Archive for May 29th, 2014

Cry Freedom: The Age of Romanticism

In the 1800s the face of art changed forever. Jeremy Beadle explains how romantic music swept aside the old order.

Romanticism began as a reaction against the prevailing intellectual climate of the time. The eighteenth century was the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, marked by a profound belief in human reason. It was an age of order, restraint and formality, signalled by the architecture of Palladio, the poetry of Alexander Pope, the music of Haydn and CPE Bach. Enlightenment thinkers believed nothing to be beyond the scope of man and were deeply scornful of anything which smacked of ‘superstition’, especially folk tales and legends involving the outlandish and supernatural; the visible natural world, too, was seen as something to be tamed, so it was a boom time for landscape gardeners. The composers of the eighteenth century accordingly adopted precise, defined structures like the symphony. This was an age where ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘passion’ were almost dirty words.

A very civilised storm
The first reaction against all this was the primarily literary movement of ‘Sturm und Drang’ (‘Storm and Stress’), named after a 1777 play by the German writer Klinger. This movement believed in the representation of emotional extremes, but its musical manifestation, in minor-key symphonies by Haydn and CPE Bach, remained civilised and restrained; there’s no sense that these are composers pouring their hearts out.

At the end of the eighteenth century the Enlightenment began to crumble. Younger writers began to take an interest in the folk tradition so despised by the establishment. English writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to return to simple ballad forms, and drew inspiration from the natural world in its wilder form. The most influential of romantic writers, Goethe, wrote novels and poems which put the artist at the centre, often depicting him as a lonely figure struggling against a hostile world finding solace in the splendours, however harsh, of nature. Supernatural tales came back into fashion; there was a craze for outlandish and sensational Gothic novels. Romantic paintings, like those of Caspar David Friedrich, depicted solitary figures in mysterious landscapes.

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