History Lesson 1: German Romanticism

Caspar David Friedrich, (1774-1840). Moonrise Over The Sea, 1822.

Caspar David Friedrich, (1774-1840). Moonrise Over The Sea, 1822.

To understand romanticism as it applies to music, we first need to take a look at romanticism from a broader perspective. The Oxford Dictionary of Music traces the origins of romanticism to early nineteenth century literature as an “antithesis of Classicism”. Where classicism touted form, structure and predictability; romanticism pushed for emotion as the primary influence of composition (whether literary, artistically, or musically). The “Romantic Period” as we know it today is typically recognized to include works composed between 1815 and 1910, and with its most notable composers including Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner and many others. Many of these composers are German – which is no surprise considering that the phenomenon originated there.

The term romanticism is problematic due to its double meaning as both a period (the dates mentioned above) and a cultural movement. Thus, describing a musical work as romantic can depend on the date of its composition or simply the way it sounds. Edward F. Kravitt’s 1992 article “Romanticism Today” does an excellent job of describing and defining the “traits” of romantic music most often considered by musicologists. Consider this list (handily compiled by a Wikipedia contributor) in identifying romantic works:

  • a new preoccupation with and surrender to Nature
  • a fascination with the past, particularly the Middle Ages and legends of medieval chivalry
  • a turn towards the mystic and supernatural, both religious and merely spooky
  • a longing for the infinite
  • mysterious connotations of remoteness, the unusual and fabulous, the strange and surprising
  • a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly, the frightful, and terrifying
  • fantastic seeing and spiritual experiences
  • a new attention given to national identity
  • emphasis on extreme subjectivism
  • interest in the autobiographical
  • discontent with musical formulas and conventions

This list is not without its problems (see the full article by Kravitt for more details) but should serve adequately as a basic tool of identification.

Beethoven. Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

Beethoven. Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

One of the most important evolutions of romanticism in music (and other art, for that matter) was the rise of nationalism. Hence we come to German Romanticism and one of the most famous names in classical music: Richard Wagner. The romantic era for music saw the rise of programmatic music representing ideals of nations and states across Europe. For example, Jean Sibelius – a Finnish composer – composed an entire symphonic poem depicting episodes of Finnish history (and thusly named the work Finlandia). Many Germans, meanwhile, took it upon themselves to compose pieces in a similar vein.

Below you will find several works of recommended listening in order to get a basic understanding of German Romanticism. First is Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – often considered one of the first true works of the romantic period. Second is Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutzan opera with a somewhat nationalistic lean and overtly supernatural tones – something very common of the era. Finally, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder is included as well as an introduction to the German lieder – a genre originating in this era and favoured by our three featured composers for this concert series. You can find various recordings of each in the library collection.

Recommended Listening

Beethoven: Pastoral Symphony (Find it in the collection: catalogue link)

Weber: Der Freischutz (Find it in the collection: catalogue link)

Mahler: Kindertotenlieder (Find it in the collection: catalogue link)

References / Recommended Reading

Kravitt, Edward F. 1992. “Romanticism Today”. The Musical Quarterly 76, no. 1 (Spring): 93–109.

John Kmetz, et al. “Germany § Art Music § 4. 1806-1918” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40055>.

Jim Samson. “Romanticism.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/23751>.

“Romantic(ism).” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 11 Oct.2013. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t237/e8648&gt;.

Daverio, John. Nineteenth-Century Music and the German Romantic Ideology. Schirmer Books: New York. 1993c.

Chapple, Gerald, Frederick Hall, and Hans Schulte, eds. The Romantic Tradition: German Literature and Music in the Nineteenth Century. Lanham: University Press of America, 1992. Print. German Literature, Art & Thought.

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