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Classical Music and
Romantic Music - Part One


Jeffrey Swann

The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.

. . . There is so much talk about music, and yet so little really said. For my part I believe that words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice, then I certainly would have nothing more to do with music. People often complain that music is ambiguous, that their ideas on the subject always seem so vague, whereas everyone understands words. With me it is exactly the reverse -- not merely with regard to entire sentences, but also as to individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so unintelligible when compared with genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. (To get a sense of what Mendelssohn is saying, visit the web site of Joshua Bell, the American violinist; then, simply listen to the music.)

--Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, from a letter to Marc-Andre Souchay, Lubeck (October 15, 1842)

The Age of Classical Music and Romantic Music in Europe

Classical Music is generally acknowledged to be music rooted in Western Europe during the time of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827); roughly from 1750-1820. The composer's attitude during this time was clearly about the notion of communicating with a clarity of thought and a beauty of form. The idea of "Classicism" means a rather imprecise adherence to the classical period of the past, pertaining in the West to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome.

The sweeping triumph of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony brought the era of Classical European music - with its Classical melody, Classical rhythm, Classical instruments, Classical tonality, Classical timbre, Classical meter, the "Classical human spirit", and Classical tempo, to a glorious conclusion. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its paean to universal joy and brotherhood--with its implied personal victory for the composer over deafness and lonely despair--makes an ideal conclusion to the Classical era. The period of the great Viennese classics, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), comes to a conclusion with Beethoven's great masterpiece. The Classical era is also the age of the American and French Revolutions, of Napoleon and the transformation of the map of Europe, and of the rationalistic and confident world of the Enlightenment. At the same time, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the foundation stone--especially symbolically--of the new era of Romanticism, the roots of which had already been taking hold for some years.

The Romantic age of European music can very roughly but conveniently be defined as the period from the death of Beethoven in 1827 to the death of Mahler in 1911. Of course real history as it is lived by human beings does not divide itself so neatly; some elements of Romanticism were flourishing well before 1827 and after 1911, and many strains of 20th-century music were already present before Mahler's death. Such arbitrary divisions are necessary, however, because in order to understand the significance of an era, we must have a sense of its direction in Time--eras of music and indeed of all the arts can best be perceived as not so much "being" as "becoming"; and to make sense of this "becoming," we need clear and stable reference points in time to act as starting and endings. Within the larger framework of European history, this period coincides roughly with the age from the fall of Napoleon (in 1815) to the outbreak of World War I (in 1914).

In order to understand any particular human activity, it is essential to have a general background of what is happening in other fields of human activity--Science, Philosophy, popular culture, elements of everyday life, etc.--at the same time. Visitors from another planet, even if they spoke English, could make little sense of a television situation comedy, and certainly would grasp little of its humor, if they didn't know anything about American culture, current events, and many other aspects of everyday life.

The same is true, perhaps to an even greater extent, in understanding works of art from other times and cultures. All artists on some level derive their creations from the forces around them. Music is the least rational of the arts, and therefore the one least directly connected to concrete elements of the outside world; nevertheless, musicians of lasting value have been consciously or subconsciously shaped and molded by the world in which they live and which they interpret and bring to life in the special language of music. It is therefore necessary to examine some major currents of the social, cultural, and artistic life of the Romantic period before we can explore and try to understand its music.

More than anything else, the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe had been an era of discovery--a discovery not only of "new" worlds, but also of the laws of science which govern and explain the universe. It seemed to men in this period that all problems of life could be--and with proper use and control of power by the proper people--would be solved by the exercise of human Reason; that just as the orbits of the planets could be explained by application of Newton's laws, the ideal human society could be created by the reasonable application of similar laws. In a very real way, the sovreignly-controlled, well-proportioned, optimistic works of much of Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven were the fruit of this vision of life.

During the latter years of the 18th century, however, several new currents began to appear, ideas which cast shadows on the brightness of the Enlightenment cast aspersions on the possibility or indeed the desirability of a philosophy based on the triumph of Reason and Progress. One of these new currents found a voice in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his followers, such as the American Thoreau who expressed the idea that Progress and Science were taking mankind away from its natural roots, away from the simple life in and with Nature which was ultimately the only source of human happiness.

This concept of the intrinsic antagonism between Society and Progress on the one side, and Nature on the other, is one of the foundations of 19th-century thought and Romantic art (to say nothing of today's environmentalist movement!). Whereas 18th century thinking saw history as a series of progressive moves more of less in a straight line, this concept of History and Society as the battleground of antagonistic forces is typical of all 19th-century thinking and certainly of much of Romantic art. In Particular the view of Nature as a force in itself, as a kind of lost Paradise toward which man instinctively is drawn, is a crucial element in Romanticism.

Not that Nature had not always been an important subject to artists of all disciplines in past ages: when, for example, Vivaldi, in the Four Seasons, or Beethoven, in the Pastoral Symphony, depict Nature or natural phenomena, they did so with open eyes as it were, as a part of Life as a whole, sometimes pleasant, sometimes annoying, sometimes frightening; to the Romantic mentality, however, nature was viewed in capital letters, as a mysterious, independent, awesome and inspiring force, and the "call of the wild", the appeal of Nature as a force in itself, a fount of Inspiration, Beauty, and Truth, is one of the major trends of Romanticism. (We should never forget, however, that in reality life in the country for many had meant crushing hard work, disease, and famine!)

One example of the attraction of Nature as an ideal source of Beauty is the changing attitude toward mountains: throughout history until the 19th century, the Alps and other great mountain ranges had been considered dangerous nuisances at best, fearful places to be avoided if at all possible. Nature was thus regarded in a practical way. During the 19th century, on the other hand, mountains in their wild inaccessibility became a major attraction for people looking for Beauty, not for any practical feature. men risked their lives in the new "sport" of mountaineering, to test their skills, their strength, their ingenuity against the daunting force of untamed Nature.

Another of the powerful new forces unleashed during the 19th century which irrevocably changed the way people lived, thought, and felt--and wrote music--was actually one of the direct results of the growing knowledge of Science of the preceding centuries and of man's growing ability to control his world: the Industrial Revolution. It is enough to look at a very partial list of major technological inventions and the dates of their first use (cotton gin, galvanizing, steam engine, etc.) to see how many extraordinarily significant changes were witnessed by the first decade of the 19th century.

In 1829 the first railways were introduced in England--by 1850 most of Europe was closely connected in a way that could never have seemed possible short years before. Even more important than the enormous increase in mobility and communication was the change in lifestyle. Throughout all human history the overwhelming majority of people had lived, worked, and died in the country--a rural, agricultural existence. The 19th century saw an unprecedented and continuing growth of cities and urban life: indeed, by 1900 forty percent of Europeans lived in cities as opposed to ten percent in 1800.

The growth of city life, the ever-increasing presence of and dependence on machines, the ever-widening gap between the noisy, hectic, impersonal world of the city and steady, quiet, simple life on the farm all went hand-in-hand perfectly with Rousseau's idea of the antagonism between Society in general and Mankind's natural state. As people lived more and more in cities, they tended to idealize not only life in the country but Nature itself.

Insofar as the arts are concerned, perhaps the most significant aspect of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of urban life was the rise and eventual domination of the Middle Class. In all ages and societies the character of the arts is to a large degree determined by the society in which, and for which, they are created. This is especially true of music, a performing art, which depends on an audience for its very existence.

In earlier ages European composers had written and performed their music for a very small, well-defined group within society: for their fellow professional musicians, for the Church, for the aristocratic courts dominated by more or less music-loving noblemen--in short, for the various functions and rites of a highly formalized world. The vast majority of people had very little contact with this music, at most they might have access to simplified, popularized versions of certain works: indeed, other than traditional folk music (which in ages before the 19th century had been generally ignored and despised by the upper classes) the common people had precious little leisure time to enjoy music.

In 19th-century Europe, however, a new class began to appear, which was not of the old aristocracy nor of the Church or other official institutions, but which had the power, money and leisure to enjoy and cultivate the arts and eventually to dictate their taste and point of view. This Middle Class society had an entirely different mentality from the older, aristocratic world. They were less assured in social position, more open to new influences and fashions, generally more susceptible to change, less institutionalized, more intimate, less formal, in many ways less sophisticated, more apt to be impressed by the sensational, the exotic, and the emotionally gripping. All of this was reflected in the music of the Romantic era, an era in which the bourgeois salon largely replaced the aristocratic court as the principal theater of cultural activity.


Another essential new ingredient in 19th-century Europe was the rise and extraordinarily rapid growth of Nationalism. The 1815 Congress of Vienna had created an artificial status quo which pretended to ignore the turbulence, new ideas, and sweeping changes of the Napoleonic era and return to an earlier age of well-established multi-national monarchies and empires. But the damage had been done, and although a semblance of stability was achieved, the long-range effect was that of pressing down a heavy lid on a simmering cauldron: it boiled over all the more violently. Though a series of revolutions which swept nearly all of continental Europe (especially in 1830 and 1848) failed to bear concrete fruit, by 1860 the face of Europe was radically and irrevocably altered by the creation of two major nation states, Italy and Germany, both formed from a mosaic of dozens of tiny city-states, federations, and former Imperial colonies and welded together by the burning flame of Nationalistic fervor. By the end of the century the remaining giant multi-national empires--Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey--were disintegrating. Before the 19th century it is safe to say that the vast majority of Europeans--with the possible exception of the English and the French--had very little, if any, sense of national identity. By the end of the century, not only was nearly everyone strongly identifying himself/herself as a Pole, Serb, German, Greek, Rumanian, Czech, et al, but was seemingly ready and willing to die to establish the fact. The force of this literally unprecedented movement swept over all facets of life, certainly including music.

Emotion, Imagination, Fantasy and Instinct

One last current spread through Europe at the beginning of the 19th century which influenced the rise of Romanticism. Throughout most of post-Renaissance Europe, Reason and the Intellect had been considered the highest, the truest, the most praiseworthy of human attributes. The Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine's Common Sense are documents that bear witness to this philosophy in the political-economic realm. The highly organized, finely wrought, clearly proportioned forms of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven--especially what we call Sonata Form in its many manifestations--is a perfect musical expression of the supremacy of Reason.

By the end of the 18th century, however, people began to have less and less faith in Reason, Clarity, and Order as the most desirable qualities. In part this can be explained by disillusionment over the violent excesses of the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars; in part simply as the normal ebb and flow and changing modes of human thought and expression throughout all of history. Philosophers, chief among them, Immanuel Kant, in his highly influential Critique of Pure Reason, dared challenge the idea that Science, Sensory Perception, and Reason could determine reality and that Instinct, Imagination, Fantasy, and Emotion could often be more profound and, indeed, better indicators of Truth. People began to doubt the existence, or at least the knowability, of Objective Reality, once a sacrosanct ideal. The words "I feel" and "I imagine," or even "my intuition or instinct tells me," became more important than "I think" or "I see." Kant's influence alongside Rousseau's very different yet complimentary view spawned a whole generation of philosophers, among them Fichte, Hegel, and later Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who were to become, in their own ways, mouthpieces and definers of the Romantic era.

This background of social and philosophical change helped produce an unprecedented explosion of literary creativity in the years 1815-1835. These works that featured highly charged emotional atmospheres, the bizarre, even the supernatural, in startling contrast to the orderly, familiar world of earlier writers such as Jane Austen. There was an enormous fascination in faraway, exotic lands, such as the Orient and America, in the glamour and mystery of the distant past. They were especially fascinated by the Middle Ages--long shunned and damned as the "Dark Ages"--and by "uncivilized, barbarian" people (a clear link to Rousseau's "noble savage"). These writers, chief among them Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron in England, Jean-Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann in Germany, and James Fenimore Cooper and, slightly later, Edgar Allan Poe in the United States were among the first really Romantic artists, followed immediately by painters led by the French Delacroix and Gericault and the German Friedrich. Indeed, the word "Romantic," as it applied to an era of Art history does not derive from its usual meaning of having to do with love and passion. Romantic in this sense comes from the French "roman," or novel: it was used to describe writers of highly colored, fantastic, and emotionally gripping tales, poems, and novels. As in the cases of other names of periods (Baroque, Classical, Rococo, et al)what started as an identifying description--often negative--of a specific element in a new style soon took on a vastly wider scope of meaning, and eventually came to embrace many different yet recognizably related styles within an entire era.

Before entering into a discussion of some of the composers of the Romantic era and their works, I would like to elaborate on the danger of ambiguity in the use of the word "Romantic," a danger which stems from the use of the word both as a label identifying a historical period, and as a common adjective. We--and this certainly includes professional musicians--often use "romantic" not to identify the period of a work's composition, but rather to describe characteristics of music, or parts of a piece of music, from ay period. Their characteristics include a direct emotional appeal, a melodic and structural freedom, and, often, a marked sensuality. This can become quite confusing, for in this respect works of Monteverdi, Haydn, Mozart, and Alban Berg, for example, have highly "romantic" features but are not by "Romantic" composers; whereas certain works of prominent "Romantic" composers such as Chopin, Brahms, and Verdi, are not very "romantic" at all!

In summation, these are the seven cultural, political, and social roots of Romantic music, the trends and movements in the Europe of the 1820s that form the foundation and the generating forces of an age: (1) the heritage of Rousseau and the idea of Society and Nature as antagonistic forces, (2) the fascination with nature as a force in and of itself, (3) the Industrial Revolution and the growth of city life, (4) the emergence of a prosperous Middle Class, (5) the rise of Nationalism, (6) the disillusionment over the results of 18th-century Enlightenment, the growing distrust of Reason and Scientific Observation as the measure of Reality, with the parallel growing reliance on emotion and instinct, and finally, (7) the attraction to the exotic, the wild, the longing for the transcendental. No single artist, of course, was equally involved with all seven of these trends, yet it is fair to state that these forces touched the life and work of every composer of the Romantic era.

The German Lied

The form in which the spirit of Romantic music first clearly manifested itself was the Song for voice and piano, usually referred to by the name, Lied. These songs almost always were quite simple, often very close in spirit to folk songs. They were usually strictly Strophic--divided into verses in which the music was repeated without variation until the entire poem had been set (in the manner of the Star-Spangled Banner or Silent Night). Mozart and Beethoven, among others, wrote many such Lieder (plural of Lied) which were often lovely but in no way represented major works of their composers.

The first composer who truly transformed the Lied into a highly expressive Romantic musical form--and probably the greatest and most prolific composer of Lieder--was Franz Schubert. In most respects, Schubert is best viewed as a composer of the Classical era--indeed, in his symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, and many other works he is usually linked with the so-called Viennese Classics, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Schubert, the only one of these to be born and bred in Vienna, is actually best understood as a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic worlds; his very early death at the age of thirty one, however, makes it impossible for a complete picture of his place in history to be imagined. In his nearly 600 Lieder, however, Schubert explored an entirely new realm.

Schubert's fascination with the Lied stemmed from two complimentary causes: first, it offered him a way to express directly his love for poetry and the literature of his day--through music he could bring to life and enhance the power and magic of the words and second, the Lied offered more or less a ready-made formal structure, one based on the poem and the words themselves. And, Schubert is in this respect the first of nearly all of the composes of the generation that succeeded him to feel uneasy and perhaps dissatisfied with the large-scale forms (Sonatas, et al) of the Classical age.

If we examine one of Schubert's most famous Lieder, Der Erlkoenig (The Erlking), written when he was 16 years old (!), we see several of the outstanding characteristics of the Romantic Lied. The poem is not simply set as a melody that is repeated in verses, but rather the music follows the course of the poem, with power and excitement depicting in turn the furious pace of the horse, the little boy's terror, the father's growing anxiety, and the Erlking's sweet but deadly seduction. The singer doesn't simply sing the tune--he enacts the various characters and the narrator as in a miniature music-drama.

An extremely important factor is the role of the piano accompaniment. In earlier songs, the accompaniment was usually simple, basically giving the harmonic foundation of the melody line in the manner of folk songs and popular songs to this day. In most cases the singer accompanied himself. Here, however, the piano part is both extraordinarily difficult to play (no one could sing while playing it!) and a crucial element in the success of the song. The piano part, in large part, creates the atmosphere and mirrors the inner drama and feelings of the characters. The choice of the poem (by Goethe) is also significant--the concept of Death (here represented in the figure of the Erlking), the ultimate symbol of the antithesis of Reason and Order, the Unknown, the Mysterious, Instinct, and Emotion, as a dangerous yet highly seductive force, is one of the recurring themes of all Romanticism.

The great song cycle that Schubert wrote near the end of his short life, Die Schoene Muellerin (The Beautiful Miller's Daughter) and Winterreise (Winter Journey) illustrate another of the important themes of Romanticism. In both cycles the narrator has hopes of happiness that are quickly dashed and he falls further and further into isolation and despair. Schubert, the composer, identified with the narrator as the artist isolated and misunderstood by the world in which he lived--a metamorphosis of Rousseau's view of the antagonism between Society and Nature with, in this case, the Romantic artist as the mouthpiece of Nature.

Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler are the most prominent of many composers of Lieder throughout the 19th century for whom Schubert was the inspiration. The fascination with this form to composers of non-Germanic culture arrived only later in the century, especially in France as a response to the extraordinary flowering of great French poetry in the mid-19th century (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, et al). Here the chief composers were Gabriel Faure, Ernest Chansson, and the young Claude Debussy. A perfect example of the depiction of Nature as a source of enchantment is Schumann's Mondnacht (Moon Night), based on the popular Romantic poet Eichendorff. Here the piano not only creates the atmosphere but is the protagonist of the work, the embodiment of the moon.

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