Romantic Music: The Ideals of Instrumental Music
When studying the Romantic period of music, we encounter an apparent opposition that plagues attempts to understand the meaning of Romanticism as applied to 19th-century music. This opposition concerns the relationship between music and words. Although instrumental music is considered the perfect Romantic art, it is acknowledged that the great masters of the symphony, which is the highest form of instrumental music, were not Romantic composers but were the Classical composers Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Additionally, one of the most characteristic genres of the 19th century was the Lied, a vocal piece in which Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf achieved a new union between music and poetry. Furthermore, many leading composers in the 19th century were highly interested and articulate in literary expression, and leading Romantic novelists and poets wrote about music with deep love.
The conflict between the ideal of pure instrumental music (absolute music) as the ultimate Romantic mode of expression and the strong literary orientation 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 music associated with poetic, descriptive, and even narrative subject matter.
This is done not by means of musical figures imitating natural sounds and movements, but by imaginative suggestion. Program music aims to absorb and transmit the imagined subject matter in such a way that the resulting work, although programmed”, does not sound forced and transcends the subject matter it seeks to represent. Instrumental music thus became a vehicle for the utterance of thoughts which, although first hinted in words, may ultimately be beyond. Practically every composer of the era was, to some degree, writing program music, whether or not this was publicly acknowledged. One reason it was so easy for listeners to connect a scene, story, or poem with a piece of Romantic music is that often the composer himself, perhaps unconsciously, was working from some such ideas.
Writers on music projected their own conceptions of the expressive functions of music into the past and read Romantic programs into the instrumental works of Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. However, the diffused scenic effects in the music of these composers seem pale when compared to the feverish and detailed drama that constitutes the story of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830). Berlioz’s imagination always seemed to run in parallel literary and musical channels. He once subtitled his work “Episode in the life of an artist” and provided a program for it, which was, in effect, a piece of Romantic autobiography. In later years, he conceded that if necessary, when the symphony was performed by itself in concert, the program would not need to be given out, for the music would “of itself, and irrespective of any dramatic aim, offer an interest in the musical sense alone.” The principal formal departure in the symphony is the recurrence of the opening theme of the first Allegro, the idee fixe. According to the program, this is the obsessive image of the hero’s beloved that recurs in the other movements. To mention another example: in the coda of the Adagio, there is a passage for solo English horn and four tympani intended to suggest “distant thunder.”
The foremost composer of program music after Berlioz was Franz Liszt. He wrote twelve symphonic poems between 1848 and 1858. The name symphonic poem” is significant. These pieces are symphonic, but Liszt did not call them symphonies, presumably because of their short length and the fact that they are not divided into movements. Instead, each is a continuous form with various sections, more or less varied in tempo and character, and a few themes 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 be rhetorical in a sense. It forces today’s listeners to hear lavishly excessive emotion on ideas that do not seem sufficiently important for such a display. Liszt’s two symphonies were as programmatic as his symphonic poems. His masterpiece, the Faust Symphony, was dedicated to Berlioz. It consists of three movements entitled Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles, with a finale (added later) which is a setting for tenor soloist and male chorus. The first three movements correspond to the classic plan of an introduction in Allegro, Andante, and Scherzo.
Liszt attempted to sum up the ideas of Romanticism: Music embodies feeling without forcing it – as it is forced in its other manifestations, in most arts and especially in the art of words – to contend and combine with thought. It is the embodied and intelligent essence of feeling; capable of being apprehended by our senses, it permeates them like a dart, like a ray, like a dew, like a spirit, and fills our soul.” Bibliography: