Split Personality: the Romantic era
In his landmark series of books about the devil, Jeffrey Burton Russell writes that the Romantic intellectual climate was incoherent on the subject. It seems nobody but Dostoevsky could come to one unified idea of what or who the devil was supposed to be. On the one hand the devil embodied an ironically righteous rebellion against unjust authority (something we see parroted to this day). In essence the devil was remade as Prometheus and separated from any Christian theological meaning. Yet, on the other hand, the devil was also seen as being cruel, a schemer, an intellectual, someone who would dispute what could be innately observed, someone utterly divorced from love. It didn’t matter much that people weren’t sure how to define love, it simply mattered that the devil was against love.
Russell highlights this contradiction by showing how it informed American folklore in the 19th century. Most American folk-tales about the devil show him driving Faustian bargains and being outsmarted by Yankee ingenuity. Usually the outsmarting was based on contract technicality invoked by the Yankee to say he was never obligated to the contract to begin with, something the devil never realizes until the Yankee explains it. Thus the devil gets double-crossed. As with the Indians so with the devil. This folkloric tradition already tells us a lot about American culture (Yankee or not) but that is another topic. The logical outcome of the bifurcation of the devil’s character moved his “idea” status from metaphysical assumption to literary/political cipher.
Now this peculiar confusion about the devil applies, indirectly, to the legacy of Beethoven and how that legacy was “supposed” to be worked out. Beethoven’s work was quickly seen in largely transcendental and religious terms anyway, so I think my analogy works. I could talk about Schubert or Mendelssohn or Liszt or Berlioz or Wagner but all of these composers, in their own way, were responding to the life and work of Beethoven. Like the changing iconic status of the devil in the same period, most Romantic composers were responding to Beethoven as they saw him, not Beethoven as he was.
It’s helpful now to highlight how Beethoven differed from his classical contemporaries. Haydn saw no conflict between selling out and retaining his artistic integrity. The job of the composer and musician was by its nature an act of service to some patronage system. The patron might be a prince, a cardinal, or even a talented middle-class housewife. It mattered less who the customer was than that the customer got the music they wanted. To satisfy the other was to satisfy your self more or less. After all you had a job. For Beethoven satisfying himself and the audience or patron often seemed mutually exclusive. Beethoven was not a man for artistic compromise. If he was going to sell out it had to be for a big price.
Beethoven was inflexible about a work once he finished it and it wasn’t just with audiences. Beethoven was the first composer to write out piano solos for his piano concertos. Even Mozart and Haydn contentedly left the solos in piano concertos to the soloist at hand. Beethoven wouldn’t dream of entrusting the piano solos to the aesthetic judgment of anyone else. Haydn and Mozart were also perfectly willing to revise their work for the sake of the musicians at hand and Beethoven broke this precedent, too. And yet Beethoven certainly wanted to make a living off his music and even supplant Haydn for popular and artistic admiration (which eventually happened … after Beethoven was dead). Yet it was the same Beethoven who told baffled musicians that his music wasn’t for them but a future generation. Beethoven more than any other composer since Bach, defined our idea of musical posterity.
Beethoven was a little, unimposing man, but the influence his music had on Europe, long after his death, is almost incalculable. As if given revenge after his death Beethoven’s reputation skyrocketed so precipitously he was seen as the greatest musician in history and his work became the essence of German music, even European music as a whole. Beethoven was no longer seen as a man but as a titan. It was the legacy of this titan that gave rise to the musical period we call the Romantic era. His music wasn’t merely for a future generation but music of timeless value and the Romantics were always willing to say so. Anyone who was anyone wanted to emulate Beethoven’s model.
The upshot of this titanic influence was that Romantic works went to extremes trying to be “original” and still appealing to the heart. You only had your cake or ate it after you tried having it both ways, after all. Works for symphonies became bigger, longer, more intellectually demanding to the listener. But the “think big” complex had its doppelganger in “think small”. An almost unprecedented number of small works, especially song cycles were published in the Romantic era. The concert hall and the private parlor became the extremes that Romantics composed for with equal fervor.
And with this change in scale the attitude towards musical form changed, too. The forms developed in the Classical era were mid-sized shirts that the little people and giants of the Romantic era didn’t feel comfortable in. Even Beethoven pushed the limits of those forms and the Romantics felt it was time to keep pushing. It was during this time that Mozart and Beethoven, neglected in their own time, became paragons of artistic virtue. Haydn, who had been praised so highly in his lifetime, was literally praised into irrelevance by the dawn of the Romantic era. Sure, there was nothing wrong with Haydn’s music. His work was above reproach but this was quickly seen as his great weakness compared to Beethoven and Mozart, whose bad music was astonishingly bad; conversely, the best music of Mozart and Beethoven was so striking and unique it was if no one had written anything like it before.
By extension of Romantic logic, Beethoven and Mozart were therefore greater than Haydn for doing more to subvert the forms their master had established. The split meaning of the devil speaks well for the entire period. For many a Romantic it wouldn’t be too far off to say that Beethoven was the Prometheus who overturned the status quo of Haydn’s Olympus. It was as if everyone else wanted to be Prometheus, too, never mind that punishment part. Beethoven wrote for the future so the Romantic composers would, too. If they could get rich and get laid in the process that would be all the better. It’s no irony that Romantic composers, compared to previous eras, were more conspicuously laid low by venereal disease.
In Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (University of California Press, 2002) Lawrence Kramer suggests yet another point at which the Romantic era was intellectually double-minded.
The role of the artist, traditionally marked by the achievement of virile mastery within a limited, quasi-artisanal sphere, was changing in dramatic and contradictory ways. Mastery now required the charismatic, hypertrophied virility of a Dickens, a Liszt, a Wagner, as the artist was asked to become a star, a cult figure who miraculously surmounted the fragmentation of modern society. At the same time, the artist’s creativity, the modern version of his artisanal skill, was understood to derive from a volatility of emotion and responsiveness to sensation that were markedly feminine in character. With growing transparency, the artist’s public masculinity was understood to be the product of a private femininity embodied in his art. (page 104)
In other words, Kramer is telling us that the instrumental virtuoso was bisexualized. Skill, technique, intellectual mastery were all considered “masculine” while feeling, pathos, inspiration, and all that warm fuzzy stuff was considered feminine. The “star” had to have chops of death and “real feeling”, and the second trait was more important than the first so long as the first was known to be had.
It was Beethoven who set this precedent as a famous pianist and composer. Paganini and Liszt would both become star performers and composers on their instruments, setting the precedent of an unheard of level of instrumental virtuosity and sex appeal. So titanic was Beethoven’s influence in this respect that vocal music virtually took a back seat. The song cycle for the soloist was still alive and well but choral music was often subsumed into other musical media like opera where a legion of other variables had to be considered. And the result, with some rare exceptions in Mendelssohn and Brahms, is that choral music suffered mightily.
In its place we can see the foundation laid for the star composer/performer. A century later this would mutate from statements like “I realized Wagner was God and I was his servant” to “Clapton is God”. Which is to say there was no real evolution in the idea at all, merely a transposition of the concept from one composer/performer to another. It’s no surprise that during this period rumors began to circulate that some of these musical celebrities had made Faustian bargains for their skill (as was said of Paganini). The Romantic era was full of supernatural language, fascination in folklore and myth, and superlatives that you’d think had been forgotten.
Things got bigger and louder in the Romantic era. It was during this period that we saw the rise of the piano as we know it, and the clarinet. String instruments became sturdier and louder and brass instruments, having fallen on bad production values in the Classical era, started returning to more Baroque technical quality. With more instruments came more volume, and extremes became the rule, whether big or small, or loud or quiet.
With so many huge symphonies being cranked out, all attempting to live up to or excel the standard set by Beethoven, people searched for ways to make these works comprehensible. There were essentially two ways of going about this. The first was to retain the older forms of the Classical period and invest them with more emotionally charged material, with odder phrases and longer ideas. In this camp you’d find Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, and Brahms. Mendelssohn, particularly, started looking backwards to the Baroque period, rediscovering and promoting the music of Bach. This was part of the Romantic period’s characteristic creation of nostalgia.
In the other camp you’d find the Classical forms being remolded around the idea of a musical thread that tied the music together. There were a variety of names for this idea—idée fix, thematic transformation, leitmotif—but the underlying principle could be explained as monothematic, the single idea or group of ideas that bound everything together, the cord binding a bundle of twigs. This idea was championed most prominently by Richard Wagner, who took Beethoven as his model. There were few that didn’t but Wagner set the record for writing the longest continuous works of music anyone had heard before. He used his “leading motif” to provide continuity and structure to works that lasted up to three hours. Wagner may have acted as though he were writing a wholly new music but someone else before him had composed epic works in which everything sprung from a handful of notes. Everyone knew it, too. It was Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony.
I won’t conceal my thoughts about Wagner. Can’t stand his music. My metaphor of the cord binding the twigs together has political undertones and in political theory the undertone of the metaphor is a reference to fascism. Wagner the man was simply despicable, an arrogant, churlish anti-Semite who’s preferred method of repaying his patrons was to sleep with their wives. But Wagner’s influence can barely be overstated. Wagner’s contorted modulations and esoteric use of melodies as symbols had its roots in Beethoven and it revolutionized Western music so profoundly no one has thought of it the same way since.
Wagner’s contribution to Western music is important. Wagner may not have known it but the roots of this technique went back to Haydn, too. Haydn and Bach had pioneered using single themes for complex movements and Wagner redefined this concept so that the single melody or musical cell represented characters and ideas in a drama rather than a movement in a symphony or quartet. He could then assign ten melodies to ten characters and compose the drama of his opera that way instead of doing what previous composers had done. As a man who wrote the stage plays to his own operas Wagner was the first truly multi-media artist to exist in the West since the likes of da Vinci. And opera by this time was the truest predecessor we had to the film industry. Whether you love or hate his work there’s no denying that Wagner was to his own time as Beethoven was to his.
With all this going on you’d wonder where the music went. Well, the music went a lot of places because at precisely this point national identity took on new meaning. Part and parcel of not doing what everyone else was doing was to abandon the urban and urbane transnational trends set by previous eras of music. Music had been seen, in many respects, as a universal language. Even before the Enlightenment the dominance of the Roman church and of Italian aesthetics guaranteed that national spin-offs weren’t too far off the generally international mark. But now the idea that music was a universal language was modified by the idea of national identity within that language, of dialects spun off from the ancestral tongue. After Beethoven German music was seen as German in a new way. The age of imperialism was starting to happen. With all these big ideas around little nations started getting big heads. As we can see today the legacy wasn’t all bad but it wasn’t all good either.
The list of Romantic composers is long. In previous periods of Western music only a handful of names still command attention. The Romantic era has a large number of names and many of these are among the most popular composers in the classical market today. I’ve probably betrayed my ambivalence towards this period already. I simply don’t like much Romantic music. I can recommend a few composers to investigate. We don’t have to like something to try understanding it.
My recommendations are restricted to composers whose work I’ve heard. By no means take this to be a fair, let alone comprehensive representation of the Romantic era. I’m also unable to recommend particular recordings since I hardly ever listen to Romantic music.
Schubert can be considered the first real Romantic composer. He wrote hundreds of songs, the most famous of them being “The Erlking” based on a poem by Goethe. In folk tradition this “Erlking” comes across as a pedophilic demon or spirit and in the poem this creature takes the life of a son who is riding home on horseback with his father. The song is a quintessential Romantic work for having large changes in the singer’s register and for having a dark, folkloric theme.
Another work to listen to is the string quartet titled “Death and the Maiden”.
Mendelssohn was born well off and was at least as prodigious in his talent as Mozart. Mendelssohn isn’t taken too seriously in a lot of academic circles but people can agree that the man knew how to write for choirs in an age when the quality of choral music largely hit rock bottom. The oratorio Elijah is one of his most famous works.
Berlioz was one of the champions of the “idée fix”, particularly in his Symphonie Fantastique. He also wrote a long and loud Requiem. These are both good examples of how composers after Beethoven wanted to make things bigger and louder. It may be of note to some that Berlioz was a guitarist.
Chopin was one of the great miniaturists. He foundered in writing orchestral works but his solo piano works exemplify the best written at the time. The Romantic period defined piano music well into the 20th century and not simply in terms of classical music. It was during this period, through composers like Chopin, that the harmonic vocabulary of jazz was starting to take shape.
Brahms represents one of the great poles of late Romantic music. He was traditionally considered the opposite of Wagner. His music is often syrupy, especially his German Requiem but his choral music is about as good as Mendelssohn’s. Even the Requiem might not be a bad spot to start.
Brahms was often treated as if he were the heir to Beethoven’s musical throne and he got to be paranoid about it. He so dreaded the possibility that his first symphony would be dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth” he took two decades to write his first symphony. His fears were confirmed. I’d say his best symphonies are his Third and Fourth in descending order. Both are good but the Third has more flair and more memorable tunes.
Virtually everything he wrote was an opera and The Ring is his most infamous creation. You can think of this as the operatic equivalent of the Hobbit and the Ring trilogy. After all, the subject is virtually the same, a ring is forged by gods and leads to an epic quest. I’ve tried listening to segments of it but Wagner, being the first multimedia megalomaniac, probably has to be seen to be appreciated. I know that I, for one, have not been able to appreciate Wagner’s operas merely hearing them.
The most famous extract of Wagner’s is the “Flight of the Valkeries”, famously used as the soundtrack of the chopper raid scene in Apocalypse Now.