There were dozens of nationalist composers I could have chosen for my investigation, but I settled on these three for three main reasons. First, it was important to study composers who were generally credited with being the founders of their country’s “national style.” Such a criterion narrowed the focus to composers for whom the national in music was truly a crusade, and in turn such composers would be the best for studying how nationalism and the arts intersected. Smetana and Grieg both count as “founders,” though Wagner does not, since there is no generally acknowledged founder of a German national style. Nonetheless, his rabid support for the foundation of such a style, and his expression of that support in his voluminous prose works, identified him as a good candidate for study. Second, it made sense to consider only major composers, and so lesser nationalistic lights such as, for example, Moniuszko in Poland or Erkel in Hungary, were ruled out. Third, I elected to focus on nationalist movements that were both state building and nation building: this criterion excluded countries such as Russia or England that were already unified and fully independent in the nineteenth century. The motivation behind this stipulation was that it allowed me to observe the interaction between nationalists involved in both sides of the movement—the more narrowly political and the more broadly cultural. It also enabled closer investigation of how nations are built via art in the absence of a national state.
Even these criteria, admittedly, did not reduce the choice only to Wagner, Smetana, and Grieg. So, perhaps a final, purely subjective criterion was simply that I like their music and was interested in their countries. Indeed, over the course of writing this book I came to feel as if I got to know each of these three men personally. Each proved to be an intriguing companion over the years of research. While I became intimately familiar with their life stories in the course of this project, I recognize that not all readers may be as prepared as I am to answer abstruse trivia questions about Smetana’s favorite foods. Therefore, a biographical crash course will be appropriate at present; as the book proceeds, it will be easier to tell the story of Wagner’s, Smetana’s, and Grieg’s ideas if I have already briefly sketched the stories of their lives.