The Romantic Soul: Lord Byron in Music

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Romantic Soul: Lord Byron in Music, performed on Feb 9, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Few writers in any language at any time in the history of European arts and letters have so completely captured the imagination of a generation as did George Gordon, Lord Byron. A member of the second generation of English Romantic poets that also included Keats and Shelly, he was born in London in 1788 and died famously in the defense of the Greek national cause in 1824. During his lifetime Byron was a rather scandalous figure, beautiful, brutal, deeply intellectual, eccentric (he could not stand the sight of a woman eating), profligate, brilliant. He was generally regarded as a fallen angel, to be pitied and secretly admired. With his premature death Byron shared the apparently inevitable fate of a Romantic poet, but the fact that he literally sacrificed himself for those classical ideals (which in reality had little to do with the modern Greek state) that so infused his work gave his death a special resonance for European artists and thinkers, and he posthumously became a iconic figure of dark fascination, a compelling mixture of idealism and disillusionment, heroism and demonism, noble defiance and tragedy. In other words, his image after death merged utterly with that of his poetic creations and he himself became the quintessential Byronic hero. Today, although he retains his dominance as one of the greatest of the English poets, his work no longer engages a popular readership as it did throughout the nineteenth century. We live in a post-Romantic age; it is more difficult to relate to essential concepts of guilt, burning introspection, and sympathetic, sinful desire when we now expect a hero, if he is to die, to at least first use his fanciful technological weaponry to obliterate the enemy with assurance. The Byronic hero, all questions and no answers, has already lost before he begins, which does not make for a good market in action figures. Further, the events of the last century have given us a very different conception of the human capacity for evil and suffering than Byron could ever have imagined.

But the three composers on today’s program – Bennett, Liszt, and Schumann – were members of a generation captivated by Byron’s life and work, a generation for whom Byron embodied the painful ambiguities and perplexity of a changing, spiritually confused world. Of the three composers Schumann was the oldest, born in 1810. Liszt was born in 1811 and Bennett was the youngest, born in 1816. Schumann was the most articulate and literary, though Liszt was a close second. Schumann’s first love was literature. His father was a bookseller and a publisher, and Schumann, like his colleagues and every other well-read person of his time, was intimately familiar with the works of Byron. Indeed, Byron’s appeal to these three very different composers reveals the poet’s significant, universal influence during the nineteenth century. This common thread gives us an opportunity to explore not only Byron’s representation in music, but also the different ways these composers thought about the relation between words and music.

Schumann’s setting of Byron comes from a close reading of the text and a deep admiration for its poetic virtues, so much so that there were large sections of the text Schumann chose not to set because he found the verse itself overwhelmingly musical on its own. His response is not surprising when the original poem’s structure is considered. With its choruses and climactic monologues, it seems made for music in a manner similar to Goethe’s Faust (also partially set by Schumann). Schumann wished the text to be declaimed and then to move into song almost as in musical theater. This in itself reflects the symbiotic tension between the poetic and the musical in the aesthetics of the early nineteenth century, particularly in German-speaking Europe. The German Romantic poets of Schumann’s time tried to elevate poetry to the status of music and thus widen language’s power beyond its capacity for representation. They wished for a use of language that more nearly approximated the ineffable and the infinite. In the aesthetic views of Schumann’s generation, music was the highest of the arts for a Romantic sensibility precisely because it was not literal or representational. The transfer of Schumann’s ambition from the literary to the musical echoed the conceits of his hero Jean-Paul Richter, for whom music (which he called the act of improvisation with sound) was the deepest form of personal expression, outstripping the use of language.

Schumann, like Schubert before him and Brahms after, was a master of the merging of text and music through the form of the Lied. But as Mendelssohn (one of Bennett’s greatest defenders) discovered, the transition from songwriting to drama is difficult for a variety of factors, not the least of which is the epic greatness of the text to be set. The merging of the vocal with the dramatic is for Schumann only partially successful. There is one unperformed opera, Genoveva (1849) and the brilliant torso of a work, his setting of Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844-53). As his unsettled and provocative Manfred suggests, the beauty of Byron’s words and of Schumann’s musical expression were perhaps equivalent only in Schumann’s appreciation for both forms, but such an appreciation was not easily transferable for the composer. The story of Manfred is itself an ambiguous one. The hero, a man of fantastic powers living half in the human world and half in a world of spirits, laments his life and his terrible sinful nature of his love for his sister. In his wandering he meets numerous spirits, a deer hunter, the Witch of the Alps, and a kindly abbot who attempts to save him. He is ultimately swallowed by darkness both within and without, a figure both pitiable and cursed. The text is subtle and complex, invariably leading to the question of what a musical setting can do to elucidate it. In the partially staged version you will see today, we have tried to highlight the musical aspects to honor Schumann’s intention of using music to elevate language. Byron’s intention, of course, was never to have Manfred staged or publicly performed in any way.

Schumann’s colleague Liszt was a prolific author and wrote extensively on music (sometimes with not entirely discreet ghost writers). But Liszt was undoubtedly a polymath, and tirelessly energetic as a performer, organizer, conductor, politician, and teacher. Tasso is Liszt’s reworking of a first version of this piece orchestrated by his friend August Conradi, and a second version orchestrated by Joachim Raff, who went on to achieve considerable fame as a composer and teacher. Like Schumann, Liszt was enamored of the literary. But that love drew him to a very different conclusion regarding text and music. Instead of trying to set the text in a conventional sense as Schumann did, Liszt invented an instrumental form: the tone poem. Liszt deserves much more credit ultimately than Wagner for transforming the aesthetics of nineteenth century music. More than Schumann and Wagner, Liszt pursued the symbiosis between language and music with a truly innovative idea. That idea was grounded in his belief that instrumental music could carry language further than language could go on its own. Insofar as language reached the individual and transported the reader beyond the quotidian, it was music that could render that experience concrete, and rekindle the memory of that which was once read.

Schumann and his subsequent supporters, suspicious of what later became known as the new German school and “program” music, accused this approach of subordinating music to language and narration. But the opposite case can be strongly made. The tone poem Tasso has in fact very little to do with the story and certainly much less to do with any particularly poetic text. Byron’s poem is about the Italian poet Tasso, whose love for the Duke d’Este’s sister led to seven years in jail for the poet. But the listener does not need to be intimately familiar with Byron’s text to appreciate Liszt’s tone poem. The writing of tone poems is not altogether different from an operatic overture in the sense of Beethoven’s three Leonore overtures, despite what reductive theories of “program music and absolute music” suggest. The primary difference is that as in the case of a tone poem such as Tasso, the inspiration and structure are free-standing and self-sufficient. They are literary but one step removed; they are in fact meta-linguistic. The music emulates a literary narrative, but its impact is not at all that of reading. It does not require text because it is only remotely narrative. Music in Liszt’s treatment retains music’s infinite unapproachable quality and expressive rhetoric, despite the superficial ordering of the music along the lines of a dramatic story that has been mediated by poetic diction. (It is interesting in this light to consider why the only part of Schumann’s Manfred to survive in the repertory is in fact the overture.)

What inspired Liszt ultimately was not plot but poetic language. It is in this sense ironic that his initial inspiration was Goethe. On the hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s birth Liszt was due to write (as was common at the time) an overture to a new production of Goethe’s Tasso. But as Liszt himself said, he was inspired by “the most powerful poetic geniuses of our time, Goethe and Byron.” For Liszt, Goethe was the poet of “brilliant prosperity;” Byron, despite “advantages of birth and fortune,” was the symbol of “much suffering.” By Liszt’s own admission his tone poem was “more immediately inspired by the respectful compassion evoked by Byron…than by the work of the German poet.” What Liszt supplied in his own view was “the remembrance of the bitter sorrows of the protagonist of Byron’s poem.”

Liszt’s evocation of Goethe and Byron has its own historic irony. Goethe’s review of Byron’s Manfred, as well as his review of the English poet’s other works, reveals that Byron was the only contemporary poet with whom Goethe felt a keen competition and envy. Toward the end of his life, Goethe remained obsessed with Byron even though he had embraced a new neoclassicism distinctly in opposition to the Romantic movement in German poetry. In fact Byron, in his own way distinct from Goethe, bridged the classical and romantic in its conventional definition and was the inspiration not so much for Goethe but for European poets including Mickiewicz and Lermontov. The impact of Byron on composers ranges from the three composers on tonight’s program to the following list of composers, all of whom at one time or another set Byron to music either directly or indirectly: Busoni, Loewe, Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky, Joachim, Verdi, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff, MacDowell, Nietzsche, Wolff, Donizetti, Berlioz, and Tchaikovsky, whose symphonic masterpiece Manfred remains one of the most well known efforts to render Byron into instrumental music.

The composer who opens today’s program was, appropriately, English. His approach to Byron is probably the most conservative of the three musical responses offered here. Bennett’s music shows a strong debt to Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn died in 1847 before the great breach in musical aesthetics that placed Liszt and Wagner on one side and Schumann and Brahms on the other. Most of Bennett’s output actually dates from Mendelssohn’s lifetime. In contrast to Schumann’s Manfred and Liszt’s Tasso, Bennett offers almost no apparent relationship between his music and Byron’s poem. We can appreciate Bennett’s adherence to the very early Romantic exploration of the connection between poetry and music if we remember his mentor’s overtures and music for plays. In the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, a mood and sensibility is evoked but no plot or narration. Instrumental music is left to its own devices, in contrast to the opera or oratorio form on the one hand and the innovative Lisztian tone poem on the other. A brief look at Mendelssohn’s Die shöne Melusine (1833) overture makes this point poignantly. Mendelssohn wrote it after seeing the Grillparzer play at which an overture by another composer was performed. After experiencing the play Mendelssohn was shocked at the inadequacy of the musical evocation, and so he wrote his own as a musical response to the dramatic experience but not the particular language or dramatic structure. So it is with Bennett’s Parisina. In contrast to Schumann or Liszt, there is no need to find specific connections between poetry and music in Bennett’s composition. It is only important to remember that to be inspired by Lord Byron and his poetry had become an obligatory hallmark of artistic authenticity for any aspiring composer or poet. It is indeed astonishing to see how one poet, arguably prolific and notorious in personality, could have so completely enraptured and influenced the course of music in the mid-nineteenth century.