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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Critics
Richard Taruskin

Now what would Schumann have made of all this? We don't have to guess, because Schumann devoted the lengthiest critical article of his career to the Symphonie fantastique, issued in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in six installments between 3 July and 14 August 1835. Its length was due in part to its being not just a review but a defense against the captious reviews of others, notably François-Joseph Fétis, whose review Schumann printed in translation over two issues of the journal preceding his own. It was so detailed and diligent that Schumann later submitted it, successfully, for a doctor's degree.

The first installment was a shout of poetic enthusiasm, signed Florestan. The rest was a sober, highly technical descriptive commentary, signed “R. Schumann.” The use of his real name was treatment accorded only a few works that Schumann took especially seriously. It already tells us as much as the actual words of the review about Schumann's attitude toward his French contemporary and counterpart, and the fact that it was based on Liszt's piano transcription rather than on the full score (unpublished until 1845) or on an actual hearing (which Schumann could not experience until 1843 when Berlioz visited Leipzig) makes it all the more a triumph of empathy. But Schumann's was nevertheless one of the most peculiar reviews that the Symphonie fantastique ever received, and that is why it is so revealing to us of the contrasting attitudes we may otherwise be inclined to lump together under the general rubric of romanticism. There was in fact no such “general rubric” at the time, as the review itself makes clear.

Only after spending five installments lauding the symphony and minutely describing it for his readers both as sound and as expression, providing in the process no fewer than twelve notated examples to refute Fétis's charge that Berlioz was technically incompetent, does Schumann even mention the program. He gives it, grudgingly and with many omissions, as an afterthought, and brings the whole six-part series of ardent notices to a close with this amazing sermon:

Thus the program. All Germany is happy to let him keep it: such signposts always have something unworthy and charlatan-like about them! In any event the five titles would have been enough; word of mouth would have served to hand down the more circumstantial account, which would certainly arouse interest because of the personality of the composer who lived through the events of the symphony himself. In a word, the German, with his delicacy of feeling and his aversion to personal revelation, dislikes having his thoughts so rudely directed; he was already offended that Beethoven should not trust him to divine the sense of the Pastoral Symphony without assistance. Men experience a certain timidity before the genius's workshop: they prefer to know nothing about the origins, tools, and secrets of creation, just as Nature herself reveals a certain sensitivity when she covers over her roots with earth. So let the artist lock himself up with his woes; we should experience too many horrors if we could witness the birth of every work of art!

But Berlioz was writing primarily for his French compatriots, who are not greatly impressed by refinements of modesty. I can imagine them, leaflet in hand, reading and applauding their countryman who has depicted it all so well; the music by itself does not interest them.

Whether a listener unfamiliar with the composer's intent would find that the music suggested pictures similar to those he wished to draw, I cannot tell, since I read the program before hearing the music. Once the eye has been led to a given point, the ear no longer judges independently. But if you ask whether music can really do what Berlioz demands of it in his symphony [as Fétis had tried emphatically to deny], then try to associate with it different or contrasting images.

At first the program spoiled my own enjoyment, my freedom of imagination. But as it receded more and more into the background and my own fancy began to work, I found not only that it was all indeed there, but what is more, that it was almost always embodied in warm, living sound.31

The persiflage about national stereotypes, while certainly revealing of contemporary attitudes (attitudes still with us, alas, and still dire), seems a bit beside the point. At issue, ultimately, is freedom of imagination, as Schumann finally gets around to saying in the last paragraph. Music, he insists, that leaves too little to the listener's “own fancy,” that excludes the listener from the co-creative process, finally leaves the listener (out in the) cold. The alternative, for Schumann, is certainly not music without expressive (or even descriptive) content, but rather a music that by leaving such content undefined to a degree—by asking “Warum?”—allows and even forces the listener to participate in its creation. It is the music that requires this involvement on the part of the listener that affords the experience of what would later be called “absolute” music—a music absolutely, rather than merely particularly, expressive.

Did Berlioz disagree? Maybe not: after Fétis derided his efforts, he tried to clarify them, saying now that the program did not provide a scenario for the music but rather functioned the way spoken dialogue functioned in a comic opera with respect to the arias. It set them up, prepared the listener to receive their expressive content in its fullness, but did not compete with them or duplicate their meaning. (On another occasion he compared the program to the Greek chorus in ancient tragedies.) This was taken at the time as a retreat rather than a clarification.

It may have been so. It may have been the reason why he never wrote another program to accompany his later instrumental compositions, even though all of them had literary associations. It may even have been one of the reasons why Berlioz declared himself in later life, exasperated at the obstacles he still encountered in getting his works produced in his own country, to be “three-quarters German” as a musician.32 Minus the animus that motivated it, this was an avowal of faith in instrumental music and its capacity to communicate its expressive content without the help of words. That is the crux on which the discrimination of musical romanticisms depends.


(31) Robert Schumann, “A Symphony by Berlioz,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 14 August 1835; trans. Edward T. Cone in Berlioz, Fantastic Symphony (Norton Critical Scores), pp. 246–47.

(32) David Cairns, Berlioz, Vol. II: Servitude and Greatness (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1999), p. 296.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Critics. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006009.xml