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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics

Late Eighteenth-century Music Esthetics; Beethoven’s Career and His Posthumous Legend

CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The earliest public critics were motivated by a concept or ideal called romanticism—an easy thing to spot in a writer or an artist, but notoriously difficult to define. And that is because romanticism was (and is) no single idea but a whole heap of ideas, some of them quite irreconcilable. Yet if it has a kernel, that kernel can be found in the opening paragraphs of a remarkable book that appeared in Paris in 1782 under the title Confessions—the last and (he thought) crowning work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “I am commencing an undertaking,” he wrote,

hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man myself.

Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different. Whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mould in which she cast me, can only be decided after I have been read.1

To be romantic meant valuing difference and seeking one’s uniqueness. It meant a life devoted to self-realization. It meant believing that the purpose of art was the expression of one’s unique self, one’s “original genius,” a reality that only existed within. The purpose of such self-expression was the calling forth of a sympathetic response; but it had to be done “disinterestedly,” for its own sake, out of an inner urge to communicate devoid of ulterior motive. It was that, and that alone, that could provide a truly “esthetic” experience (as defined by the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, who coined the term in his treatise Aesthetica of 1750), as distinct from an intellectual or an ethical one. The only musical works we have encountered so far that could conceivably satisfy these requirements were the late symphonies of Mozart, described in the previous chapter. Not coincidentally, then, Mozart became for the critics of his own time and shortly thereafter the first and quintessential romantic artist, the more so since music was widely regarded as the most essentially romantic of all the arts.

Chapter 12 The First Romantics

fig. 12-1 E. T. A. Hoffmann, self-portrait (ca. 1822).

What made it so, according to E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822), the most influential music critic of the early nineteenth century, was not merely the power of music to engage the emotions, but rather the “fact” (as Hoffmann felt it to be) that “its sole subject is the infinite.”2 Precisely because music, unlike painting or poetry, has no necessary model in nature, it “discloses to man an unknown realm, a world that has nothing in common with the external sensual world that surrounds him, a world in which he leaves behind him all definite feelings to surrender himself to an inexpressible longing.” In opposition to “the external sensual world,” then, music provides access to the inner spiritual world—but only if it resists all temptation to represent the outer world.

Thus, for romantics, instrumental music was an altogether more exalted art than vocal. This, too, was a novel idea, perhaps only even thinkable since Haydn’s time. Rousseau himself, as we know, was of the opposite view, quoting Fontanelle’s exasperated cry—“Sonate, que me veuxtu?” (“Sonata, what do you want from me?”)—with approval, and adding that a taste for “purely harmonic” (i.e., instrumental) music was an “unnatural” taste. Even Kant, the greatest early theorizer of esthetics, thought instrumental music at once the pleasantest art and the least “cultured,” since “it merely plays with sensations.”3 For Hoffmann, though, writing in 1813, the shoe was on the other foot. Words, for him, were the inferior element—by nature representational, hence merely “external.” They pointed outside themselves, while music pointed within. Music, he allowed, definitely improved a text—“clothing it with the purple luster of romanticism”—but that was only because its inherently spiritual quality rendered our souls more susceptible to the externally motivated (hence, more ordinary, less artistic) emotions named by the poem.4 The poem was transformed by union with music, but the music was inhibited by the poem. Eventually, wrote Hoffmann, music “had to break each chain that bound it to another art,” leaving the other arts bereft and aspiring, in the words of Walter Pater, a latter-day romantic critic, “towards the condition of music.”5

That conditionis the condition of autonomous, “absolute” spirituality and expressivity. The whole history of music, as Hoffmann viewed it, was one of progressive emancipation of music from all bonds that compromised the autonomy and absoluteness of expression that Hoffmann took to be its essence. “That gifted composers have raised instrumental music to its present high estate,” he wrote, is due not to the superior quality of modern instruments or the superior virtuosity of modern performers.6 It is due solely to modern composers’ “more profound, more intimate recognition of music’s specific nature.” The composer and the performing virtuoso were henceforth cast in opposition; virtuosity was just one more bond, one more tie to the external world, from which true music had to be emancipated.

All of this was utterly contrary to earlier notions of musical expression, which were founded staunchly on the ancient doctrine (stated most comprehensively by Aristotle) that art imitates nature. That doctrine had itself brought about a revolution in musical expression in its time, the sixteenth century, when musicians discovered the writings of ancient Greece and began, in madrigals and (later) in opera, to devise the “representational style” (stile rappresentativo) so as directly to imitate speech and, through it, the emotions expressed by speech. Like the later doctrine of affections, the stile rappresentativo was at the opposite pole from romantic notions of untrammeled musical expressivity.

For one thing, it depended on alliance with words—another art. For another, it expressed not the unique feelings of the composer but the archetypical feelings of characters, and hence emphasized general “human nature” as an object of representation, not the uniqueness of an individual self as an object of expression. For a third, it dealt with particular objectified categories of feeling that had names, that could be (and were) classified and catalogued, that were the common property of humanity. It was powerless to summon up the verbally inexpressible, the ineffable, the metaphysical or “infinite.” Hence, it could communicate only through a repeatable process of objective intellectual cognition (or recognition), not transcendent subjective inspiration. It was not an absolute art, let alone an autonomous or emancipated one. It dealt in the common coin of shared humanity, not the elite currency of genius.

The “gifted composers” or geniuses to whom music owed its emancipation, Hoffmann declared, were Mozart and Haydn, the first true romantics. As “the creators of our present instrumental music,” they were “the first to show us the art in its full glory.”7 But whereas Haydn “grasps romantically what is human in human life,” Mozart reveals “the wondrous element that abides in inner being.” Haydn, albeit with unique aptitude and empathy, manifests a general humanity, what Kant called the sensus communis—thoughts and feelings common to all (“all men,” as people put it then), thus capable of fostering social union. Haydn is therefore “more commensurable” with ordinary folk, “more comprehensible for the majority.” His art is democratic, in the spirit of Enlightenment.

Mozart, by contrast, expresses for Hoffmann something essential, ineffable, unique. His music “leads us into the heart of the spirit realm”—or those of “us,” anyway, who are equipped (like Tamino, the hero of The Magic Flute) to make a spiritual journey. It springs, like all true romantic art, from an “attempt to transcend the sphere of cognition, to experience higher, more spiritual things, and to sense the presence of the ineffable.”8 That is the definition of romanticism given around 1835 by Gustav Schilling (1803–81), a German lexicographer.

For all these reasons Mozart’s music, unlike Haydn’s, gives rise not only to bliss but to fear and trembling, and to melancholy as well. To sum it all up in a single pair of opposing words, it was Mozart, according to Hoffmann and his contemporaries, who made the crucial romantic breakthrough—from the (merely) beautiful to the sublime.

Chapter 12 The First Romantics

fig. 12-2 Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise on an Empty Shore (1839). Friedrich’s eerily lit landscapes often summon up moods of sublime immensity comparable to the “infinite longing” Hoffmann named as the latent subject matter of romantic art.

We are perhaps no longer as sensitive to this distinction as were the theorists of romanticism. We may tend nowadays to interchange the words “beautiful” and “sublime” in our everyday language, perhaps even in our critical vocabulary. To say “Haydn’s music is beautiful” may not seem to us to be very different in meaning or intent from saying “Mozart’s music is sublime.” It may even seem to us like a way of pairing or equating the two. But to a romantic, it meant radically distinguishing them. And that is because, from about the middle of the eighteenth century to about the middle of the nineteenth, the words were held to be virtual opposites.

For the English philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729–97), writing in 1757 under the influence of Kant (whom he influenced in turn), they presented “a remarkable contrast,” which he detailed as follows:

Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great is rugged and negligent; … beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and even gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure.9

This was, indeed, if not something new then at least something so old and forgotten as to seem new again: art founded on pain. Not since J. S. Bach have we encountered any notion that music should be anything but beautiful, and never have we encountered such a notion with reference to secular music. It implies an enormous change in the artist’s attitude toward his audience; and this, too, is a crucial component in any adequate definition of romanticism. The history of music in the nineteenth century—at any rate, of a very significant portion of it—could be written in terms of the encroachment of the sublime upon the domain of the beautiful, of the “great” upon the pleasant. And the process of encroachment applies to retrospective evaluation as well, as we are in the process of discovering where Mozart is concerned.

By characterizing Mozart’s art as being “more an intimation of the infinite” than Haydn’s, moreover, Hoffmann was implying (and claiming as one of its values) that it was inaccessible to the many. Romanticism, at least Hoffmann’s brand of it, was profoundly elitist and anti-egalitarian. It was an agonized reaction to the “universalist” ideals of the Enlightenment, a recoil by thinkers (especially in England and Germany) who viewed the French Revolution and the disasters that ensued—regicide, mob rule, terror, mass executions, wars of Napoleonic conquest—as the bitter harvest of an arrogant Utopian dream. Indeed, the man who gave this opinion its most memorably eloquent expression was none other than Edmund Burke, our erstwhile theorist of the sublime, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, and the even more embittered Letters on a Regicide Peace of 1795–97.

Examples of “painful” music are common enough in opera. The second-act finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will surely come to mind in this connection, with its “devastating opening chords” that (in the words of Elaine Sisman, a perceptive writer on the musical sublime) “intensify almost unbearably the music of the overture by substituting the chord on which the Commendatore had been mortally wounded in the [Act I] duel.”10 The graveyard scene from the same opera had inspired actual “horror” in a contemporary reviewer, who commented that “Mozart seems to have learned the language of ghosts from Shakespeare.”11 Interestingly enough, Mozart, while working on Idomeneo, his most unremittingly serious opera, found fault with that very aspect of Shakespeare, commenting that “if the speech of the ghost in Hamlet were not so long it would be more effective.”12 He twice revised the trombone-laden music representing the terrifying subterranean voice of Neptune in Idomeneo—from seventy measures, to thirty-one, all the way down to nine—so as to achieve a proper sense of awe-inspiring shock, or (in a single word) sublimity.

But these were not the passages in Mozart that inspired Hoffmann to call him romantic, nor did even Haydn’s overwhelming Representation of Chaos in The Creation, culminating in the famous burst of divine illumination, qualify for that honor. The latter was undeniably a sublime achievement. Schilling, the lexicographer, actually referred to it in his definition of das Erhabene (the sublime) in music, although that may have been because the opening words of the Book of Genesis were themselves often cited as the greatest of all models for sublime rhetoric.13

But there was a crucial difference between the sublime as represented in The Creation and the sublime as prized by romantics. Haydn’s representation, like any representation, had a cognizable object, a fixed content that emanated from words, not music. Hence it was an example of “imitation” rather than expression, and therefore, to romantics, not romantic. For a mere imitation to venture intimations of the sublime could strike a romantic critic as a ridiculous misuse of music. “At Vienna, I heard Haydn’s Creation performed by four hundred musicians,” wrote Mme. de Stäel, an exile from revolutionary France, in her travel memoir De l’Allemagne (From Germany; 1810):

It was an entertainment worthy to be given in honor of the great work which it celebrated; but the skill of Haydn was sometimes even injurious to his talent: with these words of the Bible, “God said let there be light, and there was light,” the accompaniment of the instruments was at first very soft so as scarcely to be heard, then all at once they broke out together with a terrible noise as if to express the sudden burst of light, which occasioned a witty remark “that at the appearance of light it was necessary to stop one’s ears.” In several other passages of the Creation, the same labor of mind may often be censured.14

In this censure one can hear the authentic voice of early romanticism. It was not for The Creation, after all, that Hoffmann valued Haydn, but for his untitled instrumental works—works of ineffable content but powerful expressivity. That uncanny combination was the result of inspiration, and called forth inspiration from the listener.

The reason why Mozart was thought of—first in his day and then, more emphatically, in Hoffmann’s—as the most romantically sublime of composers had to do, in the first place, with the discomfort of sensory overload. “Too many notes, my dear Mozart” complained the emperor in the famous story, and in so doing reacted to what Immanuel Kant called the “mathematical sublime,” the awe that comes from contemplating what is countless, like the stars above.15 The “difficulty” of Mozart’s instrumental style was most spectacularly displayed, perhaps, in the densely grandiose fugal finale to his last symphony (in C major, K. 551), a movement that created, without recourse to representation, the same sort of awe that godly or ghostly apparitions created in opera. And that is why the symphony was nicknamed Jupiter (by J. P. Salomon, Haydn’s promoter, as it happens). That awe was the painful gateway to the beatific contemplation of the infinite, the romantics’ chosen work.


(1) The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (New York: Random House [Modern Library], n.d.), p. 1.

(2) E. T. A. Hoffmann, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” (1813), in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 775.

(3) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (1790), trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner, 1951), p. 174.

(4) Quoted in Strunk, Source Readings, p. 776.

(5) Walter Pater, “The School of Giorgione” (1873), in The Aesthetes: A Sourcebook, ed. Ian Small (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 15.

(6) Quoted in Strunk, Source Readings, p. 776.

(7) Hoffmann, quoted in Strunk, Source Readings, p. 776.

(8) Gustav Schilling, Encyklopädie der gesammte musikalischen Wissenschaften, oder Universal-Lexicon der Tonkunst, Vol. VI (Stuttgart 1837), in Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, eds., P. le Huray and J. Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 470.

(9) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), in Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, eds. P. le Huray and J. Day, pp. 70–71.

(10) Elaine R. Sisman, Mozart: The ‘Jupiter’ Symphony (Cambridge Music Handbooks; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 18.

(11) Dramaturgische Blätter (Frankfurt, 1789); quoted in Sisman, ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, p. 18.

(12) Mozart to his father, 29 November 1780; quoted in Sisman, ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, p. 17.

(13) Quoted in le Huray and Day, Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, p. 474.

(14) Quoted in le Huray and Day, Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, p. 302.

(15) Or, as first reported, “Too beautiful for our ears, my dear Mozart, and monstrous many notes!” (Franz Niemtschek, Leben des K. K. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, nach Originalquellen beschrieben [Prague, 1798]; quoted in Thomas Bauman, W. A. Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail [Cambridge Opera Handbooks; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], p. 89).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-12.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 The First Romantics. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-12.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-12.xml