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.

The pivotal figures between musical classicism and romanticism are Beethoven and Schubert. Although both retained an adherence to classical forms like the symphony and the sonata, both also sought new, personal modes of expression and both were highly influenced by romantic writers like Goethe and Schiller. Beethoven turned the symphony into a grand, personal statement about the artist-hero, and in doing so lengthened the form and made it the ultimate artistic test for later composers. Schubert found a perfect vehicle for personal expression in the miniature form of the ‘lied’, a song in which a gift for melody and a talent for compact drama were united by literary influences – especially Goethe’s. Schubert’s lieder are full of wandering figures, wild landscapes and strange psychology.

Sex and drugs and…
Literature was hugely important to most romantic composers; indeed, there were those who believed that music should be literary and tell a story.

The first full-blooded romantic work along these lines was Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a musical description of Berlioz’s own trials and tribulations in love. To bring his wild, drug-induced story to life, Berlioz looked for new orchestral textures. Brass and wind instruments were given exciting, colourful roles to play.

Other composers weren’t slow to follow. Liszt produced orchestration for his piano concertos which would have been considered vulgar in the eighteenth century. Liszt created an image of the composer and musician as flamboyant genius which has persisted to this day; composers are seen as remarkable, larger-than-life figures with colourful lives like Chopin (who, love life notwithstanding, was reserved and sarcastic), Tchaikovsky, Schumann or Wagner.

Liszt came to be regarded as the head of a ‘New German School’ of music, in which form was always subservient to content. He was fascinated by literature, and his orchestral pieces were usually programmatic; as a result he evolved the symphonic tone poem, a form picked up with enthusiasm by Richard Strauss (who created stories about his favourite subject, Richard Strauss) and Sibelius. When Liszt used traditional forms like the sonata, he bent them to his will. Liszt had an enormous influence on Wagner, who reshaped opera, exploiting technical advances in instrument-making to create harmonies which were intensely chromatic (which, in contrast to the firmer harmonies used hitherto, sound sliding and wandering – just the sort of effect the romantics wanted).

Halfway houses
But not all romantic composers turned their back on tried-and-tested forms. Chopin and Schumann took a ‘halfway’ approach, sticking with conventional sonata and concerto and, in Schumann’s case, symphonic form; they invented smaller forms for personal expression. Schumann produced autobiographical albums of solo piano miniatures, as well as taking up the lied where Schubert had left off. Chopin devised a ‘literary’ piano form, the ballade, and promoted the folk rhythms of his native Poland in polonaises and mazurkas, setting an important trend – musical expression of nationalism – which came to full fruition with Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Sibelius. This appreciation of ‘national’ culture was directly related to the romantic love of rural folk traditions.

Some romantics were happier sticking with the old forms. If Liszt and Wagner were the heads of the ‘new school’, those who didn’t like what they were doing found a figure head in Brahms. In fact, although Brahms abhorred the idea of programme music and believed in symphonies, concertos and sonatas, he wasn’t averse to changing the forms to suit himself – his Second Piano Concerto unusually has four movements, his Third Piano Sonata has four – and his idea of the symphony was developed from Beethoven’s; Brahms’s symphonies, in which all four movements are unified by motivic figures (that is, they all share the same basic ‘tune’), would have seemed very strange to Haydn.

While romanticism was supposedly killed off by modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, its intellectual legacy is still dominant as we approach the twenty-first. Our very idea of music and composers, our belief in masterpieces, in the effort of creation, and that music should be ‘about’ something – all these derive from romanticism.

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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