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6.1: Introduction and Historical Context

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  • This chapter considers music of the nineteenth century, a period often called the “Romantic era” in music. Romanticism might be defined as a cultural movement stressing emotion, imagination, and individuality. It started in literature around 1800 and then spread to art and music. By around 1850, the dominant aesthetic (artistic philosophy) of literature and visual art began to shift to what is now often called a time of realism (cultural expressions of what is perceived as common and contemporary). Cultural Nationalism (pride in one’s culture) and Exoticism (fascination with the other) also became more pronounced after 1850, as reflected in art, literature, and music. Realism, nationalism, and Exoticism were prominent in music as well, although we tend to treat them as sub-categories under a period of musical Romanticism that spanned the entire century.

    In his Preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1801), English poet William Wordsworth declared that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The power and expression of emotion exalted by literary Romanticism was equally important for nineteenth-century music, which often explicitly attempted to represent every shade of human emotion, the most prominent of which are love and sorrow. Furthermore, the Romantics were very interested in the connections between music, literature, and the visual arts. Poets and philosophers rhapsodized about the power of music, and musicians composed both vocal and instrumental program music explicitly inspired by literature and visual art. In fact, for many nineteenth-century thinkers, music had risen to the top of the aesthetic hierarchy. Music was previously perceived as inferior to poetry and sculpture, as it had no words or form. In the nineteenth century, however, music was understood to express what words could not express, thus transcending the material for something more ideal and spiritual; some called this expression “ab- solute music.”

    As we listen to nineteenth-century music, we might hear some similarities with music of the classical era, but there are also differences. Aesthetically speaking, classicism tends to emphasize balance, control, proportion, symmetry, and restraint. Romanticism seeks out the new, the curious, and the adventurous, emphasizing qualities of remoteness, boundlessness, and strangeness. It is characterized by restless longing and impulsive reaction, as well as freedom of expression and pursuit of the unattainable. There are many parallels between what was going on historically in society and what was occurring in music. We cannot study one with- out studying the other because they are so inter-related, though music will be our guiding focus.

    Geo-politically, the nineteenth century extends from the French Revolution to a decade or so before World War I. The French Revolution wound down around 1799, when the Napoleonic Wars then ensued. The Napoleonic Wars were waged by Napoléon Bonaparte, who had declared himself emperor of France. Another war was the Unites States Civil War from 1861-1865. The United States also saw expansion westward as the gold rush brought in daring settlers. Even though the United States was growing, England was the dominant world power at this time. Its whaling trade kept ships sailing and lamps burning. Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and the ever-expanding rail system. Economic and social power shifted increasingly towards the common people due to revolts. These political changes affected nineteenth-century music as composers who began to aim their music at the more common people, rather than just the rich.

    Political nationalism was on the rise in the nineteenth century. Early in the century, Bonaparte’s conquests spurred on this nationalism, inspiring Italians, Austrians, Germans, Eastern Europeans, and Russians to assert their cultural identities, even while enduring the political domination of the French. After France’s political power diminished with the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, politics through- out much of Europe were still punctuated by revolutions, first a minor revolution in 1848 in what is now Germany, and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Later in the century, Eastern Europeans, in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the Russians developed schools of national music in the face of Austro-German cultural, and sometimes political, hegemony. Nationalism was fed by the continued rise of the middle class as well as the rise of republicanism and democracy, which defines human beings as individuals with responsibilities and rights derived as much from the social contract as from family, class, or creed.

    6.3.1 Philosophy

    The nineteenth century saw some of the most famous continental philosophers of all time: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900). All responded in some way or another to the ideas of their eighteenth-century predecessor Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who revolutionized the way human beings saw themselves in relation to others and to God by posit- ing that human beings can never see “the thing in itself” and thus must relate as subjects to the objects that are exterior to themselves. Based on the work of Kant, as well as on a revival of ancient philosophical idealism, Hegel proposed some resolution of this subject-object dichotomy by characterizing human existence as thesis meeting its opposite in antithesis and thus yielding synthesis. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, maintained that Kant had been right to point to the divide between subject and object. (For our purposes here, consider music to be the human phenomenon in which one might experience the thing, or object, in itself.) His ideas influenced the musical philosophy of Richard Wagner, and both of Schopenhauer’s and Wagner’s ideas shaped Friedrich Nietzsche’s early philosophy. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the ideas of Kant and Hegel, and to a lesser extent Schopenhauer, influenced American Transcendentalism, often reflected in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).

    6.3.2 Science

    Science and technology made great strides in the nineteenth century. Some of its inventions increased mobility of the individuals in the Western world, such as with the proliferation of trains running across newly-laid tracks and steamships sailing down major rivers and eventually across oceans. Other advances, such as the commercial telegraph (from the 1830s), allowed news to travel more quickly than before. All this speed and mobility culminated in the first automobiles that emerged at the very end of the century. Plate and then chemical photography were invented in the first half of the 1800s, with film photography emerging at the end of the century: we have photographs of several of the composers studied in this chapter. Experiments with another sort of recording, sound recording, would get started in the mid 1800s and finally become commercially available in the twentieth century. The nineteenth century saw ongoing experiments with electricity and electrically powered lamps such as the light bulb that would also blossom as the century turned.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): John James Audubon, 1826 by John Syme. Source: Wikimedia
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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Charles Darwin, 1854 by Henry Maull and John Fox. Source: Wikimedia

    Romantics were fascinated by nature, and the middle class public followed naturalists, like Americans John James Audubon (1785-1851) and John Muir (1838-1914) and the Englishman Charles Darwin (1809-1882), as they observed and recorded life in the wild. Darwin’s evolutionary theories based on his voyages to locales such as the Galapagos Islands were avidly debated among the people of his day.

    6.3.3 Visual Art

    Romantics were fascinated by the imaginary, the grotesque, and by that which was chronologically or geographically foreign. Emphasis on these topics began to appear in such late eighteenth-century works as Swiss painter Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare from 1781. Romantics were also intrigued by the Gothic style: a young Goethe raved about it after visiting the Gothic Cathedral in Strasbourg, France. His writings in turn spurred the completion of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, which had been started in the Gothic style in 1248 and then completed in that same style between the years of 1842 and 1880.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli. Source: Wikimedia

    Romantic interest in the individual, nature, and the supernatural is also very evident in nineteenth-century landscapes, including those of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). One of his most famous paintings, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), shows a lone man with his walking stick, surrounded by a vast horizon. The man has progressed to the top of a mountain, but there his vision is limited due to the fog. We do not see his face, perhaps suggesting the solitary reality of a human subject both separate from and somehow spiritually attuned to the natural and supernatural.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Cologne Cathedral by Johann Franz Michiels. Source: Wikimedia
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    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. Source: Wikimedia

    In France, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) captured the revolutionary and nationalist fervor of the time in such paintings as Liberty Leading the People (1830). He was also a good friend with musicians Frydryk Chopin and Hector Berlioz, whom he immortalized in portraits.

    Francisco de Goya (1746 -1828) was born in Fuendetodos, Spain. He painted for the Spanish Royal court, producing portraits of nobility. However, he also painted works criticizing the social and political problems of his era.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix. Source: Wikimedia
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    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Disasters of War, Plate 39 by Francisco Goya. Source: Wikimedia
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    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya. Source: Wikimedia

    One of Goya’s personal projects, Disasters of War, however, was commissioned by no one. It was Goya’s private project, which he never even published in his lifetime. Disasters of War unflinchingly depicts mutilation, torture, rape, and many other atrocities indiscriminately inflicted on Spanish citizens by French and Spanish alike. In The Third Day of May, Goya commemorated the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s Armies in 1808 in the Peninsular War. It portrays an execution by Napoleon’s Troops.

    As the nineteenth century progressed, European artists became increasingly interested in what they called “realist” topics, that is, in depicting the lives of the average human, as he or she went about living in the present moment. While the realism in such art is not devoid of idealizing forces, it does emphasize the validity of the everyday life as a topic for art alongside the value of craft and technique in bringing such “realist” scenes to life.

    6.3.4 Literature

    The novel, which had emerged forcefully in the eighteenth century, became the literary genre of choice in the nineteenth century. Many German novels focused on a character’s development; most important of these novels are those by the German philosopher, poet, and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who was fascinated with the supernatural and set the story of Faust. Faust is a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge, in an epic two-part drama. English author Mary Shelley (1797-1851) explored nature and the supernatural in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), which examines current scientific discoveries as participating in the ancient quest to control nature. Later in the century, British author Charles Dickens exposed the plight of the common man during a time of Industrialization. In France, Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote on a broad range of themes, from what his age saw as the grotesque in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) to the topic of French Revolution in Les Misérables (1862). Another Frenchman, Gustav Flaubert, captured the psychological and emotional life of a “real” woman in Madame Bovary (1856). And in the United States, Mark Twain created Tom Sawyer (1876).

    Besides novels, poetry continued strong in the nineteenth century with such important English poets as George Gordon, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. In addition to Goethe, other German literary figures included Friedrich Schiller, Adrian Ludwig Richter, Heidrich Heine, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, and E. T. A. Hoffmann; their works contributed librettos and settings for nineteenth-century music. Near the end of the century, French symbolism, a movement akin to Impressionism in art and music, emerged in the poetry of Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud.
    For a view of a comprehensive timeline that compares historical events of the Romantic time period to the musical events of the period go to:

    6.3.5 Nineteenth-Century Musical Contexts

    We have already alluded to a new respect for vocal and instrumental music that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century. Music’s influence only grew in the nineteenth century, becoming more prominent yet in the education of the still growing middle class; even the United States, which throughout most of the nineteenth century was deemed somewhat a cultural backwaters of the Western world, had music education in the public schools by the end of the century. An increasing number of music magazines was published, and amateur music making in the home and in local civic groups was at a height. Piano music was a major component of private music making. The salons and soirées of upper middle class and aristocratic women drew many of these private musical performances.

    More concerts in public venues enjoyed increased attendance; some of these concerts were solo recitals and others featured large symphony orchestras, some- times accompanied by choirs. Their performers were often trained in highly specialized music schools called conservatories, which took root in major European cities. By the end of the nineteenth century, traveling virtuoso performers and composers were some of the most famous personalities of their time. These musicians hailed from all over Europe. Some of them became quite wealthy from revenues of ticket sales and publications. Others fit the stereotype of the starving artist, paid in respect though not in the currency of their day.

    Romantic aesthetics tended to conceptualize musicians as highly individualistic and often eccentric. Beethoven modeled these concepts and was the most influential figure of nineteenth-century music, even after his death in 1827. His perceived alienation from society, the respect he was given, and the belief in the transformative power of music that was often identified in his compositions, galvanized romantic perceptions. His music, popular in its own day, only became more popular after his death. Subsequent composers looked to his innovations in sym- phonic compositions, especially his use of recurring motives and themes, as we heard in the Fifth Symphony. For them, Beethoven was also something of a problem: how might one compose in the shadow of such a musical giant?

    6.3.6 musical Timeline

    Events in History Events in Music

    1801: Wordsworth publishes his Lyrical Ballades

    1814-1815: Congress of Vienna, ending Napoleon’s conquest of Europe and Russia

    1818: Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein

    1818: Caspar David Friedrich paints Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

    1830s: Eugène Delacroix captures revolutionary and nationalist fervor in his paintings

    1832: Johann Wolgang von Goethe dies

    1850s: Realism becomes prominent in art and literature

    1861-1865: Civil War in the U.S.

    1870-71: Franco-Prussian War

    1815: Schubert publishes The Erlking

    1827: Beethoven dies

    1829: Felix Mendelssohn leads a revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion,which leads to a revival of Bach’s music more generally

    1830: Hector Berlioz premiers his most famous work, the Symphonie fantastique

    1830s: Clara Wieck and Franz Liszt tour (separately) as virtuoso pianists

    1831: Fryderyk Chopin immigrates to Paris, from the political turmoil in his native country of Poland

    1840: Clara and Robert Schumann marry

    1853: Verdi composes La Traviata

    1874: Bedřich Smetana composes The Moldau 1876: Johannes Brahms completes his First Symphony

    1876: Wagner premiers The Ring of the Nibelungen at his Festival Theatre in Bayreuth, Germany

    1882: Tchaikovsky writes the 1812 Overture

    1891-1892: John Philip Sousa tours the U.S.

    leading the U.S. Marine Band

    1892-1895: Antonin Dvořák visits the U.S., helps establish the first American music conservatory, and composes the New World Symphony.

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