The Romantics

When it comes to aesthetics, and especially notions among the general populace regarding what artists should be like, Romanticism continues to hold sway as the dominant paradigm. The related cult of personality is firmly entrenched even in science, and of course is the driving force behind popular entertainment. The idea of art as primarily a means of personal expression is pervasive in our society, and is a major rationale for the reciprocal notion that one's individual aesthetic judgements are unassailable and inherently good. For these reasons, I consider Romanticism primarily a destructive force, a force which frequently extends into fundamental social interactions of which it is equally destructive. Unfortunately the latter is beyond the scope of this column. Nonetheless there is no question that Romanticism, especially in its early burst of energy, produced a wealth of valuable art. The intoxication derived from the sheer originality of Beethoven unleashed a wave of music-making which has endured long after its creative energy has faded. This is also the center of the "classical" repertory, and at least partly an example of truly "popular" music written for large forces.

Among the Romantic ideas, that of melody determining form is a serious one which translates to other traditions and other periods of time. In many ways, the rigidity of classical sonata form is an aberration, a degree of formal specification unheard of before its time. The madrigals of Monteverdi or the motets of Josquin certainly follow no such development formula, and even the dance forms of the Baroque serve more as points of departure. In that sense, Romantic music marks a return to a more usual mode of composing, but with the orchestral medium now paramount. Perhaps the first distinction between this idiom and those of earlier times is that the classical period made many simplifications to music in an effort to become more appealing to the growing middle class. Romantic music continues this orientation. That sense of "audience" is intensified by the fact that this was a generation which thought it could & should change the world. So we see easy melodies, lush orchestration, and an emphasis on self-immolation. We also see a deluge of composing, and an almost pan-European musical culture (despite the so-called national schools) using most of the same forms and instrumental combinations. The latter serves as much as anything to make the 19th century the touchstone for historical studies of Western art music, a condition showing no signs of remission. None of these observations is new, by any means, but collecting them here will provide an orientation for future remarks.

The Romantic era begins with Beethoven and Schubert as transitional figures, or at least that is the particular division which I will use. While perhaps not as dramatic, Schubert's role must be acknowledged. The poles of Schubert's long-winded lyricism and Beethoven's harsh concision framed much of the 19th century in Germany. By the end, the attributes were swapped to form the lyrical concision of Brahms and the long-winded harshness of Wagner. I am definitely partial to Brahms between those two, but more ambivalent when it comes to Beethoven & Schubert. Of course, I have to respect Wagner (I guess I do, anyway), even if I don't want to hear any of his music. Similar remarks hold for many prominent 19th century composers. After the Brahms & Wagner generation, I will call subsequent composition in these idioms post-Romantic, by way of terminology. When it comes to Schubert, my favorite work is probably the G major Quartet... the C major Quintet is also good, but a bit overrated compared to the late quartets, in my view. Pieces such as the Great C major Symphony and Bb major Piano Sonata are also clearly valuable, although they sometimes seem interminable. More generally, the piano is the dominant instrument for the music of the 19th century, and many of the works for other ensembles were written at the piano. I find myself hearing even orchestral works as pianistic, to the point of forgetting the orchestra isn't a piano. The tendency to conceive something for small forces and then prescribe its performance for something far more massive is something about which I feel ill at ease. There is simply no doubt that the desire was fundamentally to be louder, buoyed by self-importance both from the composer and the culture as a whole. It seems ironic that the entrenchment of the orchestra-as-medium should come with music which is not very orchestra-istic, to coin a term.

Another idea consummated in the Romantic era is virtuosity as an end in itself. This is especially true of the piano, and I consequently find the inability to write "The Thirty-Third" (to twist a term toward Beethoven's piano sonatas) quite striking. Too often the expression conveyed in this music is pure conceit, while more tender moments are rambling and confused. The truth is that my less effusive personality is fundamentally at odds with Romanticism, and so a lengthy & belabored criticism would be uneventful. Nonetheless I do still enjoy some of the music, and like most people, this was the classical music I first heard as a child. I would probably do well to "lighten up" and enjoy it more today, but I have this deeply felt notion that listening to sloppy music makes for sloppy thinking, and I am guarded in that way. Fundamentally, too many of the Romantics seem to have lacked Beethoven's musical intellect, and consequently his ability to grapple with formal problems. It is perhaps more problematic that modern audiences have a tendency to project Romantic aesthetic ideas into places where they do not belong, and this is a source of some misunderstanding.

Well, that is probably more uncomplimentary than I wanted to be. One fact is inescapable, namely that the Romantic movement has forged a major part of our musical tradition and that it colors all artistic output today whether consciously by the post-Romantics or in reaction to them. I want to write more about melody determining form at a later date, and that is a reemphasis which I think the Romantics got exactly right. The post-Romantic idea of continuous melody is another good one. The key is that I frequently dislike the melodies, and that's basically the end of any directly felt appreciation for such music. The Romantics wanted heightened personal expression not bound by constraints, yet earlier music provides more than enough examples of non-formulaic composition which does not wallow in emotional meanderings. One quick insight into this is that the melodies conceived for contrapuntal possibilities, such as those of Bach or Brahms, are less emphatic in their expression, precisely because they fit into so many musical guises, something with which an extended outpouring of e.g. pain is fundamentally at odds. In other words, melody can constrain form, and Romantic thinking has a tendency to overwhelm other modes of thought. In essence, it posits its own preeminence. If the choice were for a simple kaleidoscope of ideas, such forces would seem less destructive.

By way of appendix, I will write some brief but more specific remarks on Brahms' works next week.

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Todd M. McComb