Romantic Essentials

1. Subjectivity
Romantic artists made a virtue out of subjectivity and their own emotional response to situations. Goethe’s ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ set the trend: soon, English poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron followed.

Musical romanticism is full of subjectivity. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique tells about the composer’s love-life; Schumann’s Carnaval is about himself and his friends; Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica are all about Strauss. Even less subjective composers, like Brahms, injected personal references into their music.

2. Nationalism and homeland
Romanticism always had a political edge; one of the consequences of Rousseau’s philosophy was the French Revolution.

Both Chopin and Liszt used their music to proclaim national origins (Polish and Hungarian), and the rural-loving side of romanticism was an ideal vehicle for Dvorak and Grieg to import the rhythms of Bohemia and Norway into their music. Russian composers like Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky also – to varying degrees – introduced ‘national’ elements. Germanic composers showed a love of homeland too; Mahler was deeply inspired in his early songs and symphonies by Austrian folk music.

3. Wanderers and supermen
In the earliest romantic writing and paintings, the artist figure is a lonely wanderer, outcast, struggling against Fate.

Wanderers are central to Wagner, particularly Siegfried, where even Wotan, the chief god, becomes a ‘Wanderer’. Schubert’s lieder are crammed with wanderers; Brahms’s choral music also has its fair share (as in the Alto Rhapsody). Later the artist wanderers become supermen; this is the progress depicted in Richard Strauss’s tone poem based on Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

4. Nature
Rousseau, the great prophet of romanticism, first proclaimed a kind of pantheist, anti-urban love for nature in the eighteenth century; this found its outlet in all romantic literature.

Music describing nature predates romanticism, but romantic music describes the rural world filtered through human psychology. Schubert’s Winterreise shows a landscape through a lovelorn mind near to madness; the ‘Forest Murmurs’ in Wagner’s Siegfried are also a rural reflection of the hero’s psychological state. Slightly less melancholy are Mendelssohn’s descriptions of Scotland and Italy and his Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4.

5. All-embracing and redemptive love
As a supreme emotional experience, love assumes prime importance in romantic art; Goethe’s poetry is full of love anguish, often embodied in a hostile landscape.

Schubert set many of Goethe’s love poems, but, influenced by romantic philosopher Schopenhauer, Wagner developed a theory of love as a force mightier than life which informs his operas, especially Tristan und Isolde and the ‘Ring Cycle’, in which only pure love can redeem the world and destroy the malevolent curse of the ring of power.

6. Paranormal and magic
Romantic writers enthusiastically embraced folk tales and legends, with all their supernatural elements, and there was a great craze for Gothic novels like Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Grotesque Gothicry can be found everywhere in romantic music, from Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath in Symphonie fantastique through Liszt’s ‘Totentanz’ and ‘Mephisto Waltz’, Schubert lieder like ‘The Erl-King’ and Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, to macabre late romantic pieces like Mahler’s ‘Das Klagende Lied’ (with its ghostly piping) and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

7. Death
Far from being an end, death is a mysterious, half attractive ‘other kingdom’ to romantics – as in Keats’s ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’.

Death often walks hand in hand with love in romantic music; the wandering figure in Winterreise sees a graveyard as a hotel; in Wagner love and death are often synonymous; Mahler’s Symphonies often involve funeral marches, usually burying the ‘hero’ (the composer); Richard Strauss came up with Death and Transfiguration, perhaps the ultimate romantic glorification of mortality.

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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