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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 8 Midcentury
Richard Taruskin

The first self-conscious proponent of the musical avant-garde was Brendel himself, in his role as activist—a role his historical vision (by his own typically Hegelian avowal) had thrust upon him unbidden. During his youthful piano studies with Friedrich Wieck in Leipzig, Brendel naturally came to know a fellow pupil named Robert Schumann. After receiving his doctorate he returned to Leipzig in 1844 and lectured on music history as preparation for his magnum opus. That plan was temporarily put on hold when Schumann asked him to take over the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Brendel formally became its editor with the issue of 1 January 1845 and remained in that position for almost a quarter of a century, until his death. Already the established voice of the German musical left, the journal was an effective forum and power base.

To Schumann's eventual consternation, Brendel turned the journal in a frankly political direction when he began agitating in its pages, under the guise of music criticism, for German unification. It should have been no surprise; on the contrary, it was the inevitable nationalistic outcome of commitment to Hegel's teachings, with their emphasis on the realization of the spirit through unity. The political faction that pressed hardest for unification was the group that called themselves the Young Hegelians. For them, the goal of unification was eventual German hegemony over Europe. This new (or neo-) Hegelianism became the philosophical underpinning, in the second half of the century, for a new, aggressive brand of German nationalism, to which Marxism, another radical offshoot of Hegelian thinking, became the antithesis.

The Young Hegelian character of Brendel's activity as spokesman for the German musical left became especially evident in 1859 when in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik the indefatigable editor organized at Weimar, Goethe's town, and in Leipzig, the journal's birthplace, a great convocation of musicians from all parts of Germany, out of which emerged an organization called the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, the All-German Musical Society, for the purpose of agitation and propaganda on behalf of the musical tendency to which Brendel had devoted the culminating chapter of his History seven years before. In his widely publicized keynote address, Brendel christened that faction the New (or neo-) German School. The guest of honor at the convocation, the honorary president of the society, and the figurehead of the New German School was the same man whose music Brendel had held aloft (in the passage from his History quoted earlier) as a beacon of “progress to a new consciousness” of music's historical obligation. That man was Franz Liszt.

Liszt? That virtuoso? That eclectic? He wasn't even German! But since we left him in chapter 5 his life had undergone a remarkable change. In 1848, possibly under the influence of Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, a brilliantly intellectual, immensely wealthy Polish noblewoman (née Iwanowska) whom he had met the year before at his recital in Kiev (and who would be to the end of his life not only his mistress but his muse and ghostwriter), Liszt unexpectedly retired from the concert stage and took up full-time residence in Weimar, the capital of a small, secluded, and (by mid nineteenth-century standards) sleepy East German duchy where Bach had once played the organ, and where Liszt had rather perfunctorily been given an honorary court appointment several years earlier. Nobody expected him, an international star, really to fill such a post. As the English novelist George Eliot put it, visiting Weimar on her honeymoon, “One's first feeling is: how could Goethe live here, in this dull, lifeless village?”9 How much less could the likes of Liszt?

The New German School

fig. 8-3 Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Marie, lithograph by C. Fischer after a painting by Casanova (1844).

But with the fantastic energy he had formerly devoted to his pianistic career, Liszt now became the court kapellmeister to end all kapellmeisters. The musical establishment of which he assumed the reins was measly: an orchestra of thirty-seven, a chorus of twenty-three and a corps de ballet of four. Liszt had little conducting experience. But by dint of his personality, his high ambitions, his prestige, and the enthusiastic generosity of his patron, the Grand Duchess Maria Pawlowna of Saxe-Weimar (sister of the Russian tsar Nikolai I), he soon turned the backward town into what his biographer Humphrey Searle called “the Mecca of the avant-garde movement in Germany.”10

In the first place, Liszt greatly expanded and modernized his equipment, so that the Weimar court orchestra came to represent the midcentury state of the art. Those who composed for it (meaning, in the first instance, Liszt himself and his hired orchestrators) were encouraged to exploit its resources to the hilt. In furtherance of his aim to create the ideal music machine, Liszt summoned from Leipzig the already famous nineteen-year-old prodigy Joseph Joachim (1831–1907), a former protégé of Mendelssohn and Schumann, to preside over the orchestra as Konzertmeister (leader of the first violins) beginning in 1850. After several years of service, however, Joachim's loyalty to his former masters and their attitudes toward the Viennese classics won out over his contractual commitments to the avant-garde and he resigned the post, later becoming (along with his best friend and contemporary Johannes Brahms, another Schumann protégé) one of the New German School's most tireless public detractors.

But Liszt's presence brought many sincere disciples to Weimar, the most important being the composers Joachim Raff (1822–82) and Peter Cornelius (1824–74), and the pianist Hans von Bülow (1830–94), who married Liszt's daughter Cosima and under his tutelage became the great conductor of the age. These younger men, together with Liszt, formed the early nucleus of the New German School. Taking advantage of his protected position as a court musician, Liszt placed himself as conductor at the service of the most advanced, formidable, and politically risky composers of the time, particularly Richard Wagner (then a political exile from Germany). Liszt gave the widely publicized and acclaimed first performance of Wagner's romantic opera Lohengrin (on a German knightly legend) in 1850, as well as notable productions of operas by Schumann (Genoveva) and Berlioz (Benvenuto Cellini).

The New German School

fig. 8-4a Joachim Raff. He and Peter Cornelius, shown in Fig. 8-4b, were two mainstays of the “new German school.”

Finally, and most important, Liszt used his abundant remaining time at Weimar to produce a remarkable series of avant-garde compositions of his own, many of which he had roughly conceived at the keyboard during his whirlwind touring years, but had never had the time to work out on paper. Temporarily abandoning the piano, he turned to the orchestra he now led as his medium of choice. At first, since he had no training and little experience as an orchestrator, he farmed out the task to assistants: at first a minor composer of comic operas named August Conradi (1821–73), but later Raff, whom Liszt summoned to Weimar and personally supported for this purpose. Later, having performed the music and had the experience of hearing and revising the scoring of his works in long and painstaking rehearsals (a process Joachim found particularly unendurable), Liszt became a master of ostentatious orchestration in his own right.

The New German School

fig. 8-4b Peter Cornelius.

The works he produced in this fashion were the ones Brendel extolled in the final chapter of his History as “the summit of thinking,” the culmination of the whole historical process toward which everything up to that time had striven. Liszt eventually called them symphonische Dichtungen, symphonic poems, echoing the Hegelian ideal of “unity of the poetic and the musical.” They are single-movement orchestra works, sometimes as long the average symphony, sometimes only as long as a good-size first movement, that are outfitted with titles and (sometimes) brief prefaces to specify the “poetic” content the music will expound.

In their various aspects Liszt's symphonic poems had plenty of precedents. Specific “poetic” content can be found not only in programmatic symphonies like Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique or David's Désert, but also in the type of theater or opera overture (like Beethoven's Coriolanus or Egmont, or Weber's Der Freischütz) that seek to summarize or otherwise evoke the drama to which they are appended. The closest precedents, perhaps, were Mendelssohn's concert overtures, self-sufficient works to which no drama was appended (although the first of them, Midsummer Night's Dream, still took its cue from one). Liszt actually referred to his early symphonic poems as overtures, or sometimes (more vaguely, but also more tellingly) as “free-form compositions,” before arriving at the definitive name in 1854, before any of them had been published.

As for compressed single-movement form, Liszt's own piano concertos and Schumann's Fantaisie for piano and orchestra provided models that, while lacking any specified poetic or programmatic content, were certainly not lacking in drama. These works (not to mention Berlioz's symphony with its idée fixe) also employed the technique of thematic transformation, or perpetual variation, on which Liszt would rely to give shape (if not conventional form) to his symphonic poems. Why then, in view of so many apparent forerunners, did the symphonic poems seem to so many contemporaries to be not merely a new genre, but a breakthrough to a new artistic plane?

The reason had to do, first of all, with the nature of the poetic content, which in most cases was neither narrative nor pictorial, but philosophical, staking out a loftier expressive sphere than any composer save Beethoven had previously addressed, and doing so, moreover, with an explicitness that seemed to exceed—or at least claimed plausibly to exceed—Beethoven's powers. Liszt himself implied such a claim, which, he maintained, was a contemporary musician's privilege and duty, and the only way of paying Beethoven proper tribute. “Although Dresden and a hundred other cities may ‘stop at Beethoven’ (to whom, while he lived, they much preferred Haydn and Mozart), that is no reason for Weimar to do so,” Liszt wrote to a dubious court official in 1855. “There is no doubt nothing better than to respect, admire and study the illustrious dead,” he continued,

but why not also live with the living? The significance of the musical movement of which Weimar is the real centre lies precisely in this initiative, about which the public understands little, but which is nevertheless important for the continued development of contemporary art.11

To many others, of course, in Dresden and a hundred other cities (including Berlin, where during the 1850s Liszt's orchestral music was regularly hissed and jeered), avant-garde posing of this sort, with its haughty implication that the interests of art and its audience had irreconcilably diverged, seemed the most intolerable hubris. And there was more. Liszt and his spokesmen made the patently Hegelian claim that with the symphonic poem he had at last ushered in the age of music's full equality among the arts as a bearer of meaning, a necessary precondition to its “sovereignty.”

As usual, the spokesmen made the claim more sweepingly and arrogantly than the master. Liszt's own version (probably drafted by the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein) took the form of a rather modestly worded avant-propos (foreword) meant for distribution at performances of any of his symphonic poems, to silence doubts or disagreements as to his intent. Addressing first the problem of music's suitability to extramusical tasks, he conceded that “the poorest of apprentice landscape painters could give with a few chalk strokes a much more faithful nature picture than a musician operating with all the resources of the best orchestras.” But of course there was a but. “If these same things are laid open to subjective contemplation, to dreaming, to emotional uplift, have they not a kinship with music, and should not music be able to translate them into its mysterious language?”12

This is not so far from what George Sand, speaking for Chopin, said about the content of the latter's music in the previous chapter: one paints not the thing but the emotion to which it gives rise. But Liszt wanted more. He wanted to specify “the thing” rather than leaving it to the listener's imagination. And that justified the use—inherited from Berlioz but very much against the traditional German romantic biases that Schumann had passionately defended in his review (in the “old” Neue Zeitschrift) of the Symphonie fantastique—of verbal notes and explanations, in short, of programs. As Liszt put it in the avant-propos:

Since the musician's language is more arbitrary and more uncertain than any other, and lends itself to the most varied interpretations, it is not without value (and most of all not ridiculous, as it is often thought) for the composer to give in a few lines the spiritual sketch of his work and, without falling into petty and detailed explanations, convey the idea which served as the basis for his composition. This will prevent faulty elucidations, hazardous interpretations, idle quarrels with intentions the composer never had, and endless commentaries which rest on nothing.

Brendel went much further, in a handbook Franz Liszt als Symphoniker (“Franz Liszt as a symphonist”) published in 1859, the year of the great Leipzig Lisztfest. There he made the brazen claim that beginning with Liszt, and only with him, “content creates its own form.”13 If the implied dichotomy between form and content is accepted as real (and this itself was, and remains, a major battle) then Liszt's achievement, as described by Brendel, counts as a double emancipation. On the one hand, content itself is liberated from an earlier state of contingency, and music is thus freed to express it more directly than before. And on the other, composers are freed from their dependency on the traditional Formenlehre, the standard repertory of forms in which all previous music, even Beethoven's, had perforce been cast.

In a review of Harold in Italy, Berlioz's symphony with viola obbligato, which appeared in the “new” Neue Zeitschrift in 1855, Liszt himself (or his ghostwriter) had come out aggressively in favor of programmatic music as “one of the various steps forward which the art has still to take” toward “the poetic solution of instrumental music.” He took the offensive against what he called “the purely musical composer,” who “only values and emphasizes the formal working-out of his material,” and who therefore forfeits “the capacity to derive new formulations from it or to breathe new life into it.”14 Given the Hegelian premises on which Liszt based the argument, “purely musical composers” had good reason to think that they were being declared useless and obsolete.

The last straw was the slogan la musique de l'avenir: “the music of the future,” or Zukunftsmusik (as it became widely known in Germany), along with its derivatives like Zukunftsmusiker (musician of the future) for composers of the New German School and Zukunftskonzerte (concerts of the future) for performances of their works. The term was apparently coined by the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein after the premiere of Lohengrin, when Brendel suggested that the work was beyond the capacities of present-day audiences. “Very well,” came the smug rejoinder, “we are creating the music of the future.”15

The phrase immediately began resounding in the pages of the Neue Zeitschrift and in Liszt's correspondence. Needless to say, it quickly turned counterproductive, a great source of fun for the group's antagonists. Finally, in his 1859 keynote address, Brendel called for its abandonment in favor of “New German School.” But by then it was too late. It was pointed out that New German School was a misnomer in any case, since two of its elder statesmen, Liszt and Berlioz, were not German. To this Brendel retorted that it was “common knowledge” that these two had taken “Beethoven as their point of departure and so are German as to their origins.”

Warming to the subject, he continued:

The birthplace cannot be considered decisive in matters of the spirit. The two artists would never have become what they are today had they not from the first drawn nourishment from the German spirit and grown strong with it. Therefore, too, Germany must of necessity be the true homeland of their works, and it is in this sense that I suggested the denomination New German School for the entire post-Beethoven development.16

While the occasion that elicited it might be written off as a tempest in a teapot, this was a remarkable pronouncement. It testified to a new conception of nationhood and nationalism that had arisen in the wake of Hegel, or rather in the wake of the political activism that Hegel had inspired among the Young Hegelians. Germanness was henceforth no longer to be sought in folklore. One showed oneself a German not ethnically but spiritually, by putting oneself in humanity's vanguard.

The new nationalism appeared to sacrifice the distinctive national coloring that Herder had prized. In a sequel to his History called “The Music of the Present and the Holistic Art of the Future” (Die Musik der Gegenwart, und die Gesammtkunst der Zukunft, 1854), Brendel had dismissed such coloring as mere surface decoration (Schmuck). But the new concept made a far greater claim for the nation than the old. Germany was now viewed as the world-historical (welthistorisch) nation in Hegel's sense of the word, the nation that held the key to history and served as the executor of history's grand design, the nation whose actions led the world to its inevitable destiny. And so it came about (according to Arnold Schoenberg a twentieth-century advocate of the concept) “that German music came to decide the way things developed, as it has for 200 years.”17


(9) Quoted in Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years 1848–61 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 250.

(10) Humphrey Searle, “Liszt,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XI (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 31.

(11) Franz Liszt to Freiherr Beaulieu-Marconnay, Intendant of the Court Theater at Weimar, 21 May 1855; Letters of Franz Liszt, Vol. I, ed. La Mara (New York: Haskell House, 1968), pp. 241–42.

(12) Franz Liszt, General Preface to the symphonic poems; F. Liszt, Sämtliche Werke, Vol. I (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1901); quoted in Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, p. 358.

(13) The claim had previously been made in a more general context in Franz Brendel, Die Aesthetik der Tonkunst, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Vol. XLVI (1857), p. 186; trans. Martin Cooper in Bojan Bujic, ed., Music in European Thought 1851–1912 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 130.

(14) Liszt, “Berlioz and His ‘Harold’ Symphony,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Vol. XLIII (1855); in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), pp. 859, 863.

(15) Lina Ramann, Franz Liszt als Künstler und Mensch, Vol. III (Leipzig, 1894), p. 69; quoted in Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, p. 336; Ramann's evidence was an 1875 letter from Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein herself.

(16) Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Vol. L (1859), p. 272, trans. Piero Weiss in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, 2nd ed., p. 328.

(17) Arnold Schoenberg, “National Music” (1931), trans. Leo Black, in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), p. 170.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Midcentury. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008002.xml