… Art founded on pain. Not since J.S. Bach have we encountered any notion that music should be anything but beautiful, and never have we encountered such a notion with reference to secular music. It implies an enormous change in the artist’s attitude toward his audience; and this, too, is a crucial component in any adequate definition of romanticism. The history of music in the nineteenth century – at any rate, of a very significant portion of it – could be written in terms of the encroachment of the sublime upon the domain of the beautiful, of the “great” upon the pleasant. (II, 644. Italics mine.)
As we begin to venture into Western music’s most fecund, or at least hallowed, century, we would do well to pause for a moment to remember what came before.
To begin with, recall the long history of vocal music’s dominance over the instrumental. Voices, after all, could declaim texts, and thus give the spectacle of music some sort of concrete meaning. Instrumental music lacked the same depth – how could it decisively mean in the absence of language? What it was good for, however, was play and pleasantry. A symphony made for great background music while the prince schmoozed with the count’s daughter. Instrumental music was pretty, pleasant, and sociable.
The Romantics flipped the story. Over a very brief period of time, the “meaningless” realm of instrumental music, what was labeled in typical Germanic bombast as “Absolute Music,” came to wrestle the philosophical high ground from vocal music. Ineffable, sublime (i.e. vast, terrifying), and infinite, instrumental music (particularly the symphony) was not just merry background music for a party; it was the Truth. Schopenhauer likened music to an embodiment of the universal Will, transcending mere language, code, and representation to strike at the actual thing in itself. The symphony – particularly Beethoven’s – was, in RT’s words, “great” and not simply pleasant; treating it as anything else would be a sort of sacrilege, a subversion of the rightful hierarchy of aesthetic values.
And what was left for vocal music after the revolution? It was certainly a lot harder for voices, with all those pesky, literal words that they like to produce, to reach the same level of sublimity as the symphony. Vocal music was denotative, with specific texts and specific semantic meanings; symphonic music, on the other hand, was connotative, abstract, deeply subjective, the perfect accompaniment to the era’s burgeoning lionization of the lone, autonomous individual.
Rarely in music history do aesthetic shifts take place so abruptly, and so violently. This account, of course, is a simplification; as RT is quick to admit, plenty of contradictory aesthetic cross-currents coexisted with the Romantics. Yet, what happened here was indeed profound; we’re still reeling from it, in fact. Rather than the gradual, processive change that usually informs the historical movement of the arts, this one was more of a reversal, a flip.
It’s a little like a canoe; you can put pressure on it and it will rock back and forth, but it still stays afloat. Then, when the tipping point is reached, it ceases to rock; suddenly, it flips and you’re in the water. A crude metaphor, perhaps, but oddly apropos. For the next two + volumes of the book, we’ll be swimming in these deep waters.