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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

Nowadays it is conventional, of course, to call Mozart and Haydn “classic” composers rather than “romantic” ones, and even to locate the essence of their “classicism” in the “absoluteness” of their music (construing “absoluteness” here to imply the absence of representation). This is due, in part, to a changed perspective, alluded to at the end of the previous chapter, from which we now tend to look back on Mozart-and-Haydn as the cornerstone of the permanent performing repertory or “canon,” and “classic” is another way of saying “permanent.” As early as 1829, the author of a history of romanticism recognized that in music more than in any other art, everything takes on a “classic” aspect as it ages: “As far as we are concerned,” wrote F. R. de Toreinx (real name Eugène Ronteix), “Paisiello, Cimarosa and Mozart are classics, though their contemporaries regarded them as romantics.”16

But there was more to it than that. Historical hindsight eventually led to a new periodization of music history that came into common parlance around 1840, parsing the most recent phase of that history into a “Classical” period and a “Romantic” one, with the break occurring around 1800. One of the earliest enunciations of this dichotomy, for a long time almost universally accepted by historians, was an essay, “Classisch und Romantisch” (1841), by Ferdinand Gelbcke (1812–92). The music of the late eighteenth century was a “Classical art” for Gelbcke because like all classical art it was “object-centered, contemplative rather than expressive,” and—cliché of clichés!—because it struck a balance between form and content (or as Gelbcke put it, “between the art which shapes it and the material that is to be shaped”).17 Mozart, for Hoffmann a dangerous and “superhuman” (i.e., sublime) artist, was by Gelbcke’s time the very epitome of orderly values:

That composure, that peace of mind, that serene and generous approach to life, that balance between ideas and the means of expression which is fundamental to the superb masterpieces of that unique man, these were the most blessed and fruitful characteristics of the age in which Mozart lived, characteristics that we have imperceptibly yet gradually lost.18

The view may be anachronistic, and it is surely forgetful of romanticism’s original import (to say nothing of the actual conditions of Mozart’s life). But like “Gregorian chant” or “English horn,” the misnomer “Classical period”—corresponding exactly to what the earliest romantic critics called the earliest romantic phase of music—may be too firmly ensconced in the vocabulary of musicians to be dislodged by mere factual refutation. Nor is it without its own historical truth, so long as we remember that what we now call “classical” virtues, especially the virtues of artistic purity and self-sufficiency, are really romantic values in disguise.

Calling them “classical” expresses the nostalgia—an altogether “romanticized” nostalgia—that the artists and thinkers of post-Napoleonic Europe felt for the imagined stability and simplicity of the ancien régime. Gelbcke, unlike many later writers, makes no attempt to conceal his idyllic hankering for a bygone time he never knew. “When the Austrian Empire enjoyed a golden era of security, power, prosperity and peace under the reign of the Emperor Joseph II,” he mused rhetorically,

was this not the age of Haydn and Mozart? Although the storms were brewing elsewhere, within the Austrian Empire, nothing transpired to disturb the calm. So it was that both great composers were free to develop those qualities that have already been mentioned in connection with Mozart, qualities that they derived above all from the spirit of the age in which they lived.19

Classic or Romantic?

fig. 12-3 Sketches of Beethoven by L. P. A. Burmeister (Lyser), published with his signature by the printmaker E.H. Schroeder.

Like so many distinctions that try to pass themselves off as “purely” artistic, the Classic/Romantic dichotomy thus has a crucial political subtext. “Classic” was the age of settled aristocratic authority; “romantic” was the age of the restless burgeoning bourgeoisie. Yet even without looking beyond the boundaries of music, no one in the nineteenth century could evade the sense that a torrential watershed had intervened between the age of Mozart and Haydn and the present. Even Hoffmann, writing a generation before Gelbcke, acknowledged that a momentous metamorphosis had taken place, although he saw it as a culmination of a prior “romantic” tendency rather than a break with a “classic” one. A difference of degree can be so great, nevertheless, as to be tantamount to a difference in kind, and so it was for Hoffmann when he compared the work of Mozart and Haydn, “the creators of our present instrumental music,” with that of “the man who then looked on it with all his love and penetrated its innermost being—Beethoven!”20


(16) F. R. Toreinx, L’Histoire du romantisme (1829); quoted in le Huray and Day, Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, p. 415.

(17) Ferdnand Adolf Gelbcke, “Classisch und Romantisch: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichts-schreibung der Musik unserer Zeit,” in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1841); quoted in le Huray and Day, Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, p. 525.

(18) Ibid., p. 527.

(19) Ibid., p. 528.

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

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12002.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12002.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12002.xml