Romanticism is an awkward term for a complex idea. Two great music historians, Carl Dahlhaus and Richard Taruskin both avoid the term entirely in the titles of their books on 19th century music:
- Nineteenth-Century Music, Carl Dahlhaus
- Music in the Nineteenth Century (vol. 3 in the Oxford History of Western Music), Richard Taruskin
But Charles Rosen takes the bull by the horns and titles his book on the first generation of Romantic composers The Romantic Generation. Please feel free to go right ahead and read those three books, they are worth the effort.
But Romanticism did not begin with music but rather with literature and specifically with one philosopher's discussion of art: August Wilhelm von Schlegel. The link goes to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is an excellent resource. Let me just summarize a bit:
the Romantic notion of art goes hand in hand with a reevaluation of the concept of nature. Schlegel argues that, from a philosophical point of view, everything participates in an ongoing process of creation, whereas, from an empirical point of view, natural things are conceived as if they were dead, fixed and independent from the whole. This means that, in its purest and philosophical sense, nature is not perceptible in the same way the worldly objects are.
the comprehension of nature's true essence is more like a presentiment (ahnen) or an aesthetic contemplation, than like scientific knowledge. In order to realize this Romantic notion of nature, one needs to comprehend or rather feel oneself as an organic whole. One needs to achieve self-awareness and to recognize oneself as forming part of a larger unity.
the philosophical or Romantic notion of nature as an unfathomable unity and creative force which cannot be seen nor touched, and which is obviously a direct response to some of the many questions raised by Kant's three Critiques, is not to be understood as a mere intellection, an empty chimera: Nature is the productive force pulsing in all living beings. For Schlegel, Nature is organic in the sense that it is an organized and organizing principle, granting intelligence to the totality of existing beings. It is a creative force that produces independent living things, the life of which does not need any external mechanism to keep its autonomy, for it only depends on its inner, natural power to live. In this point Schlegel mentions the astrological doctrines that claim that even the tiniest atom is a mirror of the universe. The idea of Nature mirroring itself in each and every living organism is characteristic both of German Idealism and German Romanticism. The difference between human beings and other animals, plants or mineral structures is that, (1) human beings are able to understand the fact that they, as an organism, mirror Nature's organic structure; and furthermore, (2) they are capable of reproducing nature's creativity through art, as well as reflecting upon this fact. This reasoning induced Schlegel to define human genius and his/her poetical creativity as a whole (i.e. art and language) as the capability of producing a world within a world (Müller-Vollmer, 317); a definition which is most tangible in dramatic literature.My emphases. Schlegel's discussion of art begins as early as 1795 and continues until his collected writings of 1828. I mention these dates to co-ordinate them with the beginnings of Romanticism in music which are often associated with Beethoven and Schubert. Taruskin even (on p. 14 of the op. cit.) mentions that as early as the Trios, op. 1, published in 1795, "Beethoven was strongly inclined to 'push the envelope' with respect to genre, transgressing generic and stylistic boundaries in a way that made his teacher Haydn uneasy." Hey, if you feel yourself as an organic whole, part of a larger unity, then what does transgressing a few boundaries matter?
What I want to point out is something that is not talked about so much in any of the books I mention. I'm not sure if it is an insight unique to myself--that would be rather doubtful!--but I have not run into it anywhere else. The insight is this: there is a relationship between the Romantic concepts in art and the unshackling of the middle class in Europe as a result of the French Revolution. Under the ancien régime, art was commissioned by the aristocracy and the church and it was made to suit their tastes. Genre boundaries were a convenience that made it easier for the nobility to request what they specifically wanted and to avoid paying for something they did not want. "My dear Joseph, let's have a nice symphony for Friday, I'm having guests over." I don't mean to diminish in any way the quality of the result, by the way. I doubt if there has ever been a finer symphonist than Haydn. But he did work within a social and economic context. Recall that Renaissance nobles who commissioned paintings often specified the exact weight of gold leaf that was to be used.
So if we go back and read the comments on Schlegel in this light we might see that their import is to validate and valorize the middle class who no longer had to accept the aesthetic commands and taste of their aristocratic betters, but now could just feel that productive and creative force of Nature pulsing in their very beings--or in the beings of the new generations of Romantic artists that were pulsing on their behalf. Artists like Schubert, who is really the first composer in whom the Romantic impulse begins to be strongly felt. Here is a sample, the song Der Erlkönig written in 1815 when he was only seventeen:
Romanticism is a very complex network of trends and ideas comprising the supernatural, myth, folk tales and musics, the Romantic trance in music created by new uses of harmony and melody, the huge expansion of the orchestra, public concerts and on and on. But all of these trends and influences have the function of taking away aesthetic authority from the upper classes and placing it firmly in the hands of the middle class and the artists that speak to them. The artist, not the nobleman commissioning the work, has the ultimate authority to create taste and produce art and it is because he is "reproducing nature's creativity through art." I see this even in myself where I have this kind of fundamental belief that inspiration often comes through the contemplation of nature. So there is a streak of Romanticism that often is found in artists even now in the 21st century.
However, this may be changing, and again, it is due to social and economic changes. There is always an upper class, by the way, whether we think we have overthrown them or not! We might call them the "creative minority" or the "commissars" or the "1%" or "graduates of Harvard", but except for those times of great disruption such as occur during revolutions, they are always in charge. But for quite a while, they found managing the thoughts and tastes of the populace to be rather a chore as their authority was greatly diminished during the 19th century. But they are a clever bunch and it seems as if they are back in charge again, but with a plausible veneer of respectability coming from the view that they hold their position through merit.
And we seem to be fast returning to the situation where the tastes of the middle class are once again irrelevant as they are becoming dictated to us from above, with all the correct progressive sentiments. Just how this came to pass I will leave as an exercise for the reader. Didn't you use to hate it when the teacher did that! Sorry, but I think this post is long enough. Now let's listen to something that is synthesized by the new upper class and delivered to us for the purpose of forming our taste and understanding:
(That's just the audio, I guess we can't embed the complete version.)