An aesthetic reversal; or, The birth of Romanticism

… 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.


  1. “Absolute Music” is turning out to be a rather mysterious construct–one quite different, and later (Hanslick, although it is not clear what he actually meant–as is clear from RT’s own choice of excerpt and gloss on it in *Music in the Western World*), from what has long been taught in music appreciation classes. Sanna Pedersen’s work in this area is fascinating, and we should be a lot more aware of it. Suffice to say that absolute music has always been an oversimplification, almost always misused, and probably should simply be retired as a concept.

  2. “Suffice to say that absolute music has always been an oversimplification, almost always misused, and probably should simply be retired as a concept.”


    “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.”

    I think it’s important to remember, though, that in the 19th century, you could not hear symphonic music as a lone individual. It was a quintessentially public experience. Certainly it had its private counterpart through the proliferation of arrangements, but most of these were ensembles as well – the most common being the oddly social medium of piano four hands. I wonder if this aspect of the Romantic view of the symphony hasn’t also been overstated in light of 20th-century social realities. By now it’s possible for anybody to listen to any kind of music he or she wants at any time in virtually any place and without involving anybody else. This would have been inconceivable in Beethoven’s time.

  3. “Rarely in music history do aesthetic shifts take place so abruptly, and so violently.”

    On the contrary — they’re common and usually lightning-swift. The shift from the 3 greek genera based on stacked tetrachords to Pythagorean diatonic tuning ca. 600 A.D.; the change from plainchant to organum ca. 800 A.D…the change from organum to triadic harmony in meantone tuning at the start of the Renaissance; the shift from polyphony to chromatic-harmony-supported melody in the classical period. Equally violent as this one, if not more so, and in many cases as rapid, or more rapid.

    In most cases driven by technology. The gift of the first pipe organ by the Byzantine emperor produced organum; the advent of early virginals made possible by wire-working technology made possible keyboard music and Monteverdi’s innovations in harmony: the advent of modern keyboard instruments proved crucial to the development of chromatic harmony. The tectonic shift from Ars Nova to the Renaissance was driven by the Black Death, however, not tech. As George Lewis points out, musicians tend to imitate their machines.

    RT misses a big bet here. Romantic music arguably derived from the standardization of musical instruments made possible by the Maudlay lathe in 1796. Musical instruments got cheaper and their tonal character and intonation much more reliable. This in turn allowed patrons to build up large masses of ’em able to play in tune together, and to produce pianos with a louder sound and more octaves. The Romantic movement in music was driven by technology, just as the modernist movement was. Only in the case of the Romantic movement, it was wooden machinery and lathe technology rather than the vacuum tubes and transistors and tape recorders of the mid-20th century.

    1. Thank you for pointing this out. RT hasn’t yet brought the issue of technology into the discussion (we’ll point it out if/when he does), and it’s certainly something we need to consider. However, we should be careful not to adopt an overly deterministic view of technology’s role in shaping the development of western music. It’s a huge factor, to be sure (and one that seems to often be overlooked in music scholarship), but I would argue that technology no more drives history than an automobile drives us. It can sort of wipe human agency from the picture to view technology, divorced from context, as a historical actor in itself.

  4. I quite agree. Too much techno-determinism runs the risk of turning into teleology; too little, and we find ourselves left wondering “Why did dropping the atomic bomb in 1945 spur the mass movement toward serial atonality and indeterminism when the Black Death circa 1385 didn’t?”

    But I skip ahead to volume 5…

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