Posts Tagged ‘Romanticism’

I’ve devoted a fair amount of post space to Wagner lately, despite the fact that he’s now 200 pages behind us in the text. I’ll dislodge my obsession shortly (Wagner skeptics, cheer up!), but before doing so, I wanted to pose a couple questions relating to Wagner’s impact.

The sheer force of Wagner’s music, along with its philosophical back-story, gave the Germanic tradition another big feather in its cap (as if the cap wasn’t be-feathered enough before Wagner came onto the scene). Indeed, the scales had been tilting heavily in Germany’s favor for quite a while before the magician of Bayreuth, at least among critics, music historians, and composers who happened to be German. But Wagner broke the scale (the weight of the Ring cycle had to break something). Not only were Germans the undisputed champions of “absolute” instrumental music; now they had wrestled control of opera from the Italians, and, as Tony Montana would say, the world was theirs. Even Verdi was “spooked.”

This historicist phenomenon – the privileging of musical Germanness – is captured in RT’s mouthful of a coinage, “pan-germanoromantocentrism.” Like Wagner’s music, the primacy of the Germanic tradition was a contentious, tangled, and deeply complex issue as is spread around the Western world. Many non-Germans embraced this aesthetic model openly (the Boston School and the Société Nationale de Musique, for instance [III, 769-778]); others defined themselves by how un-German they were (Debussy perhaps, but that’s an oversimplification), a negative self-identification which only confirms the hegemonic power of pan-germanoromantocentrism. Indeed, in the 19th Century, Deutschland über alles.

But why exactly? There are many ways to answer this question (which I hope readers will help me out with): German music gave primacy to instruments, which made it more romantically transcendent; it had a high degree of technical complexity, long fetishized as a yardstick for musical value; it tended to deal with more “tragic” themes (RT characterizes Wagner’s idiom as “tragic” and Verdi’s as “tragicomic”). There are gobs more. But the three explanations outlined here, as tentative and incomplete as they are, point to something else: German music gained its power and prestige from its “seriousness.”

At the root of pan-germanoromantocentrism is the idea that German music is fundamentally more serious than other models. It deals largely in instruments, vehicles of “pure Will” (Wagner is no exception), and not the shallow, quotidian stuff of language. It traffics in heavy philosophy. It’s encoded with all sorts of technical complexities that take gnomic study to suss out. It’s intellectual and masculine (thus the characterization of its musical others as sentimental and feminized).

Everybody wants to be taken seriously. Indeed, the charge of “unseriousness” can be damning and tricky to disavow; as RT points out, France’s late-century National Music Society was shaped by an “inferiority complex” in an attempt to challenge the (German) stereotype of French music as merely “culinary” (776). The values of “seriousness” and “lofty artistic aspiration” were explicitly written into the group’s manifesto.

The question of pan-germanoromantocentrism is thus not limited to musical aesthetics, but reaches deep into social history. When Verdi toyed with Tristanisms in his late operas, he was clearly intrigued by the harmonic doors this musical language opened; his engagement with Wagner was thus justified by art. However, it could be as well that this “purely musical” choice was conjoined by social factors, namely the desire to appear “serious.” This is speculation, to be sure. I do wonder, however, about the relationship between the “purely musical” and other powerful social dynamics (“seriousness,” intellectualism, masculinity, power, etc) in the spread of Germanic musical thinking. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. (Anyone looking for a dissertation idea out there?) Like most questions of historical influence, this one is just as much about social power, distinction, and prestige as it is about the music itself.


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In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.   – John Muir

In the Romantic conception of the natural world, as John Muir so lucidly illustrates, communing with nature was not simply a matter of delighting in its newly aestheticized beauty. Rather, it was a portal into sublime, transcendent realms, as well as a mirror turned to the Self. Muir wrote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” For composers of the era (particularly German ones), deeply concerned with the question of the “Universe,” the question thus became one of mimesis, of how to conjure the spiritual awe of the wilderness on its own terms while also representing what we “receive” by interacting with it. The question of nature was never purely about the abstract contemplation of transcendent, boundless properties, what Kant might describe as the mathematical sublime; it was also about how we, as humans, fit into the grand cosmic scheme. Exterior nature was simply interior nature writ large.

A profound ambiguity characterized much of the Romantic perspective of nature. It existed outside of civilization, which, in the wake of rapid industrialization, was becoming increasingly noisy, foul, and dirty. Beyond the “dark satanic mills” of Blake, nature was symbolized as a pure, idyllic reality that we had given up in our Faustian pursuit of “progress.” On the other hand, progress wasn’t such a bad thing after all, and, as Peter Coates points out, many people during the early to mid-nineteenth century saw wilderness as just so much unproductive space hampering human growth. These dueling conceptions of the natural world played out in popular notions of what nature sounded like as well, a matter of importance to composers attempting to conjure nature through music. According to Coates, the wilderness was perceived as both “silent and howling:”[1] silent in its noble, profound separation from the noisy affairs of mankind; howling in the dangerous chaos it embodied. Both of these poles found utterance in the music of this period. In addition to describing the contradictory qualities of nature, moreover, writers, composers and artists saw this conflict as endemic to the human soul. We are all, indeed, “silent and howling” inside.

Schumann’s Waldszenen, a cycle of nine pieces for piano, perfectly captures a variety of perspectives associated with the Romantic representation of nature as both an external and an internal state (click here to download the score; audio files are embedded in the post). On the most basic level, the cycle incorporates much of the traditional Germanic musical symbolism of nature; in “Jäger auf der Lauer” and “Jagdlied,” for instance, evocations of the hunting horn (waldhorn) are peppered throughout. (For a representative example, see the former, mm. 13-14, with its brash major triads.) In addition, in the echt Romantic “Vogel als Prophet,” Schumann represents the twittering of a forest bird with fleet, upper register flourishes. (Such mimesis is, of course, a standard musical trope going back hundreds of years in the Western musical tradition.) But the composer does not stop at the obvious in his pursuit of vivid evocation. In Waldszenen, a new aesthetic awareness of nature becomes apparent in the composer’s idiosyncratic treatment of form and periodicity. Many of the pieces in the cycle are marked with seemingly odd structural quirks that, if not found within the context of a Romantic piano cycle on nature, might be difficult to explain. Indeed, as Charles Rosen indicates, some of the early Romantics believed that chaos played a major role in creativity and, as previously mentioned, nature was closely linked to chaos.[2] To conjure this sense of unpredictability, Schumann employed asymmetrical forms that successfully eschew expectations and regularity. I will return to some examples shortly.

This formal conception is also closely related to the Romantic “fragment” idea, which is similarly elucidated by Rosen. As the author points out, Schumann was a master of this particular aesthetic. Although fragments took a diverse variety of specific forms, we can identify a few elements that played a major role in many of Schumann’s lieder. In some of his music, Schumann shows us images of a process much larger than what is actually represented in the score, an effect often carried out by abbreviating beginnings and endings to make the listener feel as if he has stumbled into the musical action in medias res. Other common techniques of the fragment aesthetic include quotation and the embedding of unrelated musical materials. As I shall attempt to demonstrate, in addition to his lieder repertory, these techniques are found in Waldszenen. The aesthetic of the fragment, in fact, is ideally suited to Romantic musical constructions of the forest. Poets and composers of the day embraced this form due to its perceived “naturalness,” and a clear corollary existed between exterior nature (as exemplified by the forest) and interior nature.

Indeed, the fragment is clearly representative of Romantic notions of subjective experience. Waldszenen isn’t a musical portrait of nature composed from the perspective of a detached, depersonalized subject; rather, it’s the representation of nature seen through the eyes of a human narrator. The piece unfolds as a sort of musical interior monologue of a person’s journey into and out of the woods. Furthermore, memory is actively engaged through near-constant evocations of earlier material. Although he rarely quotes himself directly, the score is strewn with references to what we’ve already heard; as if commenting on the fallibility of memory, we are continually presented with vaguely familiar yet tantalizingly distant snippets of music – a chord here, a melodic fragment there, a rhythm that you think you recall but can’t quite place.[3] Waldszenen casts a thick fog over our perception of passing time.

Preliminaries out of the way, I will proceed now to a more detailed reading of the attributes introduced above, focusing on three scenes, “Eintritt,” “Vogel als Prophet,” and “Abschied.” The first piece of the cycle, “Eintritt” (Entrance), begins without a real beginning. Instead, the listener is plopped down right in the middle of a light accompanimental figure; the journey, it seems, has already begun before the first note even sounds. This cheerful material lasts for two measures, wherein we’re given only the bass and harmonic accompaniment pattern. In m. 3, the melody enters, but like the beginning of the piece, it catches the listener unawares. Without any preparation, the melody comes in right during the middle of the harmonic progression, on the dominant preparation of IV-V7; just as we’re introduced to this simple theme, therefore, we hit the first cadence of the piece – we arrive before we’ve gotten anywhere. The opening passage is structured in a symmetrical 8-bars, but the musical events don’t play out in a way that is intuitive. When we reach the end of the phrase (on a tonicized V), our closure is aborted by the return of the accompanimental figure from the first measure. Again, without preparation, we are thrust back into the original key, and earlier than expected, creating a stutter in the form. Instead of the introductory four statements of the figure, the first ending anticipates the repeat to produce five, and we’re back where we started.


This 8-bar opening sounds misaligned, like the printer accidentally slid the plates into the wrong position: both the harmonic accompaniment and the melody are straightforward, but they don’t seem to match up. When we return to the beginning after the repeat, the nakedness of the opening two measures is all the more striking. Indeed, it sounds like an accompaniment with a missing melody. The melodic entrance in m. 3, then, is recast as simply the continuation of a melodic line that was mysteriously deleted from the first two measures. When the melody enters, its childishness and naiveté suggest our wanderer distractedly humming a simple tune as she enters the forest. She may have forgotten the first part of the melody, but she can jump in at the next phrase that comes to mind.

All of this is consonant with Rosen’s thoughts on the fragment aesthetic. We are not simply getting a musical glimpse of the forest; nature, in her harmonically ambiguous wonder, doesn’t appear until m. 9. Rather, this opening is a portrayal of a person’s interaction with nature. The fragmentary musical narrative is just as much about people as it is about nature, a point that is illustrated by Schumann’s vivid musical commentary on subjective memory. Throughout the cycle, material is scrambled to produce a hazy collage of impressions. Does our fair forest wanderer ever remember the beginning of the tune? Five pieces later, she does. “Herberge” opens with a melody that fills in this missing space in memory.


The next piece, “Vogel als Prophet,” demonstrates that it’s not just human consciousness that is prone to asymmetry and formal slippage. Schumann’s intimations of birdsong, while stopping short of Messiaen in ornithological accuracy, conjure the darting, unpredictable quality of birds with quicksilver rhythms, high registration, wide leaps, and a juicy semitone relationship between the first and second notes of each phrase. (This last point links Schumann’s birdsong to musical exoticism and the semiotic connection between nature and the “Orient.”) Like “Eintritt,” this piece plays with simple, symmetrical formal structures in a way that’s perfectly in line with the fragment idea, and with representations of nature as unbound from human control. The opening 16 measures of the “bird” passage (before the “prophet” starts talking in m. 19) unfolds in the perfectly symmetrical pattern of 4 + 4 + 8, complete with cadence points where one might expect them. However, as this stable structure comes to a close, we are presented once again with the first two bars of the piece. This tacked-on material throws off the symmetry of the form (4 + 4 + 8 + 2 = 18); moreover, it serves absolutely no function as a transitional element. Instead, just as quickly as we return to the familiar opening passage, Schumann jarringly introduces new material that bears no relationship to the bird music besides sharing a key. The bird, it seems, has turned prophet.

Vogel Als Prophet

The prophet section of the piece (mm. 19-24) is marked by elegance, grace, and nobility. It’s a delicious bite, to be sure, but Schumann only gives us a tiny morsel. Like the opening, the section is cast asymmetrically, with stable material followed by a sudden shift into new territory. Indeed, at the end of m. 23, when the whole texture is transposed to the bVI, the composer marks it “Verschiebung” (shifting). After just a few beats of the new key, and just as suddenly as we entered it, Schumann pulls the listener back into the opening bird material. This whole 6-measure passage is embedded within the matrix of the bird music, although no attempt is made to seamlessly integrate it into the piece. The musical strategy is characterized instead by its fragmentary juxtaposition.

The aesthetics of juxtaposition find their most perfect expression in the final piece, “Abschied” (Farewell), a wistful goodbye to the forest. In musical terms, this sense of nostalgia is enacted through a series of faint allusions to previous material from the cycle. “Borrowing” or “quotation” would be too strong of words here; rather, the process consists of recasting familiar material in a new setting. It’s enough to establish identity, but just barely. To name a few examples, the melody at m. 3 is strongly reminiscent of “Herberge” (compare to m. 1 of the excerpt on p. 6). In m. 12, the bass movement (V-vi) through chromatic passing tone is taken from “Eintritt” and “Herberge” (m. 2). The pungent clash of B natural/Bb in “Einsame Blumen” (mm. 12 and 38) make its thorny appearance once again in m. 17 of “Abschied.” In m. 29, we get a melodic turn from “Freundliche Landschaft,” and in m. 32, the chromatic exoticism of the bird sneaks in for a quick appearance. Measure 33 is reminiscent of the “Eintritt” opening melody, and m. 38 reiterates “Herberge” in the left hand. More examples abound, but my point is sufficiently made: the final piece of the cycle collages familiar music to conjure a sense of nostalgia for the forest as it recedes into the background, and through the fragmented chaos of memories, full of half-remembered images and fleeting impressions, Schumann evokes the “silent and howling” interior life of the forest wanderer, who turns out to be none other than the listener. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Schumann seems to suggest that, in nature, you find yourself.


[1] Peter Coates, “The Strange Stillness of the Past: Toward an Environmental History of Sound and Noise,” Environmental History 10/4 (Oct. 2005): 643.

[2] Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 95.

[3] Rosen also discusses this idea in regard to the fragment. For more, see Rosen, 115.

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By 1849, not even spontaneity could be “merely” spontaneous. Pianists trained in conservatories spent all their time (like Liszt in 1832) on “trills, sixths, octaves, tremolos, double notes and cadenzas” – but not on their own cadenzas. Improvisation was no longer part of the curriculum, and by the end of the century, for artists in the European literate tradition, in had become a lost art – which is to say, the literate tradition had become more truly and literally and exclusively literate. There are now probably hundreds if not thousands of conservatory-trained pianists in the world whose techniques at trills, octaves, and double notes are the equal of Liszt’s, but hardly a one who can end a concert with an extempore fantasia. Should we call this progress?   (III, 288)

Improvisation is by definition ephemeral. The performer responds to a unique moment with unique sounds that die away immediately, leaving no trace but in the memory of those present to witness it. In the nineteenth century, this sort of music-making model was no formula for inclusion in the burgeoning historicism of the time. How could improvising a stunning fantasia last, earning its practitioner a place in history? Without a means of preserving these performances, we would be left only with first-hand accounts, “ear-witness” reports of virtuosity. There would be no musical documentation to prove it.

It’s admirable that RT takes up the question of improvisation here, but he doesn’t probe too deeply into this problem. It seems that, for many of the “Romantic generation,” the point was to appear off-hand and spontaneous while at the same time leaving behind a documentary trace that paradoxically proves one’s virtuosity by freezing it in time. They had figured out a way to have their cake (“improvisatory” virtuosity) and eat it too (preserve it for posterity).

It makes me think of the great jazz virtuosos of last century (and today). Minus recording technology, we would be left today to speculate on the genius of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker in much the same way that historians speculate on what the improvising Mozart must have sounded like. In other words, if improvisation has any shot at preservation, a technology is needed to serve as formaldehyde in the jar: virtuosi in the nineteenth century had notation, improvisers in our era have audio recordings. Both technologies halt in mid air the fleeting process of improvisation.

This passage brought to mind the famous (if scantily documented) meeting between Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum in the 1930s. Horowitz was mesmerized by Tatum’s unschooled virtuosity, even going as far as to call him the greatest pianist in the world. No performer of jazz or pop, Horowitz painstakingly transcribed and rehearsed the standard “Tea for Two” and played it for Tatum. (His transcription is preserved in the film “Horowitz: The Last Romantic”; apparently it’s somewhat cringe-inducing.) After this, Tatum sat down and played “Tea for Two” for Horowitz. The great conservatory-trained pianist was stunned, and immediately asked Tatum for the music.

“Oh, I was just improvising,” Tatum replied.

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The knotty relationship between text and music has beguiled musicians for centuries, nay millennia. Augustine articulated this conflict early on when he expressed concern that the sumptuousness of music would distract listeners from the meaning of the sacred texts. Qualms like this raise an important question, one that has been vociferously debated over the years and (delightfully) never settled: how should music behave vis-a-vis text? (Or in the language of the Monteverdi/Artusi kerfuffle, just who is the handmaiden and who is the master?)

The nineteenth century brought new perspectives into this ever-changing debate. Consonant with the Romantic concept of Innigkeit (musical inwardness), composers began to highlight the textual difference between “objective” reality and lived, “subjective” experience. Music, rather than just representing a text, could be used as a medium of literary analysis. To this cohort, music was not the handmaiden to the text, but rather its equal (or superior), capable of contradicting the words, ironically commenting upon them, and reinterpreting them entirely. The best of the lieder composers excelled at this sort of creative play, eschewing the “objective” reality of a text-space to explore its subjective resonance.

To illustrate this, let’s return to our composer du jour, Schubert, in his setting of Erlkönig (“The Elf King”). Goethe’s mysterious, macabre little poem touches upon many a Romantic preoccupation, from nature to the supernatural to death. It opens onto a father riding through the night with his sick child. The boy keeps seeing things in the dark mist of the forest, or so his father thinks. In reality (the boy’s consciousness), the Elf King waits in the woods, luring him with promises of games, bright flowers, and daughters with whom to dance. The Elf King’s seductions become increasingly strident; the boy’s fear grows, although the father still thinks he’s imagining things. Finally, when they arrive at their destination, the father finds that the child is dead.

The urgency of the situation is communicated with a quickly pulsating, relentless rhythm in the right hand, presumably representing the galloping horse. There is a sense of great fear as the narrator sets the scene, an effect of musical horror that is carried over when father speaks to his stricken child, and the boy speaks of the supernatural forces haunting him. But when the Elf King himself enters the texture to deliver his sweet, fatal siren’s song (first at 1:32), the tone modulates entirely into an innocent major key. He seems to beckon, entreat. This is not a terrifying monster, but a friendly, avuncular spirit, albeit a creepy one. Although the boy protests, he is simultaneously allured. When the Elf King enters, the furious gallop fades into the background, as if “objective” reality dissolves for a moment. The effect is electrifying: Schubert plays at the ambiguous interstices of dream and reality.

RT writes (in relation to Gretchen am Spinnrade as well):

In both cases, consciousness of the “objective” surroundings (spinning wheel, hoofbeats) recedes as the “subjective” vision grows more vivid. The representation of “inwardness” as it interacts and triumphs over the perception of external reality is the true romantic dimension here, the source of the music’s uncanny power. “Objective” representation, whether of spinning wheels or horses’ hooves, was old hat, esthetically uninteresting in itself; its “subjective” manipulation is the startling new effect, prompted in Schubert’s imagination by those “inward” aspects of the poem to which he was uniquely attentive.  (III, 152)

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Once Schubert took ahold of the Lied (German song with keyboard accompaniment), it was never the same. He vested what was mainly a domestic genre with the power to express a Romantic aesthetic, one that fused ideals of Romantic poets with a growing analogous trend in music: a drive toward Innigkeit (“innerness”) as a new and more complete way of experiencing reality. The harmonic language that Schubert developed to express Innigkeit was the extensive topic of Taruskin’s second chapter of vol. III, where he explicates all the harmonic inner workings in some detail (cf. Zach’s recent post). In short, Schubert accomplished a dislodging of time—and thus entrance into what Taruskin calls the “music trance”—through particular use of the flat submediant and modal mixture.

In his Lied, “Am Meer” (“By the Sea”), Schubert also utilized modal mixture. In particular, the opening piano chords oscillate between major and minor triads in direct juxtaposition, to express the pathetic (that is, infused with pathos) and, more to the point of this post, the sublime. It is musical foreshadowing of love once tasted, becoming fatally poisonous, a fate that, when finally proclaimed by the poet at the end of the Lied, we realize has loomed all along. Having asked the question of how harmony expresses the sublime, Taruskin pushes the question one step further: does the harmonic expressivity and evocation transfer into his instrumental works? The answer is yes, and the evidence is Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C Major. Taruskin connects the dots, so to speak, between “Am Meer” and the quintet, noting that both open with modal mixture. Is it mere coincidence? Not likely:

Without the eccentric context provided by the poem, one thinks, such a progression could have no meaning at all. But then one hears the very opening of the Quintet in C Major, composed the same year as “Am Meer,” and one has to think again. The same kind of uncanny juxtaposition materializes […]. Yet it materializes in an imaginatively open-ended context, all the more arcane for its being wordless. (III, 138-139)

Taruskin, immediately connects another dot that is surely pressing on the musicologist’s mind as she follows the argument:

In which context did such arcane eloquence originate? Impossible—tantalizingly, blessedly impossible—to say. The combination of an extreme subjective expressive immediacy and an unspecified or “objectless” context is what gave rise to the sublime romantic notion of “absolute music”—one of the most potent, but also one of the most widely misunderstood, of all romantic concepts.

Naturally, the misunderstood concept that Taruskin refers to is “absolute music,” hotly debated to this very day among musicologists. But there is another term in Taruskin’s last sentence that could be “widely misunderstood”—if not by specialists, then at least by the general reader. That is the notion of the sublime, an equal or perhaps more important concept than absolute music, when talking about Schubert and his Romantic comrades. And that will be the subject of my next post, the second in this two-part series.

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… Art founded on pain. Not since J.S. Bach have we encountered any notion that music should be anything but beautiful, and never have we encountered such a notion with reference to secular music. It implies an enormous change in the artist’s attitude toward his audience; and this, too, is a crucial component in any adequate definition of romanticism. The history of music in the nineteenth century – at any rate, of a very significant portion of it – could be written in terms of the encroachment of the sublime upon the domain of the beautiful, of the “great” upon the pleasant. (II, 644. Italics mine.)

As we begin to venture into Western music’s most fecund, or at least hallowed, century, we would do well to pause for a moment to remember what came before.

To begin with, recall the long history of vocal music’s dominance over the instrumental. Voices, after all, could declaim texts, and thus give the spectacle of music some sort of concrete meaning. Instrumental music lacked the same depth – how could it decisively mean in the absence of language? What it was good for, however, was play and pleasantry. A symphony made for great background music while the prince schmoozed with the count’s daughter. Instrumental music was pretty, pleasant, and sociable.

The Romantics flipped the story. Over a very brief period of time, the “meaningless” realm of instrumental music, what was labeled in typical Germanic bombast as “Absolute Music,” came to wrestle the philosophical high ground from vocal music. Ineffable, sublime (i.e. vast, terrifying), and infinite, instrumental music (particularly the symphony) was not just merry background music for a party; it was the Truth. Schopenhauer likened music to an embodiment of the universal Will, transcending mere language, code, and representation to strike at the actual thing in itself. The symphony – particularly Beethoven’s – was, in RT’s words, “great” and not simply pleasant; treating it as anything else would be a sort of sacrilege, a subversion of the rightful hierarchy of aesthetic values.

And what was left for vocal music after the revolution? It was certainly a lot harder for voices, with all those pesky, literal words that they like to produce, to reach the same level of sublimity as the symphony. Vocal music was denotative, with specific texts and specific semantic meanings; symphonic music, on the other hand, was connotative, abstract, deeply subjective, the perfect accompaniment to the era’s burgeoning lionization of the lone, autonomous individual.

Rarely in music history do aesthetic shifts take place so abruptly, and so violently. This account, of course, is a simplification; as RT is quick to admit, plenty of contradictory aesthetic cross-currents coexisted with the Romantics. Yet, what happened here was indeed profound; we’re still reeling from it, in fact. Rather than the gradual, processive change that usually informs the historical movement of the arts, this one was more of a reversal, a flip.

It’s a little like a canoe; you can put pressure on it and it will rock back and forth, but it still stays afloat. Then, when the tipping point is reached, it ceases to rock; suddenly, it flips and you’re in the water.  A crude metaphor, perhaps, but oddly apropos. For the next two + volumes of the book, we’ll be swimming in these deep waters.

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