An Italian Journey through German Romanticism

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert An Italian Journey through German Romanticism performed on March 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The fascination for Italy among German writers, artists, and musicians can be traced back at least to the mid-eighteenth century. In the renaissance of German letters during that time there was a distinct and eloquent neoclassical strain. J. J. Winckelmann (1717-1768) wrote his famous tract in 1755, “Thoughts on the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks.” The German rediscovery of classical antiquity extended to the field of architecture. Among the most influential aesthetic forces in German nineteenth- century culture was the achievement of the Berlin architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose neoclassic buildings were regarded as an embodiment of the rebirth of true beauty through the style of antiquity.

The glorification of a Greco-Roman ideal found an analogue in the German romance with the Italian landscape. The lure of Italy was not merely historical. Italy represented the world of light and warmth, an oasis of nature infused in a curious manner with the remnants of a great historical past. All this stood in contrast to the cold, dark, forbidding landscape of the North. If one thinks of the stage set of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz and the early nineteenth-century German romantic canvases of Caspar David Friedrich, one can think of few more evident counterpoints than the sunlight of Florence, Rome, or Naples. The German fascination for Italy as well was shared by the Swiss and the Austrians, who were in a position to forge an ideal synthesis between the best virtues of the German and the Italian. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be conjured up as evidence of this conceit. The Italian influence from as early as the time of J. S. Bach was never far from the minds of the leading composers of German-speaking Europe.

The most important literary reflection of the German obsession with Italy was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey. Goethe’s sojourn in Italy from 1786 to 1788 offered a model that was followed by generations of young aspiring, musicians and writers from the North. Mendelssohn spent considerable time in Rome during the 1830s. Brahms was an inveterate traveler whose favorite place was Italy. Among his most treasured books was Jacob Burckhardt’s Cicerone, a descriptive guide to the art treasures of Italy. However, the most well-known Germans with an Italian obsession were the painters of the nineteenth century who lived for long stretches of time in Italy. Unfortunately, the names of these painters are not well-known among Americans. German nineteenth-century painting in general has never won much of an audience in the English-speaking world. Those Americans familiar with the Hudson River School and with the great monumental landscape painting of the American nineteenth century will appreciate readily the magnificent creations of the German nineteenth- century tradition of painting. There was a group of painters loosely called “The German Romans.” Among the best-known are Arnold Böcklin and Anselm Feuerbach. Both these painters are indirectly represented in this concert by the works of Brahms and Reger. Music lovers and concert-goers, however, will recognize immediately one of the last incarnations of the nineteenth-century German fascination with Italy in Richard Strauss’s tone poem Aus Italien. The suite by Joachim Raff from 1871 on this program, although less well-known, is a wonderful earlier example of that tradition of music inspired by the Italian landscape. It is therefore more than an accident that that quintessential figure of nineteenth-century German culture, Richard Wagner, died in Venice, where he had chosen to live.

What began in the eighteenth century as a celebration of the universal ideals of beauty, which recognized no national differences, ended in the late nineteenth century as a distortion of universal national self-aggrandizement. The self-proclaimed superiority of modern nineteenth-century German culture seemed to be vindicated by the idea that it had successfully integrated the surviving remnants of the classical past into itself through the movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. The absorption of the Italian strengthened and deepened the German self-definition of its own culture. From the perspective of the late twentieth century, the music and the art represented by the Reinhart collection at the Metropolitan Museum and the works on this ASO program bear testimony to the authentic inspiration generated by the strange and complex symbiosis between North and South evident in the German relationship to Italy during the nineteenth century.