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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Critics
Richard Taruskin
What is a Philistine?

fig. 6-1 Robert Schumann, drawing from a daguerreotype by Johann Anton Völlner, Hamburg, March 1850.

The Philistines, in history, were a non-Semitic (probably Greek) people who settled on the Mediterranean coast, in a region now named Palestine after them, around 1200 bce. In the Bible, of course, they figure as the historical enemies of the Israelites, God's “chosen people.” It is easy to see how the term could be applied to the opponents of any chosen, or self-chosen, group. In the early nineteenth century the name was applied by artists imbued with the ideals of romanticism to those perceived as their enemies, namely the materialistic, hedonistic “crowd,” indifferent to culture and content with commonplace entertainment.

Already a tension within romanticism is exposed, because that crowd, with its “democratized” taste, was now the primary source of support for artists, and many romantic artists, notably Liszt, took sustenance from it and actively wooed it. For an idea of romantic ambivalence toward the public, we might recall that it was none other than Liszt who defined for us (in his memoir of John Field, quoted in chapter 2) the romantic ideal of subjective privacy and public indifference. It could hardly be said that Liszt practiced what he seemed there to be preaching.

Schumann, who as a critic did holy battle with the philistines more persistently, and more explicitly, than any other, was also not without ambivalences or inner conflicts on this score. He began his career as a would-be virtuoso of the new school, inspired by Paganini, whose Caprices he also arranged for piano around the same time as did Liszt, and whose musical portrait he painted over and over again. His pianistic ambitions came to grief in 1832, when he injured his right hand by overpractice with the aid of a mechanical contrivance intended to free the ring finger from its physiological dependence on the middle finger.

An alternative hypothesis is that Schumann's weakened fingers were the result of mercury poisoning induced during treatment for syphilitic symptoms, which ultimately affected his brain and led to the mental illness that finally incapacitated him. His frustration, and the “sour grapes” to which it gave rise, may have played its part in engendering the hyperbolic idealism that informed Schumann's criticism. But that was no impediment; rather, by attracting attention to him and making his work influential, Schumann's animus became the source of his power.

In one of his early reviews in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, for example, Schumann warned creative artists of the “poisoned flowers” (the temptations) in their path, namely “the applause of the vulgar crowd and the fixed gaze of sentimental women.”1 By the time he came to write his famous comparison of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and Mendelssohn's Paulus (sampled in chapter 4), Schumann had no hesitation in condemning Meyerbeer's base motives, when the only evidence for that baseness was his success with “the masses.”

Yet one need only compare the drawings of Liszt and Paganini, both of them artists without whom musical romanticism is inconceivable, in Figures 5-2 and 5-5, to savor the contrast between romantic theory and romantic practice. The situation becomes even more complicated when Schumann's stormy courtship (replete with elopements and lawsuits) and marriage to Clara Wieck (1819–96), his piano teacher's daughter and a famous virtuoso in her own right, is taken into account. Clara, who like Fanny Mendelssohn was a major composing talent quashed by antifeminine prejudices, seconded her husband's strictures against virtuosity and publicity with alacrity, and there is no reason to doubt her sincerity, or his. But neither she nor he ever lived up to them in life, or meant to. It was not hypocrisy but what psychologists call dissociation (or, more vulgarly, “compartmentalization”) that allowed romantic idealists the ability to achieve sufficient compromise with reality conditions to survive, often very happily indeed.

It was in his fantasy life, to which he gave almost novelistic expression in his criticism, that Schumann lived up to his ideals, and inspired legions of romantic artists with similar fantasies. His reviews often took the form of narratives, little stories in the lives of the Davidsbündler, the members of the imaginary “Davidsbund,” the “League of David” who fought the Goliaths of the Philistine press, on the one hand, and, on the other (no less menacing), the authoritarian mind-set of the conservatories.

The cast of characters included, in the first place, Florestan and Eusebius, Schumann's alter egos. The former, named after Beethoven's imprisoned freedom-fighter, represented his embattled “innerliches ‘Ich,”’ his “inmost I,” a concept associated with German romanticism from its Beethovenian beginning. Eusebius, named after an early church historian later adjudged a heretic (as Schumann must have known), represented Schumann's gentler, more moderate nature in contrast and occasional opposition to the more choleric Florestan.

What is a Philistine?

fig. 6-2 Robert and Clara Schumann (née Wieck), daguerreotype by Johann Anton Völlner, Hamburg, March 1850.

Thus Schumann acknowledged within himself the ambivalences endemic to the composer critic's role, torn between the artist's intransigence and the detachment of the public arbiter. A third regular character, Meister Raro, originally represented Schumann's teacher, Friedrich Wieck. Thus we have a virtual Freudian trinity: the rash and reckless Florestan (id), the milder, more sociable Eusebius (ego), and the reproving Raro (superego). As Freud constantly maintained, his psychoanalytic theory was strongly prefigured in romantic literature, and here is a choice bit of evidence.

A Schumannian review typically consisted not of a direct critique but of a reported conversation among the Davidsbündler—a public airing of private response, a comparison of subjective experiences in an imagined private space. By the use of what Sanna Pederson, a historian of music criticism, calls “framing strategies,” Schumann encouraged his readers, first, to have (and to trust) strong empathic responses to the music they heard or played, and, second, to try to explain them in terms of the composer's achievement.2

Such a review, writes Pederson, is not so much informative or didactic as performative, promoting a model of behavior rather than advancing a specific opinion. The act of selecting a work for such a discussion implicitly raises it to the level of high (or “autonomous”) art, and the serious, confiding nature of the discussion serves as a counterweight to the mindless applause that validates music in the public marketplace. By aspiring to the model of behavior exemplified by the Davidsbund, Schumann's reading public could transcend philistinism and join his imagined elite community of disinterested artistic natures.

Above all, Schumann encouraged his readers to look for more than sensory stimulation in music, but rather seek in it the same mental and spiritual delight they sought in literature. In this he swam distinctly not only against the tide of philistinism but also against that of the Enlightenment, which had relegated music (in the words of Kant) to the category of “enjoyment more than culture.”3 By contrast, John Daverio, a Schumann biographer and a historian of romanticism, went so far as to identify Schumann's ideal as being one of “music as literature,” meaning not (or not always) a music that has a literary plot line or “program,” but rather music that has a complexity of meaning, an “intellectual substance,” comparable to that of the most artistic literature.4


(1) Robert Schumann, review of trios by Alexander Fesca, in Schumann, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. III ed. Heinrich Simon (Leipzig, n.d.), p. 115.

(2) Sanna Pederson, “Enlightened and Romantic German Music Criticism, 1800–1850” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995), p. 81.

(3) See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner, 1951), pp. 170–71.

(4) See John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Chap. 2.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Sep. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Critics. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Sep. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006002.xml