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Music, Politics and History (1848-2018)


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


In the 19th and 20st centuries “great” oder “classical” or “good” music was hailed by many as the most refined art, immaterial and transcendent, composed by a genius who no longer served a patron and addressed eternity rather than a common audience. This music’s purpose was not to entertain but to elevate, and concert halls were entered reverently like churches. The ideal of an “absolute music”, free from any connection with other arts, texts, or even emotions, was especially popular in Germany and Austria. Needless to say, there was always music to be used for special purposes, like dances or marches, national anthems, songs to facilitate work and so on, and the gap between “absolute” and “applied” music was never as great as a music history centered on great heroes often implies. The idea of “absolute music” is itself an ideology, and its rise to great popularity, especially in Austria, is connected to the failed revolution of 1848. Music is always part of the cultural web that connects politics, belief systems and behaviour patterns and is, like religion, a great unifier and a great divider. We will explore music’s role in creating “imagined communities” like nations, or supporting revolutions, idolizing dictators, justifying imperialism, or fighting feminism, and students might be interested to explore topics as why Richard Wagner wrote an anti-Austrian and anti-French pamphlet but named it “Beethoven”, why dictators like Hitler and Stalin had strong views not only on a composer’s “race” or the morality of an opera but even on specific musical techniques, or why the CIA helped finance concerts with atonal music after WW II.
No previous music education required.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 2) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 3) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 4) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 5) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 6) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;

  • in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800.

  • in the subspecialisation Political Debate: political debates and debating styles in the Netherlands and abroad, both from a historical and a current perspective.

  • 7) (ResMA only): Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical foundation of the discipline and of its position vis-à-vis other disciplines.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Literature Seminar

The student:

  • 8) will be introduced to understand music’s ability to create identitiy and exclusion

  • 9) will be introduced to musical styles convenient to convey and enhance social and political messages

  • 10) will explore means of cultural and musical propaganda in connection with politics

  • 11) will learn how to find and interpret primary sources and literature


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours
Lectures: 28 hours
Study of compulsory literature: 84
Assignment(s): 28
Preparation exams: 130
Exam(s) and oral presentations: 10

Assessment method



Essay: 75%
Oral presentation: % 10%
Assignment 1: % 5%
Assignment 2: % 5%
Assignment 3: % 5%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficent


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Blackboard.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • publication course outline

  • communication of deadlines

Reading list

Prescribed books:

  • Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century. Picador. Farra, Straus and Giroux. New York 2007 (About music and society, but for persons who are not professional musicians). Ch. 7 & 9 should be read for the Entry-test.

  • Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time. Penguin Random House, London 2017 (An excellent novel about Shostakovic; you do not need to know about music to read it).

Suggested reading:

  • Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation. Harvard University Press 1998 (Focused on music, feel free to skip any description of musical techniques).

  • Brigitte Hamann, Hitler’s Vienna. A Dictator’s Apprenticeship. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1999 (More about politics and culture, but Hitler’s love of Wagner plays a prominent role. Hamann has also written o book on Hitler’s Bayreuth).

Students who have some knowledge about music might be interested in looking at selected chapters of Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music. There are two versions, one of which is for students.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Marie-Agnes Dittrich


All other information.