Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Music in the 19th Century: Deconstructing Romanticism

In my last post I mentioned how complex the term 'romanticism' is because it refers to so many different kinds of things. Taking his cue from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, Richard Taruskin in his Oxford History of Western Music, defines romanticism as "valuing difference and seeking one's uniqueness ... it meant believing that the purpose of art was the expression of one's unique self, one's 'original genius', a reality that only existed within." [vol. 2, p. 641] Others who presented this view of art and aesthetics were the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and the music critic E. T. A. Hoffman. For the latter, the first true romantics were, wait for it, Mozart and Haydn! We may, along with Taruskin, discern a difference between Haydn's kind of 'romanticism' and that of Mozart. It is Mozart, far more than Haydn, that seems to reach another realm in his music, creating a kind of sublime awe that we associate with romanticism. If you listen to the last movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 41, which I have posted about before, it seems to ascend into another dimension entirely and do so without words. Let's listen:


The date of that symphony, 1788, certainly accords with the literary discussions of romanticism. Rousseau's Confessions date from 1782 and Baumgarten's book from 1750. Hoffman was writing in 1813, speaking of Mozart in retrospect. Mozart's operas are even more romantic in their effect, especially The Magic Flute which seems to fit Gustav Schilling's definition of romanticism rather well: "[an] attempt to transcend the sphere of cognition, to experience higher, more spiritual things, and to sense the presence of the ineffable."


I think we can hear in this music, from The Magic Flute, if not romanticism as we usually understand it, then certainly some elements, some germs, that composers like Carl Maria von Weber would build on in composing what is usually regarded as the origin of German romantic opera: Der Freisch├╝tz.




What they have in common is the sensation of a glimpse into another world, a sense of the eerie or chilling. In my next post I will look into those elements in Beethoven that also had a big influence on the early romantic composers of the 19th century.

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