nationalist composers gathered around mily balakirev H u m a n i t i e s
Romanticism in Music
In general, the term “Romanticism” applied to music has come to mean the period roughly from the 1820s until 1910. The contemporary application of “romantic” to music did not coincide with modern categories. In 1810, E.T.A. Hoffmann called Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven the three “Romantic Composers,” while Ludwig Spohr used the term “good Romantic style” to apply to parts of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. By the early twentieth century, the sense that there had been a decisive break with the musical past led to the establishment of the nineteenth century as “The Romantic Era,” and as such it is referred to in the standard encyclopedias of music.
However the twentieth century general use of the term “romanticism” amongst music writers and historians did not evolve in the same way as it did amongst literary and visual arts theorists, so that there exists a disjunction between the concept of romanticism in music and in the other arts. Literary and visual art theorists tend to consider romanticism in terms of the alienation of the artist and the value of art for art’s sake, concepts only gradually creeping into musicology, where there is still considerable confusion between “music of Romanticism” and the less definable, (perhaps somewhat redundant) category of “music of the Romantic Era.” The traditional discussion of the music of Romanticism includes elements, such as the growing use of folk music, which are more directly related to nationalism and are only indirectly related to Romanticism.
Some aspects of Romanticism are already present in eighteenth-century music. The heightened contrasts and emotions of Sturm und Drang seem a precursor of the Gothic in literature, or the sanguinary elements of some of the operas of the period of the French Revolution. The libretti of Lorenzo da Ponte for Mozart, and the eloquent music the latter wrote for them, convey a new sense of individuality and freedom. In Beethoven, perhaps the first incarnation since the Renaissance of the artist as hero, the concept of the Romantic musician begins to reveal itself—the man who, after all, morally challenged the Emperor Napoleon himself by striking him out from the dedication of the Symphony no. 3, the Eroica Symphony. In Beethoven’s Fidelio he creates the apotheosis of the “rescue operas” which were another feature of French musical culture during the revolutionary period, in order to hymn the freedom which underlay the thinking of all radical artists in the years of hope after the Congress of Vienna.
Beethoven’s use of tonal architecture in such a way as to allow significant expansion of musical forms and structures was immediately recognized as bringing a new dimension to music. The later piano music and string quartets, especially, showed the way to a completely unexplored musical universe. The writer, critic (and composer) Hoffmann was able to write of the supremacy of instrumental music over vocal music in expressiveness, a concept which would previously have been regarded as absurd. Hoffmann himself, as a practitioner both of music and literature, encouraged the notion of music as ‘programmatic’ or telling a story, an idea which new audiences found attractive, however, irritating it was to some composers (for example, Felix Mendelssohn). New developments in instrumental technology in the early nineteenth century—iron frames for pianos, wound metal strings for string instruments—enabled louder dynamics, more varied tone colors, and the potential for sensational virtuosity. Such developments swelled the length of pieces, introduced programmatic titles, and created new genres such as the free standing overture or tone-poem, the piano fantasy, nocturne and rhapsody, and the virtuoso concerto, which became central to musical Romanticism. In opera a new Romantic atmosphere combining supernatural terror and melodramatic plot in a folkloric context was most successfully achieved by Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1817, 1821). Enriched timbre and color marked the early orchestration of Hector Berlioz in France, and the grand operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Amongst the radical fringe of what became mockingly characterized (adopting Wagner’s own words) as “artists of the future,” Liszt and Wagner each embodied the Romantic cult of the free, inspired, charismatic, perhaps ruthlessly unconventional individual artistic personality.
It is the period of 1815 to 1848, which must be regarded as the true age of Romanticism in music—the age of the last compositions of Beethoven (d. 1827) and Schubert (d. 1828), of the works of Schumann (d. 1856) and Chopin (d. 1849), of the early struggles of Berlioz and Richard Wagner, of the great virtuosi such as Paganini (d. 1840), and the young Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg. Now that people are able to listen to the work of Mendelssohn (d. 1847) stripped of the Biedermeier reputation unfairly attached to it, he can also be placed in this more appropriate context. After this period, with Chopin and Paganini dead, Liszt retired from the concert platform at a minor German court, Wagner effectively in exile until he obtained royal patronage in Bavaria, and Berlioz still struggling with the bourgeois liberalism which all but smothered radical artistic endeavor in Europe, Romanticism in music was surely past its prime—giving way, rather, to the period of musical romantics.
Music after 1848
Romantic nationalism—the argument that each nation had a unique individual quality that would be expressed in laws, customs, language, logic, and the arts—found an increasing following after 1848. Some of these ideals, linked to liberal politics, had been exemplified in Beethoven’s antipathy to Napoleon’s adoption of the title of emperor, and can be traced through to the musical patriotism of Schumann, Verdi, and others. For these composers and their successors the nation itself became a new and worthy theme of music. Some composers sought to produce or take part in a school of music for their own nations, in parallel with the establishment of national literature. Many composers would take inspiration from the poetic nationalism present in their homeland. This is evident in the writings of Richard Wagner, especially after 1850, but can be clearly seen in Russia, where the Kuchka(handful) of nationalist composers gathered around Mily Balakirev, including Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. These composers were concerned about the enormous influence of German music in Russia, and they largely resented the founding of the conservatoires in Moscow and Saint Petersburg by the brothers Nikolai and Anton Rubinstein, which they believed would be Trojan horses for German musical culture (however, Russian romantic music is today now closely identified with Anton’s favorite pupil, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky).
This movement continued forward through into the twentieth century with composers such as Jean Sibelius, although nationalism found a new musical expression in study of folk-song which was to be a key element in the development of Béla Bartók, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and others. *The “Modernisms” of the twentieth century all found roots in reactions to Romanticism, increasingly seen as not realistic enough, even not brutal enough, for a new technological age.*
Prompt: Considering the above bold, italicized statement*, do you feel that 20th-21st century music is still reacting against the emotionalism, or sentimentalism of Romantic music? Is romanticism in music “not brutal enough” for this new age, or is the emotionalism, “storm and stress of Romanticism still very much a part of contemporary music–only now with words as well? Consider: Rock & Roll, Punk, Rap, etc. Give examples of specific music that supports your view on this question. Approx. 600 words
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