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September 25, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 11: Romantic Classicism

In episode 10:

Our present troubles are part of a long-term -- very long-term -- trend. How did this develop? At one time, the concept of classical music didn't even exist. People we now think of as great composers -- Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach -- were composing music we now call classical, but nobody called it that then, and hardly anybody thought it should be listened to in sober, reverent silence. Music was a lively art. Almost all the pieces played were new. They often featured dance rhythms (think of Bach) and lusty, folk-like melodies (think Haydn). The audience talked during performances, and reacted loudly to the music, clapping and cheering when they heard something they liked. And the musicians often improvised, to an extent we can barely imagine today.

I'm not going to claim that this was any kind of golden age. Performances, by our standards now, were hardly rehearsed at all, and the noise from the audience might have been hard for us to take. And the hardest thing to understand would be how pieces that we now consider masterworks were written to be played for an audience that often didn't listen! But for me, the age of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven, was the time when the music we now call classical hadn't yet begun to stiffen, when it was written directly for an audience, when the reaction of that audience deeply mattered, when the audience and the musicians, too, played a part in musical creativity -- and when even so, composers could write arresting, exciting, path-breaking music. In at least one way, I'd compare it to pop music in our time. Music wasn't held to the forbidding standard supposedly set by the pantheon of the greats. It functioned as part of the world it was written and performed in, and people embraced it -- even when they felt it transfigured them -- as part of their everyday lives.

So how did things change? Three things happened. At the start of the 19th century, the idea of classical music began to emerge -- the idea that some of the music from the past had transcendent value, that this music stood apart from mere entertainment, and had to be heard with unbroken attention; that the composers who wrote it were all but godlike figures; that their music had to be played exactly as they wrote it; and that of course they set the standard for all the music that came after them. Classical music now stood apart from ordinary life, and as the 19th century progressed, more and more of the music that everyone performed came from the past.

And then, near the start of the 20th century, came the rise of modernism. Modernist music sounded harsh; it avoided (or much of it did) steady rhythms and understandable melodies. So now the new music with the highest critical prestige stood apart both from everyday life and from the masterworks of the classical mainstream. Which of course focused classical music even more on the past (an uncomfortable paradox, since modernism saw itself as a leap toward the future).

And then came the final blow, the rise of popular culture, and above all rise of popular music -- jazz and rock -- that in many ways wasn't created on western models. Now it was even harder for classical music to reflect contemporary life, since now the world expressed itself in music that wasn't even remotely classical. Classical music now was even more boxed into its little corner. Worse yet, jazz and rock evolved their own kinds of art music. So now people who want new musical art don't have to care about classical music at all. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that classical music is losing ground. First it insulates itself from the outside world (in all the ways that I've described), and then the outside world returns the compliment, and gets interested in other things.

Let's now look a little bit at each of these developments, starting with the emergence of classical music, as both a concept and a practice. We can begin with a vignette from musical history. "In October [of 1895]," writes Jan Swafford, in his deep, engaging biography of Brahms, "Brahms went to Zürich to conduct [his] Triumphlied for the inauguration of the new Tonhalle [which still is Zurich's leading concert hall today]. Looking up at the paintings on the ceiling, he saw portraits of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and himself."

This isn't an experience that Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart could have had. But when Brahms was a student, in the early 1840s, the pantheon existed. For composers, this brought an enormous sense of responsibility. And when Brahms became conductor of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (The Society of Friends of Music), one of Vienna's leading musical performing groups, he mostly played old music, works from that weighty pantheon.

What else happened when the concept of classical music evolved?


Many things had to change before music could become classical. First, music had to seem important. And, strange as this might seem to us, before the late 18th century, no matter how much people liked music -- no matter how often they flocked to the opera, no matter how much they wanted music in church -- music, as an art, was considered more or less trivial, patronized by the great philosopher Immanuel Kant as nothing much more than a "play of pleasant sounds." Dr. Charles Burney, remembered even now for his pioneering history of music, first published in 1776, and for books describing his musical travels through 18th century Europe, called music "an innocent luxury."

But by 1796, something new was in the air. In a book with the fabulous title Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk, Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (an ecstatic German who died while he was still in his 20s), gushed that music "represents human emotions in a super-human manner." That made it the "most wondrous" of arts, nothing less, in fact, than the "language of angels." People took this seriously. All sorts of new ideas and new emotions were circulating. Anyone who's studied history knows at least the Cliff Notes version of this, which is all I'm going to try to give here. The American and French revolutions told the western world that societies could change. And societies had in fact been changing for quite a while, thanks to the emergence of what we now recognize as modern economic life. People traveled more, bought more, sold more, had access to more things to eat, read, look at, and do. So the idea of the individual started to grow -- the idea of an individual who could make his own (or, later on, even her own) life, distinct from society, responsive to nothing (or so the myth went) but personal needs.

This, of course, was a romantic idea, and what emerged all around it (as well as inside it, right at its core) was the complex of ideas and feelings we now call romanticism. People in the grip of romanticism were consumed by longing -- longing for love, or, even more powerfully, longing for something transcendent and infinite. Sometimes all this was more than a little vague, and that (at least in retrospect) doesn't seem surprising, since as society changed -- growing more uncertain, and also growing both uglier (as factories were built) and less cultured (as the middle class grew, with money to spend, but crass and undeveloped taste) -- what romantics wanted was both an escape, and something (even something intangible, or maybe especially something intangible) to hang onto.

Art became central to their quest. And music seemed like the highest of the arts, precisely because it seemed the most abstract, the least tied to reality. In the 18th century, that had been a problem. This was precisely why music wasn't so highly valued; because it was abstract, it couldn't express any thoughts (or so people thought), unless it had words attached. But now, as the 19th century unfolded, music was "the art which casts off the corporeal"; it was, as Mark Evan Bonds writes in his book Music as Thought (a study of exactly this era) the "highest of all arts" because (as people then thought) it lets us "perceive the Absolute."

And that, as Bonds writes, meant that instrumental music now seemed more vital than vocal music, exactly because its meaning couldn't be fixed. And the symphony -- happily thought of as light entertainment during much of the 18th century -- now seemed like the most profound kind of instrumental music, because it avoided virtuosity; because symphonic composers used sophisticated compositional techniques; because symphonies, thanks to their deep musical coherence, and because they united contrasting elements into a single whole, expressed the deepest truths; and because the many musical instruments that made up an orchestra -- with their cooperative interplay -- evoked an image of an ideal society.

You can see where this is going. If music was this important, so very central to everything that mattered most in life, than of course it had to be heard in perfect, reverent silence. And of course the music of the past had to be preserved, because -- to people living in the early 19th century -- it was music of the past, the 18th century music of Haydn and Mozart, that first had shown (and in the living memory of people who'd heard it when those composers still were alive) what the full, complex power of instrumental music could be.

There was more. Cultured aristocrats and people in the professional classes wanted to preserve what they saw as high culture against the onslaught, as they thought, of middle-class vulgarity. German nationalism played a part; Haydn and Mozart had been German, and many Germans -- with the German nation politically divided -- looked for unifying symbols of German culture. (Note, by the way, that the distinction we make in our time between Germany and Austria didn't exist back then. In the 19th century, Austria was just one of the many German states.)

And then there was Beethoven, whose life straddled the era we're talking about; he was born in 1770 and shook the high-culture musical world until his death in 1827. If he hadn't existed, someone -- or so we might fantasize -- would have had to invent him, because there couldn't have been a more perfect embodiment of all the new romantic musical ideals. He was the first composer who cut himself loose, just about completely, from the ways that 18th century composers made their livings, through employment, patronage, or, sometimes, as musical entrepreneurs. He was the first composer to stand apart from society, to define himself purely as an artist, even to say, in so many words, that he was writing music for the ages.

His music was informed by great ideals, and in fact by the new romantic ideals of freedom and personal transcendence, which he maintained in the face of threats to liberty that came from Napoleon, and from the repressive Austrian state in which Beethoven lived. His music seethed with struggle. His compositions (and especially his symphonies) weren't friendly, like Haydn's, or effortless, like Mozart's (or at least this was the way the 19th century saw Haydn and Mozart). Instead, in many of his major works, Beethoven fought his way from trouble to triumph. For his romantic listeners, he wasn't just emotional; he inspired awe, to a degree that could almost be frightening:

Thus Beethoven's instrumental music also opens up to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Burning rays of light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become aware of giant shadows that surge back and forth, closing in on us in ever-narrower confines until they destroy us, but not the pain of endless longing.

That was the great romantic E. T. A. Hoffman, evoking Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in 1808. Even as late as 1880, more than 30% of the music played by one of Vienna's leading orchestras was by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven.

But how did this impetuous romantic classicism come to dominate musical performance? Not easily, because at first -- as the 19th century dawned -- the music that now was called "classical" had to fight a much stronger wave of impetuous new popular music. And it comes as a shock today to learn that this popular music was written by composers we now think of as classical -- Liszt, for instance (who first became known as a wildly popular, hypnotic piano virtuoso), or Rossini.

In the next episode: classical vs. popular music in the 19th century. Including the British classical music society so stuffy it wouldn't play Haydn -- because, they thought, he was too witty to be serious.

"Formerly if [a musician] wrote a claptrap string quartet to be played by the fiddlers of the Duke of Plaza-Tora, that still left him glowing with the tinge of the duke's greatness. But to write claptrap polkas or romances for a welter of nameless grocers' daughters -- that was somehow humiliating." (Arthur Loesser, Men, Women and Pianos)


Kant and Burney: quoted in Peter Gay, The Naked Heart: The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, Volume IV. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995, pp. 23, 16

Wackenroder: quoted in Mark Evan Bonds, Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 22-3

"the art that casts off the corporeal": from Joseph von Schelling, Philosophy of Art (1802-3), quoted in Bonds, op. cit, p. 20

"highest of all arts" -- Bonds, op. cit, p. 25, paraphrasing Johann Gottfried Herder's essay, "Which Produces the Greatest Effect, Painting or Music? A Dialogue of the Gods" (1785)

18th vs. 19th century symphonies: Bonds, op. cit., pp. 1-4 (though "light entertainment" is my own phrasing, not his);

why symphonies were thought to be profound: Bonds, op. cit., pp. 2, 44ff, 63ff

cultured aristocrats, people in the professional classes: William Weber, Music and the Middle Class. New York: Holmes & Meyer Publishers, 1975; passim

German nationalism: Bonds, op. cit., pp. 79ff

Hoffman on Beethoven: Hoffman's review of Beethoven's Fifth is one of the key texts documenting Beethoven's reception in the early 19th century. Quoted in Bonds, op. cit., p. 35

30% by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: Leon Botstein: "Vienna," §5 (ii), Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 9/24/06), http://www.grovemusic.com. For the increasing percentages of old music on concert programs as the 19th century progressed, see also William Weber, "Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870." International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 8, No. 1. (June, 1977), p. 18


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Posted by gsandow on September 25, 2006 12:30 AM


Maybe some day people will be
famous for creating video games!

I think they already are! And for writing and drawing comics, too.

Posted by: Alexandra Ottaway at September 25, 2006 11:19 AM

Yesterday I took my 10-year-old to his cello class, where the young cellists played the pieces they have been working on. It was inspiring to be in a room full of parents and children (these are ordinary kids, not prodigies) who devote energy to learning music.
The pieces were beautiful, all European, all composed by dead people. In my own early training as a musician this was true, too: all of the music in lesson books was European, except for the occasional American folk song like "Red River Valley."

Music students and their teachers don't have time to think about this; they're busy learning to play. But I'm sure that the romantic ideas you're bringing up are part of the reason no one notices anything odd about the lesson repertoire. Young musicians get completely used to the idea that their music is not connected with anything local or current, and some of them become teachers who continue on in the same way. As you say, it can come to be seen as a good thing to be involved with something set apart from current reality.

But things were different at CalArts, where as an undergraduate I was immersed in music written by composers who were right there (much of it reflecting jazz and rock and folk influences, and some of it still making a virtue of its own unpopularity) and lots of music from non-Western traditions (the faculty still includes Ghanaian, Indonesian, and Indian musicians). This variety completely blew my mind, and my understanding of what the word "music" includes has never been the same.

Claims that one style is more valuable than another no longer make sense to me, even though I happen to make most of my living playing canonical works by those dead European guys. I'm constantly surprised at the stodgy behavior of classical music organizations, and your book goes a long way toward explaining it.

Posted by: John Steinmetz at September 25, 2006 12:55 PM

Speaking of attitudes towards dead composers, Nigel Kennedy the violinist had some interesting things to say in today's Guardian about it, 'this country' being a reference to the UK (he has famously refused to perform with any London orchestras ever again):

You only have to spend a short time in Kennedy's company to realise that, for all his famed irreverence, he actually takes culture very seriously indeed. It's those who approach the arts in a falsely reverential fashion who are the real philistines, he claims. "The problem in this country is that we don't see classical music as part of our root culture. So we approach it in this ridiculously gentrified manner, and play the music in an uptight fashion completely alien to the blokes who wrote it. I mean, Beethoven and Mozart were two of the greatest geniuses who ever lived - but they also knew how to have a good time."

So it's the people in black tie and tails who are the real impostors? "Exactly. It's like pretending to be German and over 200 years old - you end up looking like a pillock."

Posted by: erin at September 29, 2006 7:44 AM


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