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Music Makes the Nation: Nationalist Composers and Nation Building in Nineteenth-Centu ...

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Music Makes the Nation:


In 1848, as the flame of revolution spread across Europe, Richard Wagner was hard at work on the prose poem of what was to become his opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. This work was conceived explicitly as an indictment of the contemporary social order, and soon after he completed the text, he turned his creative energies to a new project: fomenting an uprising in Dresden. He edited a revolutionary newspaper, he rallied the combatants on the barricades, and he literally dodged the bullets of the Prussian troops sent in to quell the unrest. When it finally became clear that the revolutionaries had lost, he took flight under an assumed name, evading the secret police and a likely death sentence, and one fair May day, he crossed on foot the borders of Saxony, into exile.

Also in 1848, a few hundred kilometers south of Dresden, Bedřich Smetana took up arms in Prague’s own revolution. He was a member of the revolutionary national guard, assigned to defend the city’s Malá strana district against the oncoming Austrian troops under General Windischgrätz.