The Musical Romance of Childhood

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In today’s concert, several historical threads work in conjunction with one another. All three works mark the apogee of the nineteenth-century tradition of so-called program music. Until recently it been an accepted premise of music history that during the nineteenth century a great divide took place within European music. On the one side stood composers such as Brahms who supposedly believed in the autonomy of musical expression and meaning, and who chose to stress the continuities in instrumental music between the work of Haydn and Mozart and that of the first Romantic generation of Schumann and Mendelssohn. On the other side of the divide were Liszt, Wagner and their followers, who saw in not only the early Romantics but in Beethoven as well an essential dramatic and narrative logic in music. For them contemporaneity and modernity meant the fulfillment of a logical compatibility between music and poetry and music and drama. Instead of believing a storyline, an emotion, or a visual description as being extraneous to or at odds with “pure” musical expression, this group of nineteenth-century composers and aestheticians believed that modernity required an integration of disparate art forms, using music as the fundamental unifying factor. Their belief in music’s supreme ability to represent and divulge human experience stemmed from the striking philosophical prestige accorded to it as the highest of the arts by Hegel and Schopenhauer earlier in the century.

As we proceed to revise our understanding of the nineteenth century, what seemed to have been irreconcilable differences on a philosophical plane turn out in hindsight to have been more narrowly political and personal. We have now come to appreciate the narrative dimension in what were once regarded as models of pure musical expression in Mozart and Haydn. Formalism no longer seems so absolute, and conversely, narrative music no longer seems quite so structurally dependant on extra-musical logics, as the successful misapplication of Strauss to diverse modern contexts, such as film, have made apparent. Brahms and Wagner seem to possess affinities which would have never been considered by previous generations.

But when the works on today’s program were composed, the rift between program music and absolute instrumental music had not yet been called into question. The employment of large-scale orchestral forms in the service of telling a story, describing a scene, or illustrating an emotion was controversial. For many of the most sophisticated advocates of musical culture, this kind of post-Lisztian orchestral music was a telling sign of the vulgarity of the age and the decline in standards of taste. The symphonies of Tchaikovsky, for example, even though they lacked precise literary programs, were derided as hysterical and bombastic outpourings of human sentiment, unrefined by the formal discipline which was considered indispensable to beauty in music.

The collapsing of the opposition between Brahms’s symphonies on the one hand and the tone poems of Richard Strauss on the other derives from a line of inquiry that was rarely pursued in the nineteenth century but which has become important in the late twentieth century. If we consider the musical culture of the past not from the point of view of the composer but of the listener, and approach music’s reception as a historical process, we realize that in the nineteenth century–an age without the phonograph or the moving picture–audiences (aestheticians not withstanding) listened visually and narratively. A composer may have offered up something called a symphony identifiable only by its formal structure. But that did not mean that audiences flocked to symphony concerts merely to respond to formal achievement. The intensity with which the nineteenth-century audience listened reveals the extent to which music pervaded and inspired the full range of daily experience and feeling. Audiences saw pictures, heard stories, and experienced deep emotional responses, conjuring deep personal associations from instrumental music, no matter the composer, without apology. What the advocates of program music sought to do was to harness this ongoing process more effectively.

When the young Richard Strauss left the Brahmsian model behind him and began writing orchestral tone poems he became an enfant terrible for conservative critics and audiences, but his craftsmanship was so astonishing that even his worst detractors had to admire his command of musical form. All of the tone poems reveal a debt to symphonic writing and classical procedures in their explicitly literary programs (Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Also Spoke Zarathustra). But even Strauss pushed the tolerance of his critics, first with Ein Heldenleben, and then with Symphonia Domestica in 1903. In this work, which has been vilified and ridiculed, Strauss pushes the possibility of description and narration through instrumental music to the extreme. But rather than see this as an extravagant and self-indulgent display of narcissism as some would have it, the Symphonia Domestica may be one of the most ambitious though admittedly perverse challenges to smug assertions of good taste. This work is radical in a way that we generally reserve as a description for modernist experimentalists. Strauss uses irony to extend something self-evident in the work of Robert Schumann: the use of music as the expression of subjective and highly personalized emotion. What is really the difference between Schumann’s private fantasies and illusions which dominate his early piano music and the first person narrative which Strauss offers us? The mundane and precise nature of the program in fact forces us to do more than look for illustration, but to transcend evident illustration and respond to a musical experience–precisely the objective of the opponents to program music. Strauss joins the company of some of his literary contemporaries, such as Henry James (whose masterpiece The Ambassadors was also published in 1903) and later James Joyce, who struggled to represent human psychology through using an astonishing wealth of seemingly trivial and mundane detail. In the cases both of Strauss and his contemporary writers, the quandary was the same: how can one convey interior human responses to life through an aesthetic medium. Rather than escape into abstraction Strauss went the other way.

Indeed, by the time of Joyce’s generation, Strauss’s outrageous experiment had become more commonplace. Charles Loeffler might have been the object of some proper Bostonian’s ire and contempt because of an absence of austerity and rectitude in his music, but no one could accuse Sir Edward Elgar of bad taste. It is also easy to forget that even earlier, in the 1890s, Antonin Dvorák , upon his return from America, wrote a series of tone poems including one called A Hero’s Life. At the end of his career, the great protégé of Brahms recognized the potential in the new forms put forward by the young radical Richard Strauss. The conductor of the first performance of Dvorák ’s tone poem (performed by the ASO five years ago) was none other than Gustav Mahler. The distance between Mahler’s Fifth symphony and Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica is perhaps narrower than we might like to admit.

If program music became as obsessed as literature at the turn of the last century with the representation of internal realities through an extension of illustration, one would expect that the subject matter would move away from the historical and mythological to the personal and autobiographical. That is exactly what happened. This turn inwards was firmly grounded in alarming observations of the changing exterior world. By the end of the century, the transformation of the European and American landscape was unprecedented. The prominence of urban centers with their subsequent social problems and the effects of industrial growth were the external factors that gave rise to an obsessive reflection on the meaning of history and the direction of these radical changes. Whether literate Europeans and Americans turned to Marx or Darwin, the question “Where are we headed?” in response to the runaway pace of societal development was matched by an equally logical question: “What have we left behind?” It is not surprising that childhood as a part of a self-conscious examination of the human psyche became a compelling subject for many artists and thinkers at that time, and that just then Lewis Carroll came along to encrypt children’s desire and terror in complex rhymes and imagery, and Freud sought to reveal a startling picture of the beginnings of mental life.

Children, no longer perceived as merely unfinished adults, were idealized by some as being in a state of nature and innocence, much as the countryside was idealized as a pastoral landscape undefiled by the city. The process of their corruption in the course of maturity constituted the record of the adult’s current psychological state. An examination of memory and perhaps a return to or preservation of childhood therefore became, and remains today, an important part of the interior psychic struggle among adults to live in the world. The three works on today’s program use three different approaches to the question of how one preserves or discards memory and how one assesses the cost of growing up. What differentiates, however, the musical treatment of childhood and childhood memory in the early twentieth century from, for example, the evocation of childhood in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is that the sense of distance and loss is more profound and the desire to preserve the child in oneself more apparent. Maturity has been found unfulfilling and as a result childhood idealized. As listeners left the daily routine of their lives behind and chose voluntarily to flock into concert halls to be transported by sound alone away from the routines and burdens of their daily life, they welcomed music’s capacity to evoke the nostalgic charm, the intensity, confusion, and tumult as well as the poignancy of youth.