bohemia with Smetana (The Moldau) and Dvořák (Slavonic Dances, used for Wheeldon’s 1997 Slavonic Dances), in Norway with Grieg (Peer Gynt), and in Finland with Sibelius (Finlandia).
The major composers of impressionism, a predominantly French movement (approximately 1870 to 1920), were Debussy and Ravel. They sought to break away from Romanticism’s restrictive tonal structures and create musical pictures, or impressions, analogous to the impressionist paintings of Monet, Degas, and Renoir.
Impressionism uses vague melodies, free rhythms, and novel chord combinations to appear dreamlike and improvisational. Debussy and Ravel favored the piano, and also employed an expanded orchestra that featured muted trumpets and horns, a significant use of the harp, and unusual percussion instruments such as the celeste.
Impressionist examples in the ballet repertoire are Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Jeux, both choreographed by Nijinsky (L’Après-midi d’un faune, 1912, and Jeux, 1913); and Ravel’s La Valse, choreographed by Balanchine (1951).
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.