19th Century Europe
In the 1800s — when this music was written — the twin "isms" of nationalism and Romanticism were sweeping through Europe, challenging the old regime notion of divine monarchs and forging the modern world.
The 19th century was a mix of old and new. Beethoven and Einstein. Napoleon and Freud. White-gloved duchesses and bomb-throwing Socialists. The train, the bicycle, the horse and buggy, the automobile, and the balloon. Europe was steaming into a modern world of factories, rapid transit, instant communication, and global networks. At the same time, it clung to a medieval world of kings, nobles, and time-worn tradition. It was the century when freedom fighters and bold individuals would finally shatter the belief that some were born to be rulers and the vast majority were born to just accept their lot in life and be ruled.
The 19th century "began" in 1789, when the French people rose up in Revolution, guillotined their king and queen, and demanded to be free. Radical French ideas blew across Europe, as Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops toppled crown heads, neutered the Church, and tore up traditional boundaries.
But Napoleon was eventually defeated (at Waterloo, 1815), and the old order was restored. Most of Europe was ruled by four families — the Habsburgs of Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, the Romanovs of Russia, and England's House of Hanover. As late as 1850, many nations we know today — Germany, Italy, Austria — did not yet exist. They were patchwork quilts of feudal baronies, dukedoms, and small kingdoms, often ruled from afar by nobles who did not even speak the local language. But simmering beneath the surface were national independence movements and new ways of thinking.
A patriotic embrace of indigenous culture and desire for national unity, Nationalism became the dream and the political drive of the 1800s. Born in the French Revolution, it spread throughout Europe and grew among the rising middle class. Now people insisted on a government that spoke their language.
Europe's nationalism was fueled by Romanticism: a passionate artistic movement that was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution's regimentation of 19th-century life. Romantics questioned the clinical detachment of science, industrial pollution, and the personal restrictions of modern life. Romantics reveled in strong emotions, personal freedom, opium, and the beauties of untamed nature.
As a lifestyle, Romanticism meant placing feeling over intellect and passion over rational judgment. They trusted their gut instincts and weren't afraid to cry, feel melancholy, shout for joy, or fall in love passionately, obsessively, outlandishly. Thumbing their noses at society's "rules," they dressed in outrageous getups and forged their own path through life.
Romantics turned to their folk traditions for inspiration. Writers wrote in the vernacular language, painters captured heroic scenes from their national history... and composers built whole symphonies around humble folk tunes.