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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

The enthusiastic quote comes from Hoffmann’s essay, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” published in 1814 but based on articles and reviews written as early as 1810—and so do most of the other quotations from Hoffmann given above. Even as he waxed ardent about Mozart’s romanticism and Haydn’s, Hoffmann did so in the knowledge that they had been surpassed in all that made them great. Hoffmann’s characterization of Beethoven, taken in conjunction with his analytical writings about several of Beethoven’s works, does far more than reflect the romantic viewpoint of 1814. Hoffmann’s view of Beethoven reflects assumptions about art and artists that have persisted ever since—ideas to which practically all readers of this book will have been exposed, and to many of which they will have subscribed, even readers who have never read a single word about Beethoven, or (for that matter) about music.

Ideas received in this way—informally, unconsciously, from “the air,” without knowledge of their history (or even that they have a history)—are likely to be accepted as “truths held to be self-evident.” In this way, Hoffmann’s “Beethoven” stands for a great deal more than just Beethoven. It stands for the watershed that produced the modern musical world in which we all now live. To learn about it will be in large part to learn about ourselves. Before we can adequately understand Beethoven, then, or indeed anything that has happened since, we will need to know more about “Beethoven.”

To begin with, Hoffmann’s “Beethoven” was the idea of the romantic (or Kantian) sublime multiplied to the nth power. “Beethoven’s music,” Hoffmann raved,

opens up to us the realm of the monstrous and the immeasurable. Burning flashes of light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become aware of giant shadows that surge back and forth, driving us into narrower and narrower confines until they destroy us—but not the pain of that endless longing in which each joy that has climbed aloft in jubilant song sinks back and is swallowed up, and it is only in this pain, which consumes love, hope, and happiness but does not destroy them, which seeks to burst our breasts with a many-voiced consonance of all the passions, that we live on, enchanted beholders of the supernatural!21

The purpose of art, then, is to grant us an intensity of experience unavailable to our senses, and even (unless we too are geniuses) to our imaginations. But that intensity, to be felt at maximum strength, must be unattached to objects. It must be realer than what is merely present to the senses and nameable. Thus,

Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and wakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism. He is accordingly a completely romantic composer, and is not this perhaps the reason why he has less success with vocal music, which excludes the character of indefinite longing, merely representing emotions defined by words as emotions experienced in the realm of the infinite?

The process whereby the great displaces the pleasant as the subject and purpose of art is well under way. And therefore, Hoffmann notes with perhaps a trace of an aristocratic smirk, “the musical rabble is oppressed by Beethoven’s powerful genius; it seeks in vain to oppose it.” But mere musicians, be they ever so learned in the craft of their profession, fare no better:

Knowing critics, looking about them with a superior air, assure us that we may take their word for it as men of great intellect and deep insight that, while the excellent Beethoven can scarcely be denied a very fertile and lively imagination, he does not know how to bridle it! Thus, they say, he no longer bothers at all to select or to shape his ideas, but, following the so-called daemonic method, he dashes everything off exactly as his ardently active imagination dictates it to him.

While a romantic artist inevitably makes a demoniac impression, Hoffmann goes on to assert, a true genius can be “unbridled” in effect yet at the same time fully in control of his method. Discerning that control where others miss it is the function of the critic. A critic, he implies, can be inspired, too. He, too, can be a genius.

The truth is that, as regards self-possession, Beethoven stands quite on a par with Haydn and Mozart and that, separating his ego from the inner realm of harmony, he rules over it as an absolute monarch. In Shakespeare, our knights of the aesthetic measuring-rod have often bewailed the utter lack of inner unity and inner continuity, although for those who look more deeply there springs forth, issuing from a single bud, a beautiful tree, with leaves, flowers, and fruit; thus, with Beethoven, it is only after a searching investigation of his instrumental music that the high self-possession inseparable from true genius and nourished by the study of the art stands revealed.22

What all of this amounts to is the idea, fundamental to the modern concept and practice of “classical music,” of the lonely artist-hero whose suffering produces works of awe- inspiring greatness that give listeners otherwise unavailable access to an experience that transcends all worldly concerns. “His kingdom is not of this world,” declared Hoffmann in another essay on Beethoven, making explicit reference to the figure regarded by Christians as the world-redeeming Messiah. And indeed, the romantic view was in essence a religious, “sacralizing” view. It was literally an article of faith to romantics that theirs was a specifically Christian idea of art—intent, like the Christian religion, on eternal values and on an intensity of experience that (as Schilling put it) might “transcend cognition” so that its communicants would “experience something higher, more spiritual.” Therein lay the difference between romantic art and all previous art, even (or especially) that of classical antiquity. The beauty of all pre-Christian art was a materialistic beauty, as pagan religion was a materialistic religion. Its “classic” proportions and pleasing grace, inspiring though they had been to artists ever since the humanist revival, were hedonistic virtues, expressive of nothing (to quote Schilling once more) beyond a mere “refined and ennobled sensuality.” Beauty, in the name of the new art-religion, had to give way before greatness. From now on music expressive of the new world-transcending values would be called not beautiful music but “great music.” It is a term that is still preeminently used to describe—or at least to market—“classical music,” and Beethoven is still its standard-bearer.

The newly sacralized view of art had immense and immediate repercussions on all aspects of daily musical life. Great works of music, like great paintings, were displayed in specially designed public spaces. The concert hall, like the museum, became a “temple of art” where people went not to be entertained but to be uplifted. The masterworks displayed there were treated with a reverence previously reserved for sacred texts. Indeed, the scores produced by Beethoven were sacred texts, and the function of displaying them took on, at the very least, the aspect of curatorship—and at the highest level, that of a ministry.

Where previously, as Carl Dahlhaus (1928–89) once memorably put it, the written text of a musical composition was “a mere recipe for a performance,” it now became an inviolable authority object “whose meaning is to be deciphered with exegetical interpretations.”23 By invoking the concept of exegesis—scriptural commentary—Dahlhaus once again draws attention to the parallel between the new (or “strong”) concept of art and that of religion. Music, because of its abstract or “absolute” character, required the most exegesis. It therefore became the art-religion par excellence, and provided the most work for an art-ministry—that is, criticism. Where previously the work served the performer, now the performer, and the critic too, were there to serve the work.

The scores of earlier “canonical” composers came to be treated with a similar reverence. But here the new treatment contrasted, and in some ways even conflicted, with the way such older works had been treated when they were new. Mozart did not scruple to alter his works in performance in order to please his audience with spontaneous shows of virtuosity, and neither did his contemporaries. Not only Mozart, but all performers of concertos and arias in his time improvised their passagework, “lead-ins,” and cadenzas, and were considered remiss or incompetent if they did not. For them scores, even (or especially) their own scores, were “mere recipes,” blueprints for flights of fancy, pretexts for display. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, however, spontaneous performance skills began to lose their prestige in favor of reverent curatorship.

Musicians were now trained (at conservatories, “keeping” institutions) to reproduce the letter of the text with a perfection no one had ever previously aspired to, and improvisation was neglected if not scorned outright. By the late nineteenth century, most instrumentalists played written-out cadenzas to all canonical concertos from memory; the cadenzas were now just as “canonical” as the rest of the piece. Beginning with Beethoven, composers actually set them down in their scores, expecting performers to reproduce them scrupulously. Nowadays, it is only the most exceptional pianist who has the wherewithal to improvise a cadenza, and those who do have it are as likely to be censured for their impertinence as praised for their know-how.

Improvisation skills have not died out by any means, but they have been excluded from the practice of “classical music.” They continue to thrive only in nonliterate or semiliterate repertories such as jazz and what is now called “pop” or popular music, a concept that did not exist until “classical music” was sacralized in the nineteenth century.

If sacralization implied inhibition of spontaneous performer behavior, that is nothing compared with the constraints that were imposed on audiences, who were now expected (and are still expected) to behave in concert halls the way they behaved in church. Recalling Mozart’s own description of the audience that greeted his Paris symphony with spontaneous applause wherever the music pleased them (as audiences still do when listening to pop performers), it is hard to avoid a sense of irony when contemplating the reverent passivity with which any audience today will receive the same symphony. Concert programs now even contain guides to “concert etiquette” in which new communicants at the shrine can receive instruction in the faith. One that appeared in New York “stagebills” during the 1980s even affected a parody of biblical language. When attending a concert, it reads:

  • Thou Shalt Not:
  • Talk …
  • Hum, Sing, or Tap Fingers or Feet …
  • Rustle Thy Program …
  • Crack Thy Gum in Thy Neighbors’ Ears …
  • Wear Loud-Ticking Watches or Jangle
  • Thy Jewelry …
  • Open Cellophane-Wrapped Candies …
  • Snap Open and Close Thy Purse …
  • Sigh With Boredom …
  • Read …
  • Arrive Late or Leave Early …

This is only the latest version of a mode of discourse that began with critics like E. T. A. Hoffmann around 1810. As musicians and music lovers, we still live under the iron rule of romanticism.


(21) Ibid., p. 777.

(22) Ibid., p. 778.

(23) Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. B. Robinson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p. 9.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12003.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12003.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12003.xml