The excerpt above by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) gives an insight into the minds of artists in Europe in the early 19th century, the era of Romanticism.Undoubtedly, every artist cultivated a different relationship with this broad term - nationality and culture alone had a significant influence on the direction each artist took. Even if similar aspects of Romanticism were apparent across cultures, such as forms of nationalism or escapism, they may have manifested themselves in different ways and at different points in time. Germany and Great Britain, for example, were among the first to reveal its character; while others, like France and Russia, experienced slightly later appearances of it.1 However distinctly these different sides of Romanticism presented themselves, there were many common threads that allowed them to create an overarching identity for this epoch.
The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century was one of the events that had tremendous consequences across Europe, and that set in motion the desire for freedom that was so relevant for centuries to come. Destabilizing aristocracies and giving rise to the bourgeoisie, it inevitably had a tremendous impact on the arts. In the music scene alone, composers were liberated from patronage of churches and courts, allowing them to create according to their tastes and those of the market: the new middle class.2 This shift elevated their status in society from that of a craftsman to that of an artist and genius - a figure that expressed higher truths.29 In many ways, Beethoven became the exemplary figure of the Romantic spirit, showing his contemporaries and future generations the benefits and value of having artistic autonomy.4 Composers began to have increasing ownership over their scores, filling them with more details for performers to follow, and concertgoers began to develop a sensibility for a “quieter, more considerate, and more attentive audience.”5
Another aesthetic novelty that came about in the 19th century was the increased appreciation for instrumental music. For centuries, vocal music was considered the superior art form, for as Kant claimed, the instrumental kind lacked in “meaning and intellectual appeal.”6 The social change and philosophical challenges of the time gave composers a reason to liberate music from its “literary or linguistic models,” which allowed the abstract counterpart of vocal music to obtain recognition as a high art.7
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who was heavily influenced by oriental philosophies, opposed Kant’s empirical take on world. He propelled forth the ideas that our reality was an illusion and that life itself was merely a “manifestation of an infinite Will.”8 Because this will was “blind" and continually “striving” for something greater, there could be no end and no fulfillment.9 Music is the art least capable of resembling the world, therefore he saw it as the only hope to escape the eternal suffering of our perpetual willing - as a sort of unconscious form of philosophizing.10 It is no coincidence that this inclination towards absolute music coincided with the construction of concert halls and the founding of institutions like the prestigious music academies and conservatoires that are still standing in today.
Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, published in 1818, became especially influential for the wave of existentialist thinking in the second half of the century, but those sentiments could still be felt in the works of many artists of this time period.11 Francisco de Goya’s (1746-1828) Saturn Devouring his Son (Figure 6), shows that pessimism and “despair over the passage of time, ” for he suffered not only from an illness that made him lose his hearing, but also from the psychological affects of it.12 Beethoven was another who felt this despair of life because of his physical limitations, claiming his art was the only thing that spared him his life:
But what a humiliation for me when some one standing next to me heard a flute in the distance
and I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that’d I would
have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to
leave the world until I ha brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched
existence.- Patience, they say, is was it must now choose for my guide, and I have done so -
I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it pleases the inexorable Parcae
to break the thread. Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not. I am ready.13
In a way, these examples reflect that perturbed existence and the reliance on art to help ease the suffering.