The Remains of Romanticism

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Remains of Romanticism, performed on Nov 15, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Musical romanticism is, like most descriptive categories, elusive. Its existence is shaped by an implied chronological contrast. At the beginning of its historical spectrum, it is juxtaposed in opposition to eighteenth-century classicism which it succeeded. At the other end of its history, romanticism is understood as coming to an end with the advent of modernism, which is itself defined by its rejection, in the twentieth century, of the external markers of romanticism. In this way it has become standard to characterize the nineteenth century as the era of romanticism. But when we try to identify the features of the romantic in music beyond neat chronological boundaries, we find that though romantic elements make their appearance most famously in middle-period Beethoven, they may also be found in Mozart. Romanticism also did not lose its hold after its “era” had supposedly ended; well into the twentieth century, “conservative” composers continued to write in the romantic tradition, and the familiar conventions of late nineteenth-century romanticism inspire film music well into our own time. Since the mid-1970s, a more conscious revival of romanticism in musical composition has flourished.

Having said that, a set of interconnecting characteristics stand out in the music on today’s program, all of which was composed in the twilight years of the romantic tradition. Carl Czerny alleged that his teacher Beethoven claimed he always had some kind of story or plot in mind when composing instrumental music. Once the composition was finished, needed to be forgotten. It at best should be regarded by the listener as the external, temporary scaffolding necessary for the composer to construct the enduring edifice. In this sense Beethoven retained an old classical bias that musical discourse operated self-referentially and made its case to the listener through the interplay of musical events: themes, counterpoint, development, rhythmic contrast, and harmonic pathways. These became structural devices that delivered to the listener a sense of architecture and organization. The image of scaffolding around this structure is apt, because the scaffolding was made up of what we might call “extra-musical” elements: stories and vistas. For example, consider Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (1808). It is a sublime experience of listening and a magical example of how musical elements seem to operate autonomously without the help of words and pictures. But that achievement was accomplished through Beethoven’s use of music to narrate the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is precisely the connection between music and language, between musical time and narrative time, and by extension music and the initially non-musical experience of life, that romanticism took its inspiration. For the generation of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin, who are deemed masters of “early” romanticism, the Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral” (1808), was the quintessential proto-romantic work. In this symphony Beethoven famously described how he used music to express the impact of external events and experiences, the “storm” and the “bubbling brook,” rather than the events themselves. In that work, he conceded an inspirational relationship that would be essential to all romantic composers. Form and structure were no longer defended exclusively by expectations set up by purely musical logic. Nature defines the inspirational elements. In Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (1830/2), it is the visual experience of nature that informs the classical logic of the instrumental composition. In Robert Schumann’s early piano pieces, literary models and characters create novel musical forms.

Romanticism took patterns of musical expression and uses of time developed during the classical era and transformed them so that something implicit was made explicit: the connection between music and the visual and linguistic or literary. It is in romanticism that the associative conventions to which we are accustomed between emotion and certain musical patterns became standardized. One can hear them in many a film and television score. The first generation of nineteenth-century romantic composers used music to express and describe the subjective experience of life. Unashamedly, they borrowed and adapted the seemingly self-contained logic of classicism to narrate and expand the player’s and listener’s poetic sense of the inexhaustible expanse of the human imagination. There is no more evocative title to depict the agenda of romanticism in the first part of the nineteenth century than Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (1834).

Not entirely coincidentally, along with these romantic developments came a dramatic expansion of the musical audience. Literacy in music, now an art form to which it was easier to relate given the elaboration of its connections to the subjectivity of life, grew with great rapidity during the nineteenth century and created a massive concert audience. Listeners consumed music as a means to escape from the quotidian and increasing utilitarian if not drab dimension of contemporary economic and social life. The attraction of music, particularly instrumental music with its seemingly unique abstract character, was how it refreshed the imagination with the infinite possibilities and sanctity of human life at a time when the harsh realities of modernity seemed to threaten both nature and humanity. For this reason, romanticism in music took on the characteristic of idealistic nostalgia. New instrumental music, pioneered especially by Liszt, was inspired by stories taken from the pre-modern past, from mythology and antiquity. The past, both imagined and real, far removed from the listener’s actual circumstances, became the object of fascination for the romantic musical imagination. Ultimately, romantic music became a thrilling dramatic and emotional experience, but its musical logic became increasingly subordinate to an imaginary desire in human experience, dependent on words and pictures. The scaffold described by Beethoven itself became the musical substance and structure. It goes without saying that the master of this inversion was Richard Wagner.

This concert explores the music of composers whose names (with one exception) may not be immediately recognizable. Yet all were prominent during their lifetimes in the nineteenth century. They were chosen for today’s program because they demonstrate the many different ways originality and a distinctive voice can emerge from a conflicted relationship with tradition and conventional expectations. These composers lived at least part of their lives aware that they must be at the end of an enormous tradition. Some of them lived to cross the threshold of the romantic transition. If the generation of 1809-10 struggled with the legacy of Beethoven, the burden of history felt by Robert Fuchs and Hermann Goetz, the two earliest composers on today’s program, was even more intense. Younger than Wagner and Brahms, the formative composers for them were Schumann and Mendelssohn. Next in line chronologically are Ludwig Thuille and Richard Strauss, close friends born three years apart in the early 1860s. Following closely after them is Siegmund von Hausegger who was only eight years Strauss’s junior. By the time this second group came of age as composers, they had not only the looming figures of Beethoven, Schumann, and Mendelssohn to contend with, but Brahms and Wagner.

Strauss’s Second Symphony (1884) was written a year after Wagner died. Brahms admired this work. Along with Bruckner, Brahms was one of the last living masters of a tradition of composition dating back to Mozart. Brahms certainly felt the burden of being the last exponent of a great tradition. Strauss was only twenty when he wrote this symphony, struggling even then to find a new voice for his generation. But Strauss’s symphony is not, in fact, an example of an inexperienced composer early in his career, engaged with imitation. Rather it is a brilliant example of how history is referenced and how allusion and stylistic suggestion can become the means by which conventions are overturned. After this symphony, Strauss set the form aside for many years, only returning to it later with his own unmistakable stamp in Symphonia domestica (1903) and the Alpine Symphony (1915). Like Mahler, here he used the external convention of the symphonic form to rethink the premise of romanticism. In the work on today’s program, Strauss resisted the Lisztian idea and Wagnerian path of organizing music along a literary narrative. At the same time he holds on to the notion that a piece of music is more than itself and that it must trigger some aspect of human self-reflection. In this case the human reflection is about history, the tradition of music making itself. The habit of allusion, stylistic incongruity, and quotation that are audible in this work became the hallmark of Strauss’s later work, with its increasing dose of irony and philosophical distance.

Similarly, Hermann Goetz’s Violin Concerto has its own nostalgic quality, embodied in the way it reflects the composer’s turn away from writing for the stage and the voice in an attempt to recapture the innocence of the early nineteenth century. Robert Fuchs adapts a form associated with Haydn and Mozart in an attempt to achieve something original. He picks up a thread that Brahms abandoned early in his career, a multi-movement work that has no pretension to symphonic coherence. This Serenade is his most famous work, and like his wonderful set of violin duets, it instills an intensity of feeling with a self-conscious effort to evoke a neo-classical clarity of musical form and technique. Siegmund von Hausegger’s work seeks to extend Liszt’s idea of narration through music by using a subject discarded by Wagner. Composed after Strauss’s daunting set of tone poems, it resists the ironic distance which Strauss mastered and seeks to rekindle, late in the career of romanticism, the heroic and the monumental by setting a pre-modern tale in the garb of post-Wagnerian, late romantic rhetoric. There is only one work on the program that has the term “romantic” in its title, Thuille’s Romantic Overture. Like Fuchs, Thuille was a gifted teacher whose textbook continued to be used well into the twentieth century. Although inspired by Wagner, this overture seeks to redeem a conceit lost on Wagner, but one which all the composers on today’s program shared. That conceit held that even when tied to words and pictures, music alone could communicate something that words and pictures never could, and that music opened up an expanse of feeling and experience that seems boundless and resistant to any fixed image or meaning. For Thuille, Hausegger, Fuchs, Goetz, and Strauss, all late romantic music was an effort to open the infinite in the experience of the listener, for whom life in the modern world might seem increasingly limited by the harsh realities of time and space.