As mentioned in the previous chapter, Herder was an important figure for the movement of romanticism. His search for the identity of the German people set in motion this sense of nationalism for other cultures, for “every culture has its own centre of gravity.”14 This nationalism was not the aggressive kind that manifested itself in the second half of the century, but one that showed a sense of cosmopolitanism.15 Though these may seem contradictory, there was a relationship between the classical principles of western music and national characteristics:
firstly to inject national sentiments into what were originally neutral stylistic means (e.g. characteristics of
musical landscape painting common to all European music), secondly to replace or transform the previously
primarily regional or social character folk music by receiving and interpreting it in a national spirit, and
thirdly to single out national traits - which were discernible in music in earlier centuries too, without
receiving any special attention - as the essential and fundamental qualities.16
Questions of authenticity were also quite relevant, for nationalism in music was not the same as in previous centuries, where one would compose or play something a French or Italian style. Nineteenth century nationalism in music came “from within…. embodying the spirit of a people in musical sound… the expression of a form of existence, not merely as something which a composer could arbitrarily exchange.”17 This phenomenon was especially felt in the music of the polish composer Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (1810-1849) in his mazurkas and polonaises. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) even said this of Chopin’s music, praising his “strong and original nationality” because of the this bond between the this sense of his national identity and the more universal (Western) musical language.18
Categorizing music as folk - the music of the lower classes - may seem as a sort of “appropriation” by the upper classes trying find a sense of their identity in their culture; however, in this time period it was used a form to understand a “deeper layer of human life and experience which had been overlaid by civilization.”19 The first half of the 19th century saw many examples of this taking place in music. The different pieces in Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston for cello and pianoforte recall that simplicity one would expect from folk music, but Schumann presents each of them in a very sophisticated way. A similar thing happens in Franz Schubert’s (1897-1828) Der Leiermann from his Winterreise, a song cycle he composed using Willhelm Müller’s (1794-1827) poetry.
The focus on folklore inevitably lead to the world of legends and fantasies. Unlike the Enlightenment, which admired the Greek and Roman concepts of ideal beauty and perfection, the romantics found their inspiration in the Medieval. The period of time between the Fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance was very diverse, but in general there was more of a focus on the spiritual and an appreciation for “irregularity, ornamentation, gloom, clericalism, transcendentalism.”20 Gothic architecture was becoming again a fashion - the height and grandeur of the structure reaching for the heavens and the extravagant stained glass windows bringing in the light from the heavens… After centuries of waiting, the Cathedral in Cologne, started in the Gothic period, was finally finished because of this reignited interest in the Gothic aesthetics.
The narrative poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” by English poet John Keats (1795-1821) set an example for this revival of medievalism. It was a story set in the Middle Ages recounting the rituals ladies partook in, based on the myths of the the day of the patron saint of virgins, St. Agnes:
They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adoring from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due the did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
The music, yearning like a God in pain,
She scarcely heard: her maiden eyes divine,
Fix’d on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
Pass by - she heeded not at all: in vain
Came many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier,
And Bach retired; not cool’d by high disdain,
But she saw not: her heart was otherwhere:
She sigh’d for Agnes’ dreams, the sweetest of the year.21
Keats takes this traditional tale and turns it into an elaborate story of “passion and conflict,” reminding us of these medieval ways of narrating and painting stories.22 Around this time, the Grimm brothers in Germany collected and published the traditional tales that are known in our contemporary society (stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty). In 1775, the equivalent of a German Iliad was also rediscovered, the Nibelungenlied, which served as the inspiration for Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) grand opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner felt that myth alone was able to “deal with past, present, and future and remain eternally and universally valid.” His vision of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art including drama, art, architecture, and poetry, was meant as an attempt to reveal the secrets of these myths and “penetrate to the mysterious core of human existence.”24 The world of fantasy really did take flight in all the arts in this first half of the century.
14 Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, 134.
15 Carls Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism: Four studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century (London, University of California Press,1980), 82.
16 Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism, 88.
17 Ibid., 101.
18 Ibid., 85.
19 Ibid., 93.
20 Blanning, The Romantic Revolution,128.
21 John Keats, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” Poetry Foundation, accessed February 21, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44470/the-eve-of-st-agnes.
22 Robin Gilmour, The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890 (London: Longman Group UL, 1993), 46.
23 Blanning, The Romantic Revolution, 152.
24 Roger Scruton, The Ring of Truths, The Wisdom of Wagners Ring of the Nibelung (London: Penguin Random House, 2017), 33-35.