Romantic Music: The Ideals of Instrumental MusicAt one point in the study of the Romantic period of music, we come uponthe first of several apparently opposing conditions that plague all attempts tograsp the meaning of Romantic as applied to the music of the 19th century. Thisopposition involved the relation between music and words. If instrumental musicis the perfect Romantic art, why is it acknowledged that the great masters ofthe symphony, the highest form of instrumental music, were not Romanticcomposers, but were the Classical composers, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven?Moreover, one of the most characteristic 19th century genres was the Lied, avocal piece in which Shubert, Schumann, Brahams, and Wolf attained a new unionbetween music and poetry. Furthermore, a large number of leading composers inthe 19th century were extremely interested and articulate in literary expression,and leading Romantic novelists and poets wrote about music with deep love andThe conflict between the ideal of pure instrumental music (absolutemusic) as the ultimate Romantic mode of expression, and the strong literaryorientation of the 19th century, was resolved in the conception of program music. Program music, as Liszt and others in the 19th century used the term, is musicassociated with poetic, descriptive, and even narrative subject matter.Order now
This isdone not by means of musical figures imitating natural sounds and movements, butby imaginative suggestion. Program music aimed to absorb and transmit theimagined subject matter in such a way that the resulting work, although”programmed”, does not sound forced, and transcends the subject matter it seeksto represent. Instrumental music thus became a vehicle for the utterance ofthoughts which, although first hinted in words, may ultimately be beyond thePractically every composer of the era was, to some degree, writingprogram music, weather or not this was publicly acknowledged. One reason itwas so easy for listeners to connect a scene or a story or a poem with a pieceof Romantic music is that often the composer himself, perhaps unconsciously, wasworking from some such ideas.
Writers on music projected their own conceptionsof the expressive functions of music into the past, and read Romantic programsinto the instrumental works not only of Beethoven, but also the likes of Mozart,The diffused scenic effects in the music of such composers asMendelssohn and Schumann seem pale when compared to the feverish, and detaileddrama that constitutes the story of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830). Because his imagination always seemed to run in parallel literary and musicalchannels, Berlioz once subtitled his work “Episode in the life of an artist”,and provided a program for it which was in effect a piece of Romanticautobiography. In later years, he conceded that if necessary, when the symphonywas performed by itself in concert, the program would need not be given out forthe music would “of itself, and irrespective of any dramatic aim, offer aninterest in the musical sense alone. ” The principle formal departure in thesymphony is the recurrence of the opening theme of the first Allegro, the ideefixe. This, according to the program, is the obsessive image of the hero’sbeloved, that recurs in the other movements. To mention another example: in thecoda of the Adagio there is a passage for solo English horn and four Tympaniintended to suggest “distant thunder”.
The foremost composer of program music after Beriloz was Franz Liszt,twelve of whose symphonic poems were written between 1848 and 1858. The namesymphonic poem is significant: these pieces are symphonic, but Liszt did notcall them symphonies, presumably because or their short length, and the factthat they are not divided up into movements. Instead, each is a continuos formwith various sections, more or less varied in tempo and character, and a fewthemes that are varied, developed, or repeated within the design of the work. Les Preludes, the only one that is still played much today, is well designed,melodious, and efficiently scored.
However, its idiom causes it to berhetorical in a sense. It forces today’s listeners to here lavishly excessiveemotion on ideas that do not seem sufficiently important for such a display ofLiszt’s two symphonies were as programmatic as his symphonic poems. His masterpiece, the Faust Symphony, was dedicated to Berlioz. It consists ofthree movements entitled respectively Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles, witha finale (added later) which is a setting for tenor soloist and male chorus. Thefirst three movements correspond to the classic plan of an introduction inAllegro, Andante, and Scherzo.
Liszt attempted to sum up the ideas of Romantic”Music embodies feeling without forcing it – as it is forced in itsother manifestations, in most arts and especially in the art of words – tocontend and combine with thought….it is the embodied and intelligent essenceof feeling; capable of being apprehended by our senses, it permeates them like adart, like a ray, like a dew, like a spirit, and fills our soul.” Bibliography: