Spiritual Romanticism

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Spiritual Romanticism, performed on June 6, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The year 1848 marks a watershed in the history of nineteenth-century Europe. The first half of the century was characterized by the rapid rise of industry, urban life, and the crystallization of a reading public and therefore a public for culture. All this occurred after the fall of Napoleon, in a period of political reaction. Concurrent with this reaction were radical revisions to the conceits of the previous century’s Enlightenment, as well as the emergence of a kind of middle-class domesticity that assumed stylistic attributes known as Biedermeier. In everything but furniture design and architecture, that term is understood as pejorative. However, particularly in German-speaking Europe, beneath the expansion of an urban, educated middle class obsessed with respectability, there was after 1815 also a desire to find some way around the harsh strictures of political repression and dynamic economic change. This undercurrent of resistance can be sensed in the dreams and achievements of the young Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and in the entire first generation of musical Romantics. With political liberty denied, the subjective self and the limitless, cloaked world of the imagination afforded by music possessed few rival claims on the souls of artists, poets and writers who came of age after the fall of Napoleon.

As Romanticism developed as an aesthetic sensibility and personal credo during the first half of the nineteenth century, it co-existed with serious considerations of church and state in the revolutions of 1848. Indeed already during the Napoleonic era, the reaction to the Terror and the excesses of the French Revolution had inspired a revival of religious feeling. The nineteenth century turned out, in fact, to be a period of renewed religiosity and the creation of a sense of spiritual inwardness quite antithetical to the attitudes of artists and philosophers of the previous century. The skepticism of Voltaire was superseded by the religious ruminations of the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who felt music was integral to religious sensibility. With the revival of religious emotionalism, the nineteenth century also witnessed a spiritual redefinition of national identity. The universal was subordinated to the particular and the differentiated. Discussion of the universal rights of human kind was left almost exclusively to socialists and communists, as the educated middle classes of Europe increasingly found themselves drawn to an awareness of themselves as part of an indigenous community where land, language and history took on mythic proportions. The marriage of nationalism and religiosity that took shape in the nineteenth century eventually bequeathed to the twentieth that nightmarish replay of the bloody strife of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But, despite Karl Marx’s quip that history repeats itself as farce not tragedy, during the twentieth century the internal strife in Europe after 1914 far outstripped anything perpetrated by the Hundred Years’ War.

This is an admittedly simplified account of the historical context for today’s concert. But it is crucial to locating the connection between spirituality and Romanticism. The works on the program are not ordered in a precise chronological manner, since Wagner wrote Das Liebesmahl der Apostel three years before Mendelssohn completed Lauda Sion. But aside from that detail, the sequence is historically proper. Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 and died in 1847. He never wavered in his belief that reason and religion could be reconciled. Despite his enormous contribution to the expressive vocabulary of the personal self through music—primarily in his chamber music, piano music, and concert overtures—the spirituality that Mendelssohn possessed was, despite its aesthetic Romanticism, rooted in an allegiance to neoclassicism and eighteenth-century philosophical ideals. In this sense, Mendelssohn was the musical equivalent of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), the great architect of early nineteenth-century Berlin. Lauda Sion not only expresses the deep religiosity of Mendelssohn and his devout Christianity but the underlying universalism that for him rendered the distinction between Protestant and Catholic insignificant. A widely embraced tolerance also extended to the Jews for whom Mendelssohn never lost his sense of solidarity. That solidarity had special urgency for him precisely because of his awareness that a new form of German nationalism was on the horizon. It first made its appearance when he was a child in 1819 and grew in strength throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Mendelssohn abhorred this aggressive form of political and cultural nationalism. Both he and his sister Fanny died before they could witness its triumphant arrival in German politics and culture. Appropriately, therefore, the concert opens with a work for the Catholic liturgy written by a converted Jew, the most important contemporary composer of Protestant church music, and who was married to the daughter of a prominent Huguenot minister.

The concert then turns to an early work by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), rarely performed in the United States. The rage for Wagner has not abated over many years. Concert-goers all over the world travel to the remotest places to catch a Ring cycle, and the number of Wagner’s devotees seems never to diminish. Conventional wisdom holds that Wagner was a revolutionary both politically and aesthetically. Together with Liszt he became the acknowledged founder of what came to be known as the “new German school.” Wagner saw himself as the true heir of Beethoven; he extended the dramatic in classical music into a new form, the music drama, a total work of art that integrated sound, word, and picture.

Wagner also became one of the nineteenth century’s most articulate modern anti-Semites, a theoretician of race, and a rabid nationalist. He had an extremely bizarre and ambivalent relation to Christianity, which appears most strikingly in Tannhäuser and Parsifal. Wagner, like Berlioz, was also a compelling writer who used the power of the pen to control the reception of his own works and his place in history. Like most autobiographers, he wrote in order to cover tracks he hoped no one would find, to guide future commentators, critics, and audiences toward a preconceived conclusion that omitted something important but embarrassing in his personal and artistic development. Wagner’s hidden skeleton in this case is the enormous debt his music owes to Mendelssohn, whom Wagner hated and against whom he held a personal, ill-grounded grudge. Wagner claimed to have been snubbed by Mendelssohn when in all likelihood nothing of the sort ever happened. But Mendelssohn was everything Wagner wasn’t: rich, tremendously talented, naturally adept, and generous of spirit. The work on today’s program not only foreshadows the familiar Wagner, but also surprisingly sheds light on Wagner’s early ambition to rival Mendelssohn on Mendelssohn’s own terms. An 1836 performance of St. Paul deeply impressed the young Wagner, who became determined to try to set biblical scenes into music as Mendelssohn had done so brilliantly. Das Liebesmahl der Apostel thus evidences the continuities rather than the divergences between Wagner and Mendelssohn. At the same time, however, there is no question that the mature Wagner opened up new vistas of compositional technique, musical expression and sonority. In this early work, we can hear the echoes of the male choral tradition of the late 1830s and early 1840s that would blossom into a nationalist medium, and reappear prominently in Parsifal and in the male choral moments of Götterdammerung. Although written in 1843, this work prefigures the dominance of nationalist religion in musical aesthetic after 1848.

The last composer on today’s program, Franz Liszt (1811-1886), was one of the most protean, complex and contradictory figures in the history of music, owing to his long life and the distinct phases in his career. Liszt belongs both to Mendelssohn’s world and to Wagner’s. As a virtuoso and composer he participated in the admiration for Beethoven evinced by Schumann and Mendelssohn. He was a champion of Berlioz, Chopin, and Meyerbeer. He was, as many turn-of-the-century German writers on music noted, almost a French composer because of his close personal intellectual associations with Paris in the 1830s. The next phase of his career brought him to Weimar, where he presided over the most important musical theater in German-speaking Europe during the mid-century, the place where Lohengrin had its premiere. He became a champion of Wagner—and ultimately Wagner’s father-in-law. Wagner had at first been skeptical of Liszt as a composer, but he soon came to be an eloquent defender of the creation of symphonic music written along the lines of poetic narrative. The second phase of Liszt’s career therefore can be considered an integral part of the German tradition of music-making. It is not surprising that the most prolific Liszt scholar of the twentieth century, Peter Raabe, was an ardent Nazi.

At the same time, however, Liszt was Hungarian by birth and by lifelong allegiance. In the last phase of his life, despite his close association with Wagner, he became a devout Catholic and an outspoken defender of the Hungarian national revival. Indeed, the Academy of Music that Bela Bartók attended bears to this day the name Franz Liszt. Liszt was eager to become a Hungarian national hero as an artist, educator, and philanthropist. The Mass performed on today’s concert is not only a great innovative setting of the Catholic liturgy by a composer who renounced his past as a virtuoso and Lothario and entered the Church, but it was also a widely acknowledged act of Hungarian patriotism. He was the nineteenth century’s greatest Hungarian musician and the Mass was designed to celebrate the newly found stature of the distinctly Hungarian Catholic Church.

In Liszt, the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century and the aesthetic transformation associated with Wagner (that utilized Liszt’s own remarkable musical innovations) were turned to the service of the nationalist revival that became commonplace throughout Europe after 1848. But today’s program also offers an opportunity to hear Liszt as an innovator in musical compositions and aesthetic ideals. If Wagner was eager to hide what he learned from Mendelssohn, he was equally loathe to give credit to Liszt for finding ways to make music augment the visual and poetic. It is somehow apt, therefore, that of the three composers, Liszt had the longest life. He died nearly forty years after Mendelssohn and he survived his son-in-law by three years. Indeed, if any composer mirrors the entire nineteenth century, inclusive of its transformations from the classical and rationalist to the spiritual and nationalist, it is Franz Liszt.