Musical romanticism Musical Romanticism in Germany

Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Mahler count as some of the most important representatives of the musical epoch of romanticism. The works of these composers has shaped the repertoire up to the present.

Richard Wagner, Denkmal, Berlin; Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License (CC-BY-SA), Richard Wagner, Denkmal, Berlin; Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License (CC-BY-SA), | Foto: Axel Mauruszat Musical Romanticism in Germany dates back to just after 1800. The term "Romantic" was first used in reference to literature, encompassing the elements of the rediscovered medieval novel (the German word for novel is Roman): fantasy, adventure, imagination. Poets and critics then began to speak of "Romantic" music, for example in E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1810 review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony where he referred to music as "the most Romantic of all the arts" and Beethoven himself as a "purely Romantic (and thus truly musical) composer". In this sense the term was first applied less to precise pieces than to the general meaning of the music in terms of "Romantic" thought. This classification testifies to an understanding of art that forcibly embodies the aesthetic of a "progressive Universalpoesie" while also establishing a hierarchy within the arts. The unrepresentational and, despite its freedom from conceptual language, eloquent music sits atop this hierarchy.

The preconditions of the Romantic Movement include the strengthening of the educated middle class, a wave of new scientific discoveries, the first traces of industrialisation as well as the political upheaval resulting from both the French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent military campaigns and occupation policies of Napoleon. Around the turn of the century the atmosphere coalesced into an unsettled time dictated by outside forces, which would later spawn a longing to find an intact awareness of the world, at least within the parallel universe of art. Communication through music, made possible by new journals in the first decades of the century, lively domestic music salons and participation in amateur choirs were already pragmatic vehicles for the much-discussed Romantic escapism that had originally begun as a largely esoteric phenomenon.

Dissolution and the Blurring of Boundaries

Only gradually did Romantic ideas thus infiltrate the aesthetics of music and the practice of composition around 1800. According to music historians the Classical era would not officially end until the deaths of Beethoven in 1827 and Schubert in 1828. However, both men would also be appropriated by the Romantics: Beethoven for his prototypical importance as an heroic artist and Schubert for his prolific work within a genuinely Romantic genre, the Lied. In a similar fashion, an epochal break occurred around mid-century with the death of the protagonists of the High Romantic; Robert Schumann died in 1856, a few years after he had foretold, within the pages of the Neuen Zeitschrift für Musik, a bright career for the young Johannes Brahms; Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy died in 1847, followed by Frédéric Chopin in 1849. The following decades thus belong to the Late Romantic, with Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler as its chief representatives.

While literary Romanticism was already considered outdated by 1830, the musical Romantics continued to have impact into the early 20th century. From the beginning, a strong emphasis on the aesthetics of emotion would play a role and provide the impetus for the formal paradigm change that spelled the end of the Classical period. The music of the Romantic subsists on harmonic freedoms, the broadening of timbres, ironic fractures or the sudden change of formal principles, and the overall dissolution of established forms, which can be detected in the music's diffuse beginnings and open endings. The principle of blurring boundaries is also found in the shift towards the supernatural – Schubert's 1816 ballad Erlkönig is one example – and in the interest in the art of past centuries, especially of the Medieval Era, albeit one that is more fictitious than historically accurate. Influences of the preoccupation with the past are evident throughout the entire era, from Mendelssohn Bartholdy's revival of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829 to the text of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung (which premiered in Bayreuth in 1876), from the church musicals of the Cecelian Restoration Movement to Brahms' numerous folk music arrangements.

The concept of Romantic music is also characterised by its openness to the other arts, which not only led to a rapid development of the Lied with piano accompaniment, but also to new methods for musical programmes, a trend that was already hinted at in mood pieces by Chopin and Schumann and then made more explicit, above all in the realm of symphonic poetry (Liszt's Hamlet, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche from Richard Strauss). Admittedly, the phenomenon of programme music seemed to be at odds with the Early Romantic beliefs that music lay beyond the bounds of representational phraseology and was even superior to the expressive qualities of verbal language. Already by 1853 the Viennese musicologist Eduard Hanslick postulated that the content and subject matter of music alone "intoned moving forms". Through discussions about the primacy of so-called "absolute music", two factions emerged in the last half of the century. On one side stood Brahms and Hanslick and on the other, as representatives of a "New German School", stood Liszt and Wagner, whose idea of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" (total work of art) depicted musical art as almost deficient if it lacks extra-musical content.

The Rising Cult of the Star

The exploration of extreme genre and ensemble formats is also typical of the 19th century. The miniatures of the Early Romantics stood in sharp contrast to Bruckner's and Mahler's monumental symphonic works at the end of the century. Advancements in instrument making, above all pianos, ensured a new range of possibilities. Beneficiaries of these developments included Franz Liszt who, along with Niccòlo Paganini, the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and Clara Schumann (née Wieck), looms as one of the outstanding virtuosos of the age. Burgeoning concert life in turn fed off the rising cult of the star, the building of new concert halls and the formation of symphony orchestras – the Berlin Philharmonic was conceived in 1882 and the Munich Philharmonic 11 years later in 1893. Already around 1870 the educational knowledge associated with symphonic works was standardised by music intermediaries like Hermann Kretzschmar, and in so doing the canonisation of symphonic repertoires was begun, one that continues to have impact in today's world.

Above all, Wagner's exhaustion of the possibilities of the tonal system and the alienating association with traditional vocabulary, as evidenced in Mahler's work, led to the gradual erosion of the basis of tonal music by the turn of the century. Around 1920 Arnold Schoenberg developed his 12-tone system, ushering in the Modern Age of music.