Stephen Walsh, award-winning biographer of Igor Stravinsky and Professor Emeritus of Music at Cardiff University, has written a stimulating new history of Romantic music, The Beloved Vision: Music in the Romantic Age. Nigel Jarrett finds it replete with insight and fascinating detail.
There’s romantic and there’s Romantic. The first is a feeling or idea or attitude, the second a historical category. But, in music especially, the first seeps unbounded in all directions beyond specific time and place, albeit thinning out far from the core of the second. Thus, the brooding, atypical scherzo in the String Quartet No 3 in C (‘The Bird’) by Haydn, a ‘Classical’ composer, is alleviated by a brighter middle allegretto, with the darker opening reprised for the last word. Not that he worked dressed to the nines, but the middle may fancifully be seen as written by the bewigged Court composer of Esterházy and the outer ones by a different Haydn – unshaven in shirt and braces, the wig stashed untidily on its peruke stand, the darkening night pierced by steady but vulnerable candlelight, the demons on the prowl.
Stephen Walsh covers ground tilled by many others in his nonetheless refreshing new book on 19th-century music. One of his predecessors was Arnold Whittall, who introduced his own effort – Romantic Music (Thames & Hudson, 1984) – by wondering if there were need for yet more words on the subject, before going on to supply another 100,000. But Whittall was a theorist and broadcaster, hardly ever a professional critic. Walsh – a distinguished critic, academic, musicologist, and prize-winning biographer – scores by dealing with the technicalities and virtues of repertoire with the same critical acuity and élan he brings to its contemporary performance.
As with all other histories, the narrative whoosh here is linear but all along its length the path is crowded, limpet-like, with forgotten lay-bys of activity populated by composers in thrall to, or thinking themselves as good as, or thought by the public as more interesting than, those striding ahead on the main thoroughfare, which only becomes clear long after the event. That’s how histories work. In the case of Romantic music’s development, there’s some early dabbling in its literary antecedents of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress: the exaltation of Nature and individual feeling), involving those whose compositional styles were orderly in the Enlightenment sense of rational and restrained. That included the Haydn of the aforementioned quartet for whom it was not so much stormy as overcast. Before him, C P E Bach had written post-Baroque music a little at odds with itself. Reason is always under threat from doubt and unreason and the history of music on reflection is as much stellar as linear: some stars shine more brightly than others, some have their eternally-orbiting moons, and others fade as though they’d never existed; but all belong to some constellation of other.
Walsh turns up the light on many of these forgotten reputations, and makes the base-camp wanderings interesting while the summit achievements of, among others, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Bruckner, and Mahler await. As he points out, resurrecting, inter alia, the names of Wranitzky, Farrenc, Rott, and Dalayrac and giving credit where it has been withheld and overdue is the way of seeing history as their contemporaries saw it, which wasn’t history at all but present-day happening. Gluck the reformist and Mozart embraced Romantic angst sufficiently in Classical opera – Mozart in instrumental music too – for Beethoven to arrive behind a rushing hurricane with a slam of the door (though it creaked open to admit entry to bits of the past that were impossible to lose). The adjectives applied to him say it all – idiosyncratic, abrupt, wigless, ferocious – and Walsh’s enlivening combination throughout the book of the demotic and the elegantly dialectic includes the description of the Hammerklavier piano sonata’s opening as ‘a B flat punch on the nose’. Isn’t it just?
It was no surprise that composers, in choosing to work in a mostly abstract medium, should pursue opera (based on texts, stories) and art song (based on poetry, however third-rate), as a means of romantic expression, their characters’ and/or their own. Italian, French, and German opera is described and evaluated with new clarity and perception, recalling grand obscurities such as Le Sueur’s Ossian, ou les bardes and reminding the reader that they often embodied the spirit of Romanticism, perhaps excessive as a result of unrestrained gestures, as much as more emblematic works. Mercadante and Pacini displayed elements of Verdi but without his range, which is why they are lay-by inhabitants. Verdi, Wagner, and stormy politics went together, illustrating how counterpointing historical events such as the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars fed into the music of the times they announced. For a self-styled ‘armchair’ book, written under pandemical contraints, The Beloved Vision is a tapestry of seamlessly recounted inter-relationships stitched neatly together, not least in its chronicling of the way changes in society and manufacture led to better musical instruments, more sheet music, wider consumption, and a variety of places where music could be heard.
The problem with a book of this sort is that the Romantic titans are waiting impatiently to be considered, preferably in isolation and refusing to be measured against Romanticism’s dawn and its never-ending dusk. Walsh, making them wait then leaving them behind, accords them magisterial recognition, though as contemporaries they were not always of one mind. Verdi and Wagner are linked as the heavyweights of mid-19th century opera but he re-affirms an important connection between Wagner and Brahms as composers with different outlooks and therefore different takes on expressing Romanticism’s ‘existential’ voice. Brahms, regarded as the greatest symphonist after Beethoven but before Bruckner and Mahler, was unimpressed with Wagner’s ‘music of the future’ but knew that the custodian of Bayreuth was on to something. Moreover, Brahms had stuck to music in the abstract while the French and Italians had gone for vocal music and Wagner had believed instrumental music obsolete after Beethoven. (But that was different from the obsolescence ‘lurking in wait’ for those forgotten wayside shades.) Not that everyone, whatever their predilection, had got it right: Berlioz, the ‘flagrant original’, wrote dramatic works not intended for the theatre and a few operas difficult to stage.
In many ways, the colossal miniaturists – Schubert, Schumann and Wolf in lieder; Fauré, Duparc, and Gounod in mélodies; and Chopin and Paganini in solo instrumental works – represent Romanticism reduced to lone and introspective voices. But the volume of sound created by their less intimate contemporaries added to the tumult they created as a movement – so loud, so heart-rending, yet so personal – that it’s no wonder it brimmed over into the 20th century when anything like a straight path in music history continued along separate and ever-diverging tracks, each ultimately with side-tracks of its own. That Romantic music forms the largest part of public concert programming today, and is the main source of popular music and film scores, is testimony to its enduring appeal if not its intrinsic merit; but that too. Walsh’s all-encompassing method of telling this story makes one wonder who decides which stars shine and which are dimmed. There’s a case for regarding Meyerbeer as the century’s most successful opera composer, which makes the book’s evaluations even more relevant and useful. Where one had maybe overlooked Meyerbeer, he encourages a re-consideration or even a first approach.
The book’s informative ushering-in of Romanticism is no less streamlined than the marshalling of its departure. The 19th century’s legacy was ‘immense intellectual disarray’, according to the theologian Jacques Maritain. (Eric Hobsbawm called it the ‘long 19th century’.) In music, Wagner’s far-reaching influence had long divided opinion. Brahms was not the only doubter. It pointed to new ways of writing new music, but not everyone was ready or willing to venture towards the unknown regions. In the music of Richard Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler and Debussy, the language of Romanticism held new possibilities. The paradox in Europe was the way in which French pro-Wagner sentiment, though not everywhere, survived the ignominy of the Franco-Prussian war. As an interesting historical link, Walsh connects Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, a move into new territory with its opening tenor horn theme in fourths rather than thirds, with Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. Schoenberg ‘kept going’ beyond chromatic harmony’s ‘point of no return’ and in the Second String Quartet of 1908, supposedly in F sharp minor, any feeling of a controlling key signature had dissolved. It was a, rather than the, dissolution of Romantic language. Elsewhere, traditional Romanticism ‘lingered on’. Music history looked at as planetary offered, among other things, explosive grandeur in Russia, startling originality in Czechoslovakia, and less volatile but still heartfelt outbursts in Britain.
But at the end there’s a sense of Romanticism’s having won some kind of argument about what sort of music was likely to reap the widest admiration and appeal. Having invented the idea of an avant-garde, Romantic composers trumped their successors in advance and unwittingly prepared the ground not only for ‘inside the whale’ diktats about what 20th-century music should be but also for music itself performed before pygmy audiences of ‘music critics, agents, publishers, and the homeless’. But whisper it: this is controversial stuff, however quietly acknowledged. Contemporary music remains embattled; Romantic composers to a greater or lesser extent battled with themselves, with music-lovers the winners.
One quibble: the French Revolution’s mantra values of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité were not so much ‘mundane’ as in need of re-emphasis. They were never promoted to imply that Paris street urchins were as ‘admirable, useful and loveable as a brilliant philosopher or a beautiful and virtuous woman’ (women are philosophers, too) but surely to suggest that Parisian streets might be rid of wretched urchins so that they themselves might become brilliant, virtuous and beautiful, given opportunity and potential. Music might then be enriched by more talented musicians and encouraged by bigger audiences. Revolutions can go awry; but in politics, as in music, practice is intended to make perfect. For composers, of course, liberty meant vocational emancipation from forms of drudgery.
The book’s virtue, in always embracing the wider compositional picture, lies in the way it teases a history – linear, stellar – out of diffuse and multifarious musical and associated happenings, so that events and individuals are only as important as the surroundings from which they emerge. Such an environment can be musical or social and often both. It’s been done before but not as informatively or as stylishly as this.
The Beloved Vision: Music In The Romantic Age, by Stephen Walsh. Faber, 421pp, hardcover, ISBN 978-0-571-35695-9, £25.
Nigel Jarrett is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review. He won the Rhys Davies Prize and the Templar Shorts Award, both for short fiction. His sixth book, a fictional memoir, is Notes From the Superhorse Stable; it appeared this year from Saron Publishers. His fourth story collection, Five Go to Switzerland, is about to be published by Cockatrice Books.