Nationalistic Music as Propaganda

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One very explicit definition of nationalism asserts that it is “a set of beliefs about the superiority and differences of one’s own nations and…implies that individual identifies with the nation, its culture, its interests and its goals” (Perry & Perry, 1994). A more broad-based connotative characterization of nationalism would posit that set of beliefs as an ideology constructed for the purpose of facilitating an allegiance to that sense of superiority and differentiation of such profound strength that anyone adhering to such an identification would be willing to sacrifice their lives in support of the nation even when they personally have nothing at stake. Within the context of that classification of nationalism, the potential for music to become an instrument of propaganda expands in direct ratio to the obstruction of every other “powerful outlet for the expression of nationalistic feelings” (Bonds, 2009). The examples provided by both Beethoven in his Third Symphony and Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony exist as very convincing arguments that the underlying basis of a strong sense of nationalism among a people is by definition directed toward an overarching identification with a sense of culture rather than with even the most charismatic and ideologically dominant of individual self-appointed representatives of that culture.

Stirred by the exhilaration that comes to the creative artist who finds himself swept up in the fervor that political and social revolution can bring, Beethoven’s Third Symphony marks a transitional moment in not just his own artistic evolution, but in the evolution of music as it represents the first bold step of the composer to completely shrug off the constrictions of the Classical Era to embrace the rejection of the formalist techniques that became a hallmark of the Romantic Era (Ulrich, 1948). The creative temperament aware of being poised at such a turning point in his art is likely to be especially susceptible to other figures of revolutionary change and Beethoven was no different. His groundbreaking new symphony soon bore the title Eroica and his desire to “dedicate it to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he regarded as a champion of human freedom and the common man” (Cross, 1962). The sense of nationalism represented by Beethoven’s personal choice to deliver his next great composition as not just as a demonstration of his own creative evolution, but hope for it to be accepted as political propaganda reflect the complex nature of the concept of nationalism. Here was a man born in Germany, living in Austria and writing music to honor a man raised in the Italian culture of Corsica who had become the self-proclaim leader of France. The complexity of the composition of his Eroica reveals that Beethoven likely was uncommonly attuned to the complicated intricacies inherent in fostering a sense of nationalism.

No music that Beethoven had ever composed before the Eroica more closely replicates the argument suggesting that a sense of nationalism could ever be so simplistic as to be centered on a single individual. The Third Symphony celebrates the very paradox of the disconnected parts that serve to become a unified whole through his adoption of techniques like dissonance, unforeseen accents and full orchestral embellishments impulsively exploding from quietly austere breaks throwing a soft focus on the chemistry between woodwinds and violins (Clubbe, 2014). . By the time the Third Symphony had made the trek from symbols on sheet music to epoch-defining inaugural performance, the very same potential for the creative spirit to be inspired by a single figure demonstrated that the reverse is equally true: Beethoven’s esteem for Napoleon as symbol had capitulated to his sense of contempt for Napoleon as human being. What is most telling, of course, is that the music suffered none the greater for having become a propagandistic support for the ideals that stirred the composer’s identification with a culture deemed superior rather than for a solitary figure he once upon a time felt embodied the highest ideals of that culture.

The complexities inherent in the connection between music expression nationalist sympathies and its usefulness as propaganda for spreading those sympathies is also put on display in Shostakovich’s Seventh Sympathy, albeit in a substantially different sort of way. Indeed, when analyzing this composition, the central question that must be asked is one in which the answer determines where it can be situated on the spectrum of propaganda: “Is the Seventh Symphony about Stalin or the Nazis?” (Ho & Feofanov, 2014).

The timeline in which Shostakovich began and finished composing his Seventh Symphony is likely no more muddled than the timeline forwarded by other composers, but the events taking place within that frame of time lend its significance as propaganda and even its existence as an example of nationalist music greater weight than normal. The uncertainty of the exactitude of the composition brings into question the idea that “the meaning of any symphony, as of any cultural artifact, is the product of its history—a history that only begins with its composition” (Taruskin, 1993). The meaning of the Seventh Symphony as both a composition of nationalist pride and as a potentially propagandistic creative endeavor is, arguably perhaps, utterly dependent on the historical circumstances surrounding its composition. Those circumstances involve the exact timing of the descent of Nazi troops upon the Soviet Union during World War II.

The debate is not centered around whether Shostakovich was composing the symphony while battle raged between the fascist invaders and the communist warriors of his homeland, but rather whether the impulse to commence writing the symphony preceded the arrival of those foreign troops or whether the battle had been already been joined by the time the composer was moved to pick up his pen. The timing makes all the difference in the world. If the answer is that the fate of the Soviet Union already lay partially in the hands of Nazi soldiers then clearly the work is an astonishing combination of entire pro-Soviet propaganda and heartfelt emotional expression entirely deserving of the following characterization: “That a composer could write a symphony of this scope, ambition and integrity while a city was being bombed and starved was interpreted by listeners as proof that the Nazis would not, could not, win in Russia” (Service, 2016).

Unfortunately for those supporting this version of events, Shostakovich’s own memory indicates that such a view would itself qualify as propaganda. If a line must be drawn between the truth and propaganda, then the truth, straight from the composer’s mouth, is the contrary since his “Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack” (Shostakovich, 2004). That the Seventh Symphony was written in a nationalist fervor not dissimilar to the composition of Beethoven’s Third Symphony remains a fact and the argument that it exists as propaganda holds firm. The difference is that the propaganda intent, if Shostakovich is to be taken at his word, was not inspired by the culture identity fostered by Josef Stalin or directed against the oppositional culture personified by Adolf Hitler, but was instead a direct assault upon the damage that Stalin was wreaking upon Shostakovich’s sense of cultural identity as a Russian. If Hitler played any part at all, it was purely tangential.

Beethoven in a very short period of time went from being inspired to write in honor of Napoleon to being inspired to write the same music in spite of his failure to live up to an ideal. Shostakovich wrote a symphony whose message as propaganda can be interpreted both as supporting the cultural identity centered upon the figure of Josef Stalin and rejecting that identity as antithetical to the nationalist pride of identifying oneself as a Russian. Both words clearly indicate that when it comes to nationalist music, the power of propaganda transcends any singular representation of that cultural identity which has the power to breed and affirm nationalist sentiments.


Bonds, M. E., 2009. Listen to This. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Clubbe, J., 2014. The Eroica in Its Revolutionary Context: Seume’s Spaziergang Nach. The Beethoven Journal, 29(2), p. 53.

Cross, M., 1962. Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music. New York, NY: Doubleday and Company.

Ho, A. B. & Feofanov, D., 2014. The Shostakovich Wars. s.l.:s.n.

Perry, J. A. & Perry, E. K., 1994. Contemporary Society: An Introduction to Social Science. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Service, T., 2016. War music: the humanity, heroism and propaganda behind Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7. [Online]
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Shostakovich, D., 2004. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. New York(NY): Proscenium Publishers.

Taruskin, R., 1993. “Review: Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’ op. 60 (1941) by Dmitri Shostakovich [Facsimile]; Manashir Yakubov.”. Notes, December, pp. 756-61.

Ulrich, H., 1948. Chamber Music: The Growth and Practice of an Intimate Art. New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press.