A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Romantic
ROMANTIC is a term which, with its antithesis Classical, has been borrowed by music from literature. But so delicate and incorporeal are the qualities of composition which both words describe in their application to music, and so arbitrary has been their use by different writers, that neither word is susceptible of very precise definition. The best guide, however, to the meaning of 'romantic' is supplied by its etymology. The poetic tales of the middle ages, written in the old Romance dialects, were called Romances. In them mythological fables and Christian legends, stories of fairyland, and adventures of Crusaders and other heroes of chivalry, were indiscriminately blended, and the fantastic figures thus brought together moved in a dim atmosphere of mystic gloom and religious ecstasy. These mediæval productions had long been neglected and forgotten even by scholars, when, about the close of the last century, they were again brought into notice by a group of poets, of whom the most notable were the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and Friedrich Novalis. They set themselves to rescue the old romances from oblivion, and to revive the spirit of mediæval poetry in modern literature by the example of their own works. Hence they came to be called the Romantic School, and were thus distinguished from writers whose fidelity to rules and models of classic antiquity gave them a claim to the title of Classical.
It was not long before the term Romantic was introduced into musical literature; and it was understood to characterise both the subjects of certain musical works and the spirit in which they were treated. Its antithetical significance to the term Classical still clung to it; and regard to perfection of form being often subordinated by so-called romantic composers to the object of giving free play to the imaginative and emotional parts of our nature, there grew up around the epithet Romantic the notion of a tendency to depart more or less from the severity of purely classical compositions. But, in truth, no clear line divides the romantic from the classical. As we shall endeavour to show, the greatest names of the Classical school display the quality of romanticism in the spirit or expression of some of their works, while, on the other hand, the compositions of the Romantic school are frequently marked by scrupulous adherence to the forms of traditional excellence. Again, as the associations of the word Classical convey the highest meed of praise, works at first pronounced to be romantic establish, by general recognition of their merit, a claim to be considered classical. What is 'romantic' to-day may thus grow, although itself unchanged, to be 'classical' tomorrow. The reader will thus understand why, in Reichardt's opinion, Bach, Handel and Gluck were classical, but Haydn and Mozart romantic; why later critics, in presence of the fuller romanticism of Beethoven, placed Haydn and Mozart among the classical composers; and why Beethoven himself, in his turn, was declared to be classical.
The propriety of applying the term Romantic to operas whose subjects are taken from romantic literature, or to songs where music is set to romantic words, will not be questioned. And from such works it is easy to select passages which present romantic pictures to the mind, as, for instance, the Trumpet passage on the long B♭ in the bass in the great Leonore overture, or the three Horn notes in the overture to 'Oberon,' or the three Drum notes in the overture to 'Der Freischütz.' But in pure instrumental music the marks of romanticism are so fine, and the recognition of them depends so much on sympathy and mental predisposition, that the question whether this or that work is romantic may be a subject of interminable dispute among critics. Sometimes the only mark of romanticism would seem to be a subtle effect of instrumentation, or a sudden change of key, as in the following passage from the Leonore Overture:—
Another example from Beethoven is supplied by the opening bars of the PF. Concerto in G major, where after the solo has ended on the dominant the orchestra enters pp with the chord of B major, thus—
The whole of the Slow Movement of this Concerto is thoroughly romantic, but perhaps that quality is most powerfully felt in the following passage:—
Yet so subtle is the spell of its presence here that it would be difficult to define where its intense romanticism lies, unless it be in the abrupt change both in key (A minor to F major), and in the character of the phrase, almost forcing a scene, or recollection, or image, upon the hearer. Indeed, to romantic music belongs in the highest degree the power of evoking in the mind some vivid thought or conception—as for instance, in this passage from the Adagio of the 9th Symphony:—
where the transition into D♭ seems to say, 'Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas'; and again in the Eroica, where at the end of the Trio, the long holding notes and peculiar harmony in the horns seem to suggest the idea of Eternity:—
[App. p.733 "the last three dotted minims should not be tied."]
Many more illustrations might be taken from Beethoven's works, and never has the romantic spirit produced more splendid results than in his five last Sonatas and in his Symphony No. 7. But with regard to our choice of examples we must remind the reader that, where the standpoint of criticism is almost wholly subjective, great diversities of judgment are inevitable.
It was not until after the appearance of the works of Carl Maria von Weber, who lived in close relation with the romantic school of literature, and who drew his inspirations from their writings, that critics began to speak of a 'romantic school of music.' Beethoven had by this time been accepted as classical, but in addition to Weber himself, Schubert, and afterwards Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin were all held to be representatives of the romantic school. Widely as the composers of this new school differed in other respects, they were alike in their susceptibility to the tone of thought and feeling which so deeply coloured the romantic literature of their time. None of them were strangers to that weariness, approaching to disgust, of the actual world around them, and those yearnings to escape from it, which pursued so many of the finest minds of the generations to which they belonged. To men thus predisposed, it was a relief and delight to live in an ideal world as remote as possible from the real one. Some took refuge in mediæval legends, where no border divided the natural from the supernatural, where the transition from the one to the other was as delicate and yet as real as that in the passage quoted from Beethoven's Overture, and where nothing could be incongruous or improbable; some in the charms and solitudes of nature; and others in the contemplation of peace and beatitude beyond the grave. But in all there was the same impatience of the material and mundane conditions of their existence, the same longing to dwell in the midst of scenes and images which mortals could but dimly see through the glass of religious or poetic imagination. As might have been expected of works produced under such influences, indistinctness of outline was a common attribute of compositions of the romantic school. The hard, clear lines of reality were seldom met with in them, and the cold analysis of pure reason was perpetually eluded. It was equally natural that the creations of minds withdrawn from contact with the actual world and wrapt in the folds of their own fancies, should vividly reflect the moods and phases of feeling out of which they sprang—that they should be, in short, intensely subjective. Nor was it surprising that when impatience of reality, indistinctness of outline, and excessive subjectivity co-existed, the pleasures of imagination sometimes took a morbid hue. Such conditions of origin as we have been describing could not fail to affect the forms of composition. It was not that the romanticists deliberately rejected or even undervalued classic models, but that, borne onward by the impulse to give free expression to their own individuality, they did not suffer themselves to be bound by forms, however excellent, which they felt to be inadequate for their purpose. Had the leaders of the romantic school been men of less genius, this tendency might have degenerated into disregard of form; but happily in them liberty did not beget license, and the art of music was enriched by the addition of new forms. 'The extremes,' says Goethe, speaking of the romantic school of literature, 'will disappear, and at length the great advantage will remain that a wider and more varied subject-matter, together with a freer form, will be attained.' Goethe's anticipations were equally applicable to music.
Among masters of the romantic school, Weber stands second to none. In youth he surrendered himself to the fascination of literary romanticism, and this early bias of his mind was confirmed in later years by constant intercourse at Dresden with Holtei, Tieck, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and other men of the same cast of thought. How exclusively the subjects of Weber's operas were selected from romantic literature, and how the 'Romantic Opera,' of which Germany has so much reason to be proud, owed to him its origin and highest development, although the names of Spohr, Marschner, Lindpaintner, and others are justly associated with it, are points on which we need not linger, as they are fully discussed in the article on Opera. Neither is it necessary to repeat what has been said in the article on Orchestration of the romantic effects which Weber could produce in his instrumentation. Never, even in the least of his pianoforte works, did he cease to be romantic.
Though Weber holds the first place in the opera of the romantic school, he was excelled in other branches of composition by his contemporary, Franz Schubert. Pure and classic as was the form of Schubert's symphonies and sonatas, the very essence of romanticism is disclosed in them by sudden transitions from one key to another (as in the first movement of the A minor Sonata, op. 143), and by the unexpected modulations in his exquisite harmony. That wealth of melody, in which he is perhaps without a rival, was the gift of romanticism. It gave him also a certain indefiniteness and, as it were, indivisibility of ideas, which some critics have judged to be a failing, but which were in fact the secret of his strength, because they enabled him to repeat and develope, to change and then again resume his beautiful motifs in long and rich progression, without pause and without satiety. None have known, as he knew, how to elicit almost human sounds from a single instrument—as for instance, in the well-known passage for the horn in the second movement of the C major Symphony, of which Schumann said that 'it seems to have come to us from another world.' Many glorious passages might be pointed out in this Symphony, the romanticism of which it would be difficult to surpass; for instance, the second subject in the first movement, the beginning of the working out in the Finale, etc. etc. And the complete success with which he produced entirely novel effects from the whole orchestra is the more astonishing when we remember that few of his orchestral works were ever performed in his lifetime. In 'Song' Schubert stands alone, while Schumann and Robert Franz come nearest to him. Even from boyhood he had steeped his soul in romantic poetry; and so expressive was the music of his songs that they required no words to reveal their deeply romantic character. Few were the thoughts or feelings which Schubert's genius was unable to express in music. 'He was' (to quote Schumann again) 'the deadly enemy of all Philistinism, and after Beethoven the greatest master who made music his vocation in the noblest sense of the word.'
Schumann's own enmity to Philistinism was not less deadly than that of Schubert, and romanticism was its root in both men. So strongly did Schumann resent the popularity of Herz, ]]../Hünten, Franz|Hünten]], and other Philistines, whose works were in vogue about the year 1830, that he founded the 'Davidsbund' to expose the hollowness of their pretensions. And equally dissatisfied with the shallow and contracted views of the musical critics of that day, he started his 'Neue Zeitschrift für Musik' to vindicate the claims of music to freedom from every limitation, except the laws of reason and of beauty. Even in childhood Schumann was an eager reader of romantic literature, and the writings of Hoffmann and Jean Paul never lost their charm for him. He told a correspondent that if she would rightly understand his 'Papillons,' op. 2, she must read the last chapter of Jean Paul's 'Flegeljahre'; and from Hoffmann he borrowed the title of 'Kreisleriana.' It was not however the imaginary sufferings of Dr. Kreissler, but the real deep sorrows of Schumann's own soul which expressed themselves in these noble fantasias. Though perfect in form, they are thoroughly romantic in thought and spirit. Not less romantic were the names he gave to his pianoforte pieces. These names, he said, were scarcely necessary—'for is not music self-sufficing? does it not speak for itself?'—but he admitted that they were faithful indexes to the character of the pieces. The clearest tokens of the same source of inspiration may be found in his Fantasie, op. 17, which bears as its motto a verse from Schlegel. In the last part a deeply moving effect is produced by the abrupt change of key in the arpeggios from the chords of C to A and then to F. But changes of key were not his only resource for the production of romantic effects. Excepting Beethoven, none have illustrated the power of rhythm so well as Schumann. He often imparts a strange and entirely novel significance to commonplace or familiar phrases by syncopated notes, by putting the emphasis on the weak part of the bar, or by accents so marked as to give the impression of a simultaneous combination of triple and common time. These strong and eccentric rhythms appear in all his works; and the frequent directions Marcato assai or Molto marcato show what stress he laid upon emphasis. The influence of Jean Paul may be traced also in Schumann's sometimes grave and sometimes playful humour. Many of his pianoforte pieces are marked mit Humor or mit vielem Humor. And in this respect he is inferior only to Beethoven, of whose 'romantic humour' he so often speaks in his 'Gesammelte Schriften.' The romantic bias of Schumann's mind was not less evident in his treatment of Oriental subjects. The colouring of his 'Paradise and the Peri,' and of his 'Oriental Pictures' (Bilder aus Osten), is vividly local. And of his songs we may cite the 'Waldesgespräch' (Op. 39, No. 3) as an example of the purest essence of romance. Full as the poem is in itself of romantic feeling and expression, the music interprets the words, rather than the words interpret the music.
The romantic spirit found a less congenial abode in the happy, equable disposition, and carefully disciplined imagination of Mendelssohn; but his genius was too sensitive and delicate to remain unaffected by the main currents of his age. Take, for example, the first four chords in the overture to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' And could it indeed be possible to illustrate Shakespeare's romantic play in music with fuller success than Mendelssohn has done? The overtures 'The Hebrides,' 'The Lovely Melusine,' and 'Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,' are likewise full of the brightest qualities of romanticism.
Not unlike Mendelssohn was William Sterndale Bennett; and the points of resemblance between them were strict regard to form, clearness of poetic thought, and cultivated refinement of taste. Romantic too Bennett certainly was; as may at once be seen in his overtures, 'The Naiads' and 'The Wood Nymphs.' So tranquil, clear and perfect in detail are most of Bennett's compositions, so delicate was the touch which fashioned them, that they have been likened to the landscapes of Claude Lorraine: and in illustration of what is meant, we may mention his 'Three Musical Sketches,' op. 10 ('The Lake, the Millstream and the Fountain'). Yet there were rare moments when Bennett's habitual reserve relaxed, and the veil was lifted from his inner nature. To the inspiration of such moments we may ascribe parts of his G minor Symphony, and above all his beautiful 'Paradise and the Peri' overture. His 'Parisina' overture betrays the latent fire which burned beneath a wontedly calm surface, and many romantic passages might be pointed out in it. One such is to be found at the beginning of the working out, where the theme, which before was in F♯ minor and the very soul of melancholy—
is now given in A major, the C♯ of the cadence seeming for the moment to brighten it as with the inspiration of hope—
Notice of the modern German composers on whom the stamp of Schumann is so unmistakeable, would lead us too far. Wagner we pass by, because he can hardly be counted among the followers of the romantic school, and we could not, within the limits of this article, show the points wherein he differs from former romanticists; but mention is made under Orchestration of some of the beautiful and truly romantic effects which he knows how to produce in his instrumentation. [See also Opera and Wagner.] We may however designate one of the greatest living composers as one of the greatest living romanticists; and it is no disparagement to the individuality of Johannes Brahms to say that he is in many respects the disciple of Schubert and Schumann. The romanticism of such productions as the beautiful romances from Tieck's 'Magelone' (op. 33) or the cantata 'Rinaldo' (op. 50) is of course visible at a glance, but Brahms's romanticism generally lies too deep to be discovered without attentive and sympathetic study. As a rule, he is more concerned to satisfy the judgment than kindle the imagination, more anxious to move the heart than please the ear. Close observation will often find an adequate reason and justification for seeming harshnesses in Brahms's works, and reflective familiarity with them will, in the same way, surely discover the genuine romantic spirit in passages where its presence would wholly escape the unpractised eye and ear.
Chopin holds a solitary position in romantic art. No school can claim him wholly for its own, and the best poetic gifts of the French, German, and Sclavonic nationalities were united in him. Chopin, says Liszt, refused to be bound by deference to rules which fettered the play of his imagination, simply because they had been accepted as classical. But the classic training and solid studies of his youth, combined with his exquisite taste and innate refinement, preserved him from abuse of the liberty which he was determined to enjoy. The mental atmosphere of his life in Paris may be felt in his works. In hatred of whatever was commonplace and ordinary, he was one with the French romantic school; but unlike them he would allow nothing, whose only merit was originality, to stand in his compositions. Beauty there must always be to satisfy him; and he would have recoiled from the crudities and barbarisms which disfigure some works of the French romantic period. So uniformly romantic was Chopin in every stage of his career, that it would be impossible to illustrate this quality of his music by extracts.
The French romantic school of literature was of later date than the German, and was considerably affected by it. The general features of the two schools were very similar, but the French authors wrote even more than the German in the mediæval and mystic vein, and were more prone to unhealthy exaggeration. In France, moreover, the antagonism between the romantic and classical schools was carried to a pitch which had no parallel in Germany. The completeness and universality of the empire which classic example and tradition had gained over the educated public of France, intensified the revolt against them, when at last it arrived. The revolt was as widespread as it was uncompromising: there was not a field of art or literature in which the rebel flag of the new school was not unfurled, and a revolutionary temper, inflamed perhaps by the political storms of that time, was manifest in all that they did. In the false simplicity and sickly sentimentality, in the stilted diction and threadbare forms of expression affected by the reigning school, the insurgent authors had indeed much to provoke them. But in the vehemence of their reaction against such faults they were apt to fall into an opposite extreme; and thus, finish of form, clearness of outline, and coherent sequence of thought are too often absent from their works.
With respect to music, Berlioz is the typical name of the renaissance of 1830; but Liszt, on whom the French school exercised so strong an influence, may be associated with him. So far were these composers and their countless followers borne by the revolutionary impulse, that they did not shrink at times from a total rejection of the old traditional forms in their instrumental music; but it cannot be said that very valuable results were obtained by their hardihood. They chose indeed romantic subjects for musical representation, as Weber and Schumann had done, but there the resemblance ceased. They aimed not, as the earlier masters did, to reproduce the feelings stirred in them by external objects, but rather to present the objects themselves to the minds of an audience; and an undoubted loss of romantic effect was the consequence of their innovation. But while we cannot acquit the younger romanticists of the charge of an excessive realism, which too readily sacrificed artistic beauty to originality and vivid representation, nor deny the frequent obscurity and incoherence of their compositions, we are unable to acquiesce in the imputation so often fastened upon them that their romanticism was merely the veil of ignorance, and that they violated rules because they knew no better. As a matter of fact, even those among them who pushed extravagance to the farthest point were thorough masters of the strictest rules and severest forms of musical composition.To sum up, in conclusion, our obligations to the romantic school, we must acknowledge that they saved music from the danger with which it was at one time threatened of being treated as an exact but dry and cold science; that they gave it a freer and more elastic form; that they developed the capabilities and technique of various instruments; that being themselves always filled with a deep reverence for their own art they rescued from unmerited neglect some of the finest works of earlier composers; and that by their own genius and labour they have added many a noble masterpiece to the treasures of music.
[ A. H. W. ]
- Spohr's claim to priority of invention of the Romantic opera is discussed in Opera, vol. ii. p.530b.
- In describing to Reichardt's daughter the success of her father's 'Morgengesang' at the Rhine Festival, Mendelssohn adds: 'at the words Und schich in dieser Nacht the music becomes so romantic and poetical that erery time I hear it, I am more touched and charmed.'
- For the foregoing article the following works have been consulted:—Schumann, 'Gesammelte Schriften'; Liszt, 'Chopin'; Hostinsky, 'Die Lehre der formalen Aesthetik'; Küster, 'Populäre Vorträge'; La Mara, 'Musikalische Studien-köpfe; Wasielewski, 'Schumann'; Weber, Max v., 'C. M. v. Weber'; Hoffmann, 'Kreisleriana'; Gautier, 'Histoire du Romantisme'; N. Zeitschrift f. Musik, 1834–1839; Riehl, 'Charakterköpfe'; Brockhaus, 'Conversationslexicon'; Eckermann, 'Gespräche mit Goethe'; Mendel, 'Lexicon'; Brendel, 'Geschichte der Musik'; Marx, 'Musik des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts'; Köstlin, 'Geschichte der Musik'; Weitzmann, 'Geschichte des Clavierspiels', Reissmann, 'Von Bach bis Wagner'; Letters from Dr. Zopff and Dr. Ludwig.