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The Romantic Period and Absolute Music

Romantic music was part of a worldwide cultural and artistic movement that first appeared in literature towards the end of the 18th century. One of the first to employ the term “romantic” in describing the countryside’s moving and picturesque qualities was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his 1782 book Reveries of a Solitary Walker. In Germany, however, at about the same time, classicism and the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment were being seriously called into question by a group of angry young writers of a movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm and stress). One of the movement’s leading figures was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther opposed the classical tragedy—which featured heroes of antiquity and advocated the triumph of reason over passion—with the story of a contemporary young man, the archetypal anti-hero, pursuing his passions to the ultimate end of his own death. The novel was the start of a significant aesthetic paradigm shift; with the genre’s emphasis on individual subjectivity, it would gradually replace the tragedy as the dominant literary form and become the chief medium of romantic writers.

In music, the transition from classicism to romanticism was marked by an analogous paradigm shift, with instrumental music—and in particular the symphony—gradually replacing opera as the dominant genre. The early 19th century saw a number of German writers wax very enthusiastic about this new musical genre, and with Mozart, Haydn, and especially Beethoven, helping to raise the symphony’s status, a new concept began to emerge in the writings of these composers’ admirers. This was the idea that “pure” instrumental music—i.e., self-contained music that disregarded all reference to words and images—was superior to all other music because it allowed the worthy listener to come into contact with the “infinite” and the “unutterable”—to reach the “realm of the extraordinary and the immeasurable” beyond that which words and images can express.

It was E.T.A. Hoffmann, the author of the famous tales (and himself a composer), who was most responsible for disseminating this idea to the general public. In 1809, after studying the recently published score of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, he published a fascinating and impassioned review (see inset) in a musical journal. He then reworked the article in 1814 for inclusion in his first collection of tales and music articles, which was quickly translated into several other languages. In it, he describes romanticism in music more as a way to listen than as a way to compose. For Hoffmann, the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven “breathed with equally romantic spirits.” It was only around 1830, after the death of Beethoven, that an entire generation of composers labeled themselves “romantic,” naming Beethoven as their precursor and transforming Haydn and Mozart into Olympian gods of a self-invented classicism.

By mid-century, however, one composer began to contest this so-called superiority of pure music. What Beethoven had done for the symphony, Richard Wagner did for opera, revolutionizing the genre, and doing so by “symphonizing” it, giving the orchestra a role of unprecedented proportions, very much equivalent to the choir of a Greek tragedy. Before composing his masterworks, Wagner wrote a number of essays on theory, such as The Art-Work of the Future (1849) and Opera and Drama (1851), in which he postulated that in its uniting of the three muses of the stage—poetry, music and dance—opera was a “total work of art.” As such, Wagner felt it was superior to pure music because it was able to combine the precision of words and images with the power of music to evoke the unutterable infinite. The musicologist Edouard Hanslick responded to Wagner’s thesis in 1854 with The Beautiful in Music, a controversial essay in which he took up the ideas of Hoffmann in a more formal manner and employed the term “absolute music.” This was the debate—a debate which had no real winner, notwithstanding the fact that the genre of reference from which opera redefined itself was the symphony—which shaped the history of romanticism in music.

© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen

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