Classical music is boring. That sentiment may be most closely associated with the unappreciative philistine or perhaps someone who has simply never developed a taste for classical music. However boredom with the classical forms of music must have been widespread amongst some of the nineteenth century’s most prominent musicians and composers. Tired of the conventional standards of music, composers began to adapt classical models to create a new form music which allowed them to more freely express emotions.
In the early years of the 1800s, a major shift occurred in popular music as composers moved away from classicism and the Romantic Era began. Romanticism was not a movement isolated to music, rather it encompassed all of the arts and was the impetus of creative thought during much of the nineteenth century. During the Romantic Era, advancements in literature and the visual arts had a significant influence on the development of popular music and conversely, musical achievements directly affected literature and art. A brief overview of musical history and terminology is crucial to understanding the Romantic Era and the preceding musical periods.
Romantic music has been widely categorized under the classical music genre, but strictly speaking, it is not classical musical. There is a general misconception as to what classical music really is. Most people consider classical music to be a genre which includes all music that follows long-established principles and traditions. However what is widely known as “classical music” is actually divided into four major historical periods. Chronologically these periods are: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary. Each period’s music has unique characteristics which distinguish it from the others.
So although Bach is generally considered to have written classical music, he is actually a Baroque composer. Likewise, countless other composers are indiscriminately categorized as classical when in reality they are from the Baroque, Romantic, or Contemporary periods. Any mention of classicism or classical music does not refer to the broad genre, rather it refers to the classical period. In many ways Romanticism was a rejection of the more restrictive philosophies of classicism. The enlightenment, which occurred during the classical period, focused on the importance of reason, order, and balance.
Romantics were rebels, and they rejected this tiresome focus on structure. “The Romantics yearned to reclaim human freedom. Habits, values, rules, and standards imposed by a civilization grounded in reason and reason only had to be abandoned”(Kreis). Romantics believed that not everything could be explained by logic alone. Romanticism elevated emotions and the inner struggle o otions and the inner struggle of the artist over logic. Also important to the Romantic movement was the sanctity of nature, which was evident in popular poetry and art as well as numerous musical pieces which attempted to convey the natural world.
Consistent with the values of Romanticism, most Romantic composers were less concerned with following the structure of classical models than they were with the expression of emotions and ideas. “The Romanticism movement held that… there were inescapable realities in the world which could only be reached through emotion, feeling and intuition. Romantic music struggled to increase emotional expression and power to describe these deeper truths” (Romantic Music). By most standards, Romantic music was much more expressive than classical models.
Romantic music was longer and the melodies contained inside were more fluid and moving. Composers employed a variety of musical techniques to convey a range of emotions and ideas, from soft and mellifluous melodies which created serene moods to harsh and discordant tones that implied the violence of inner turmoil. Romantic Composers were much more intimately acquainted with the visual and literary arts than their predecessors. The Romantic Movement was both intellectual and spiritual and it encompassed all art forms. Romantic music relied heavily on literature and art for inspiration.
Charles Rosen, Professor of Music and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, described the relationship between the arts during the Romantic Period in his book The antic Generation. According to Rosen, Romantic composers regularly drew inspiration from poetry and art, but he also claimed “it is music that inspires the triumph of landscape painting and poetry by demonstrating the possibility of creating an art that achieves the grandest effects apparently without referring outside itself. ” In Rosen’s description it is clear that the arts were not separate during the Romantic Period, but instead they were deeply interconnected.
Musicians, writers, and artists alike were motivated by the same Romantic philosophies which were so prevalent at the time. Surrounded as they were with Romantic ideas in every aspect of popular culture, it was impossible for musicians and other artists to avoid the influence of Romanticism. Literary inspirations were particularly important for Romantic composers. In The Encyclopedia of Classical Music Robert Ainsley discusses the influence of literature on Romantic composers. Ainsley says “Many Romantic composers were heavily influenced and inspired by writers. He then goes on to list writers who influenced composers and their musical works including Goethe, Schiller, Ruckert, Byron, and Scott. Literature provided the foundations for many significant musical works. Ainsley notes “One of the fundamental novelties about pure Romanticism was that it was music designed to be about something rather than being purely abstract. ”
Writers provided concrete ideas on which composers could structure their music. Romantic music, unlike classical music, was not about lofty abstract ideas. Romanticism was concerned with the common experience of humanity and all the emotions and truggles that came with it. The influence of inspirations which came from outside the musical sphere is perhaps most evident in the development and usage of the symphonic poem during the Romantic Era. Ainsley defines a symphonic poem as an “orchestral composition, nearly always a single movement, which portrays a narrative story or a visual image. ” The majority of the narratives and images delineated in symphonic poems have literary origins. Franz Liszt, one of the Romantic Era’s greatest composers and pianists, is accredited with the invention of the symphonic poem.
Liszt composed several symphonic poems based on the writings of some of the most famous Romantic writers. Liszt’s symphonic poems include Ce qu’on Entend sur la Montagne which is based on a poem by Victor Hugo, Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo inspired by the writings of Lord Byron, and Les Preludes which is about a poem by the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine. Liszt’s other symphonic poems portray ancient Greek legends and historical events (Fenech). Liszt began a musical movement which was largely dependent on literature and art for inspiration.
The symphonic poem took the most prominent Romantic writings and put them into musical form. Although Liszt was the first to use the symphonic poem, he certainly was not the last. Numerous composers continued to develop symphonic poems as a form of music, notably Richard Strauss, whose symphonic poems became great successes. Some of Strauss’s most popular poems such as Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Till Eulenspiegel described the adventures of famous folk heroes, while his orchestral work Also sprach Zarathustra is a tribute to the thoughts expressed in the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (Ainsley, 108).
In some respects the symphonic poem became the musical embodiment of the ideals of Romanticism. Symphonic poems had all the unabashed expression of emotion characteristic of Romantic music but also contained ideas prevalent in Romantic literature and in some cases images found in Romantic art. The relationship between music and the visual arts in the Romantic Era is often not as obvious as the connection between music and literature, however a close examination of some key Romantic artists and their works reveals the influence of music on art.
Austrian artist Josef Danhauser’s painting Liszt am Flugel (Liszt at the Piano) is one of the most well known paintings of Liszt, and over the years the picture has become a representation of musical romanticism. As described by art historian Katherine Ellis, the painting portrays Liszt seated at a piano surrounded by a group of his friends who are all seemingly captivated by his music. Two notable musical figures, the violinist Nicolo Paganini and the opera composer Gioachino Rossini, are present in the painting, but more importantly there are also three famous writers included in the scene: George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo.
Also it is interesting to note that there is a portrait of Lord Byron hanging on a wall in the background (Hamilton). Because Liszt at the Piano is a painting it is most directly connected with the visual arts. However the subject matter is of the picture is primarily concerned with the emotion of music, and there are multiple allusions to the literary world. This painting is a tangible culmination of visual, musical, and literary arts in the Romantic Era, and it offers proof of the explicit connection between musicians, writers, and artists.
The implications of Liszt at the Piano are especially significant when one considers the painting’s suggestions that there were deeply personal relationships shared between some of the nineteenth century’s most revered writers and its most famous composers. It is evident that for some Romantic period artists like Danhauser, music was a meaningful source of inspiration. History offers some more concrete accounts of the close relationships between musicians, artists, and writers. Particularly interesting to consider is Chopin’s romantic involvement with George Sand and their mutual friendship with the artist Eugene Delacroix.
Once again the connection between the arts in this case is quite clear. Chopin was a virtuoso pianist and composer, Sand an important writer, and Delacroix an artist. When Sand introduced Chopin to Delacroix, the two men discovered they had much in common, but in particular, they shared a love of music. Chopin and Delacroix’s relationship is captured in the following: “Sand once described Delacroix standing alongside the piano as Chopin played: “He embarks on a sort of casual improvisation, then stops. ‘Go on, go on,’ exclaims Delacroix, ‘That’s not the end! ‘ ‘It’s not even a beginning….
I’m trying to find the right color, but I can’t even get the form. You won’t find the one without the other…. ‘” (Lee). Delacroix was deeply touched by Chopin’s music and later he would paint one of the most famous portraits of the composer. It is important to remember that Sand also played a role in this relationship. Sand and Chopin lived together for several years, Chopin playing music in one room while she wrote in the other. The intimate and sometimes stormy relationship between the two most certainly affected Chopin’s compositions as well as Sand’s stories.
All three of these artists impacted each other’s work in one way or another throughout their close relationship. This personal connection between Chopin, Delacroix, and Sand demonstrates the close interrelation of musical, artistic, and literary figures during the Romantic Era. Romantic music was at its heart a reflection of the nineteenth century’s most significant intellectual movement. Composers were deeply influenced by the writings of Romantic literary figures, and to a lesser degree the works of artists.
Romantic music is uniquely powerful because it contains the passions and convictions of a generation of artists, dreamers, and rebels. Composers in this period strove to reach a higher expression of emotion and convey the struggles and triumphs which characterize the human experience. The emotion imbued within Romantic music allowed the Romantic style to endure for nearly a century, and elements of Romanticism can still be found in modern compositions. Romanticism in contemporary music is evident whenever a piece communicates a feeling which penetrates the listener, creating a supremely powerful and moving effect.