The wonderful cultural conjunction between the Enlightenment and early Romanticism yielded a sort of renaissance of artistic production, evident in the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven and in Goethe’s works. An irony in the history of the 1770s to the 1820s is that the ideas of freedom and fraternity proposed by thinkers of the period were generally opposed or resisted by the aristocrats and bourgeoisie dominating society. In addition, the scientific objectivity and mechanistic deism valued in the Age of Reason imprinted culture generally, and these led to a devaluing of the individual’s inner life, suppressing the individual’s capacity to experience spirituality and the exaltation of the sublime, to feel the range of emotion, and even to perceive. Romanticism rejected that devaluing and developed an alternative to those utilitarian concepts justifying a world of materialism and (to use E.T.A. Hoffmann’s phrase) of “uniformly manufactured products.” Opposed to the mechanistic notion of “a clockwork universe,” the Romantic alternative proposes an organic conception of existence and imagination, which illuminates perception and restores the emotional life.
Contact with nature is one means of such renewal, as experienced, for example, in pastoral epiphanies of Wordsworth’s Lake District or in the sublime, exalting vision of the Alps in Turner’s “Hannibal crossing the Alps” or Byron’s “Childe Harold,” reimagined in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” for viola and orchestra. A second access to the imagination in Romanticism is provided by the nativist folk base of culture, for example in the folk music produced by “the damsel with a dulcimer” in “Kubla Khan” or the Polish dance that forms the basis of Chopin’s mazurkas. There was the additional imaginative promise in a revolutionary fraternity of humanity generally (heard, for example, in the Beethoven/Schiller “Ode to Joy”). In the decades after the French Revolution in 1789, the Romantic generation attempted to create “a new heavens and new earth” by rebelling against the conditions of the society’s “actual” empirical reality, with its resistance both to the fullness of being which the Romantic imagination promised and to the idea of the rights of ordinary citizens (with their alienation from the injustices in society).
Prevailing social conditions in this period were characterized by social rigidity and complacency, and in the face of such stasis and lack of openness to change, there was the danger in Romanticism of the loss of connection to normal, lived life, even – or especially – as composers and performers, artists and writers, strove to achieve the state of transcendence their art promised. In the same year Keats wrote of fading from ordinary existence as he listened to the transcendent song of the Nightingale, the reality of society in 1819 saw the British cavalry draw their sabers and kill dozens in a crowd of thousands, who were demanding labor reform, in the Peterloo Massacre. Keats’ “Ode” does not situate itself within the specific historical conditions (unlike the references to the French Revolution in Wordsworth’s “Prelude” and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”), but it does evoke the “hungry generations” of history which remind him of his own present “forlorn” state; the poem celebrates, instead, an openness both to the ecstasy of the music he hears and to a death of the ordinary self: “now more than ever seems it rich to die…while thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad.” This alternative state of openness is related to what, in his letters, Keats calls “negative capability” – through which he inhabits the boundary-less world of pure imagination, of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”
More than twenty years earlier, in 1797, Coleridge wrote of music in the same spirit – about the damsel in “Kubla Khan” playing “on her dulcimer…and singing of Mount Abora.” Her folk music could lead to restoring the poet’s drug-induced dream-vision of the Khan’s “sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice” – “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song, / To such deep delight ‘twould win me, / That with music loud and long, / I would build that dome in air [and] those caves of ice.” Later in the poem, the tension between the Romantic visionary state and social reality is explicitly present, as it was more subtly in the “Ode;” Coleridge suggests how the Romantic genius’ yearning for vision can violate communal bonds: “all who heard should see them there, / And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / Weave a circle round him thrice, / And close your eyes with hold dread, / For he on honey-dew hath fed, / And drunk the milk of paradise.” The figure of the creative genius can experience a “Romantic agony” as the result of the drugs, sexual extremity, and spiritualism involved sometimes in pursuit of sublimity and exaltation.
Music is, above all, associated by Coleridge with the joys of the imagination and what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeing…recollected in tranquility.” Resting with his wife in the pastoral setting of “The Eolian Harp,” Coleridge hears the sounds of the wind harp expressing “the one Life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul, / A light in sound, a sound-like power in light, / Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere.” Linked to love, to fantasy, and to nature, the joy of music leads him to imagine the organic unity of music and nature: “what if all of animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d, / That tremble into though, as o’er them sweeps / Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, / At once the Soul of each, and God of all?” These speculations, however, are presented as “untamed” and called “unhallow’d” by his beloved wife in the poem, for they put at risk the normal God-fearing bonds and compass of his life. Coleridge here combines an evocation of delight in musical beauty and its inspiring sublimity with a realism about the dangers arising from visionary exaltation, which can threaten to silence the bonds supporting the normal self.
Though the extraordinary potential of the Romantic imagination is realized in the poetry of the period (not to mention the philosophical prose, which for example shaped Coleridge’s thought, or the novel with its desire to embrace the full range of human experience), it is music which most powerfully and immediately embodies Romanticism; the musical form closely associated with it is the art song, for example the lieder composed in the hundreds by Franz Schubert. His first song is based on a passage from Goethe’s Faust Part One, “Gretchen at the Spinning-wheel.” The continual spinning sound of the piano accompaniment is hypnotic, and the intensity of her passionate longing, singing of Faust’s “noble frame,” his mouth and eyes, his speech and touch and kiss, is matched by the force of her bereft suffering: “Where I am without him is for me the grave.” The depth and control Schubert brings to this tension speaks to his masterful understanding of both music and the mind.
The next year, when Schubert was eighteen in 1816, he composed another lieder based on a Goethe poem, “The Erlking.” Here the piano’s continually hammered triplets establish the fateful urgency of the dramatic tableau with three voices uniquely evoked – the father’s as he carries his son through the night on horseback, the sick child’s voice, and the phantom spirit of the Erlking. All of these are brought together into a single frame, the opposing forces into a brilliant and powerful unity. And once more, the lyric beauty of the voices serves to convey profound psychological understanding. There is the desperate protectiveness of the authoritative father, there are the phantasms of the son’s fevered imagination, and there is the seductive beauty of the fantasied, magical spirit of the woods, with his daughters who will “rock you and dance you and sing you to sleep.” All three voices have parts in this drama of death, even the Erlking, who sings to the boy that “if you’re not willing” to come with him, “I shall use force.” At the end, the child’s devastating death abruptly terminates all imagined beauty or joy, and once again the fevered extremity of an imagined world has collided with the matrix that supports the ordinary human world.
A wanderer, grieving for lost love, is the single singer in Schubert’s last set of songs, Winterreise, completed at the age of thirty, the year before his death in 1828. These lieder make up a single, unified monologue and are the finest example of the form. The lyrical beauty of the songs continually serves their profound psychological expressiveness, and their hypnotic beauty achieves a transcendent sublimity. The direct simplicity and expressiveness of phrasing are poignant, and the piano accompaniment insightfully renders both the emotional content and the context of the song, whether it be a lullaby, a crow’s call, a winter storm, or the repeated drone of an organ-grinder on a lonely street. This last is the situation in “Der Leiermann,” the final song in the winter journey; it presents an encounter with a street musician who makes music on his hurdy-gurdy, though no one listens and “his little plate remains ever empty.” The encounter with a seemingly expelled folk figure, exiled and disappeared from the community, is of course a powerful tableau in Romantic art; it occurs in Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence,” and twentieth-century versions include Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” and even Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist.” The work has influenced many songs in the last half-century, and it is echoed in Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Forlorn and barefoot, the organ-grinder never stops the drone of his instrument – sorrowful, beautiful, and hypnotic. The singer’s tragic eloquence finally joins with that repeated drone: “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Will you grind your music to my songs?”
In Romanticism, art is seen as positing the possibility of a transcendent world, and yet the beauty it creates can connect to forms of death. The elevation and exaltation of musical transcendence is dangerous and difficult to achieve, for it risks both calling into question the empirical reality of our lives and being expelled from that communal reality. Its music promises, however, the creation of a vital, new language for the life of feeling and thought. Schubert – with the composers who immediately followed him – cherishes the essential elements, gestures, and phrases of feeling; not unlike Beethoven’s building edifices in sound by paring music down to its essentials, Schubert’s achievement is to hallow the endangered emotional life by evoking its essential nuances of feeling in structures of sublime beauty. Romantic music aims to sustain the century-long legacy of harmonious beauty from Bach through Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven and Schubert, even in a society which denies the fullness and wholeness of the imagination.