Music in the Romantic imagination

Published : Mar 01, 2017 12:28 IST

The book deals with the quintessential Romantic composer Robert Schumann.

The book deals with the quintessential Romantic composer Robert Schumann.

WHAT makes for a “Romantic” sensibility? Not in the literal sense of being inclined to “romance” but in the sense of the movement that subsequently became a tradition in 19th century literature and the arts in Europe, when this sensibility permeated much creative endeavour. Romanticism has generally been associated with an emphasis on emotion and a celebration of subjectivity in terms of the individual’s response to the world; a glorification of nature, as well as of the past; in many ways a cultural expression of the reaction to the standardisation and rule-bound socio-economic patterns created by the Industrial Revolution.

But, of course, the movement in Europe at the time was both more complex and more varied than that. What is remarkable is how despite differences in expression across the literary, visual and performative arts a common inspiration was evident. In his book The Romantic Generation (Fontana Press 1999), the music scholar Charles Rosen identified the “fragment” as the fundamental Romantic musical form: “at once complete and torn away from a larger whole” or “imperfect and yet complete”, with a form that is not fixed but is “torn apart or exploded by paradox, by ambiguity, just as the opening song of ‘Dichterliebe’ (The poet’s love) is a closed, circular form in which beginning and end are unstable—implying a past before the song begins and a future after its final chord” (page 51).

Rosen noted that this approach had a distinguished literary presence in German literature long before it was raised to a musical art form in the work of the Romantic composers, for example, in the work of the poet Friedrich Schlegel, who offered this description: “A fragment should be like a little work of art, complete in itself and separated from the rest of the universe like a hedgehog.”

Yet seeing romanticism only in terms of fragments is unduly restrictive and hardly captures so many other features that characterise Romantic music: the unbridling of passion that had already found expression in late Beethoven; the reliance on absence, or the suppression of melody, as an aural device; an emphasis on spontaneity so that the music emerges almost as a happy accident rather than the result of some formal progression; a forgiving approach to asymmetry, to the point that it can sometimes come close to controlled chaos.

One of the most striking features of Romantic music is how closely and explicitly it related to literary trends of the time. John MacAuslan’s Schumann’s Music and E.T.A.Hoffmann’s Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2016) brings this out clearly and with new insight. Fittingly, the book deals with the quintessential Romantic composer Robert Schumann, whose life and music are both almost stereotypical of the popular notion of the Romantic, with his emotional and psychological excesses, his passionate championing of the Romantic cause, and his music that in many ways captures the essence of the Romantic imagination. MacAuslan relates some of this music to the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a writer almost equally emblematic of the Romantic spirit and one who was hugely influential in his time, even though his works have not had the literary longevity of Schumann in music.

Schumann’s four fragments

The focus is on four of Schumann’s more well-known piano works, each a set of “fragments” combined to make whole sets that are now recognised as gems of the repertoire: “Carnaval”, “Fantasiestucke”, “Kreisleriana” and “Nachtstucke”. Each of these is related to particular works by Hoffmann but also to a more general literary association, because, as MacAuslan recognises: “Musical threads, interpreted as expressive, can also suggest juxtapositions with ideas and images from books, or from a culture more widely” (page 177). In the process, some other piano works of Schumann are also referred to (such as the early “Papillons” and the more mature “Davidsbundlertanz”) both to provide additional insights on the basic question and to reflect on Schumann’s musical development.

MacAuslan’s approach to finding the interconnections is at once detailed and synoptic, finding specific inspirations and explicit relationships as well as deeper underlying emotional themes that resonate across the differing forms of literary and musical expression.

“Carnaval”, for instance, is not only an idiosyncratic and highly personal description of the dizzying variety and exuberance of a carnival but takes inspiration from Hoffmann’s novella Princess Brambilla : “promenades, dances and theatre; the commedia dell’arte ; suspended social norms, cross-dressing (‘alluring hermaphroditic shapes’) and flirting; and a cast including masked lovers, magicians, a strutting Capitano, and German artists” (pages 35-36).

Just as Brambilla “contains elements of lyrical love story, fairy tales, comedy, parody, aesthetic treatise and philosophical spoof” (page 38) so too is “Carnaval” an exhilarating medley of different forms and styles. On these shifting narratives are superimposed Schumann’s own presentations of himself (in his alter egos Florestan and Eusebius), his friends (Chopin) and his love interests at the time (Ernestine von Fricken as Estrella, and Chiarina representing the young Clara Wieck, who eventually became his wife).

Schumann’s “Fantasiestucke” (dream images) is another work of strong contrasts, but its very title echoes the title of the work that made Hoffmann famous: Fantasiestucke in Callots Manier . MacAuslan focusses on one particular part of the book, “The Golden Pot”. This is a bildungsroman, or story of artistic development, of the young poet Anselm, which he argues “features images evoked by Schumann’s pieces: like his music, it embraces melodrama, comedy, irony and elegy, confounds dreaming and waking, and is filled with contrasting sonorities, especially of crystal and metal” (page 93).

Some very insightful passages with examples detail how this occurs musically. For example, in “Aufschwung” (taking wing or soaring), the metaphor for artistic maturity and rapture is expressed magisterially —but also with some humour, some clumsiness, and some lack of resolution. “In der Nacht” (In the night) and “Fabel” (fable) teem with other allusions that reflect the emotional turmoil in Schumann’s own life when Clara’s father, his former teacher, was opposing their relationship: the tragic story of Hero and Leander, along with another story from Hoffmann about lovers undergoing ordeals—and just as in Hoffmann’s story, the music too conflates dreaming and waking.

MacAuslan is careful to note that Schumann’s music is not programmatic in any strict sense and does not follow a particular narrative schema. This is even more so for the later works, as his work became more expansive and more complex. Thus, the set of pieces “Kreisleriana” bears the same title as the collection by Hoffmann of stories, essays, fictional letters, aesthetics and musical criticism.

The emphasis on the gulf between the giants of musical history (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) and the “philistines” was certainly at one with Schumann’s own conception —both in his own musical criticism and in his compositions he had weighed in against the philistines who prevented true artists from advancing to realise their full musical potential.

But given Schumann’s own trysts with mental illness, the fictional Johannes Kreisler’s emotional and psychological complexity as reflected in the work, and his final disappearance, must also have struck many chords. And these are expressed in all sorts of ways in these pieces: in the shifting tonalities, the use of particular melodic patterns with messages in the very choice of notes (a favourite device of Schumann); the contrasts between turbulence and almost mystical introspection; the varying reliance on musical aesthetics from completely different traditions.


Finally, “Nachtstucke” (night pieces) were not the same as nocturnes in the connotation of gentle and pensive romance but much darker in their inspiration. Hoffmann had used the title for a collection of stories that explored the perils of self-destructive psychoses. The immediate concern about his brother’s impending death may have influenced Schumann while he was creating these pieces, but surely his own more prolonged struggles with the devils of the mind, which were only just beginning at this point, would also have found some expression in this music. MacAuslan beautifully juxtaposes various images from Hoffmann’s work with the ambivalence, inconsistency and sometimes downright weirdness of the music, with the theme of the death march bringing out “an uncanny mutual dependence of human and mechanical, living and dead”.

Insights into the music

These interpretations of Schumann’s well-known piano pieces bring out all sorts of aspects and intricacies that demand more careful listening and also provide extremely nuanced insights into the music. MacAuslan is quick to admit that ultimately music “is a medium of its own and so in a sense forever inaccessible to verbal description: in that sense it is stubbornly transcendent” (page 237). Yet, analyses like these enrich us immensely by providing some understanding not only of the music itself but its literary influences and the cultural context in which it came into being and the multiple interlinkages between them; and so can still change the way we listen and indeed how we read the work of the Romantics. The Romantic imagination, in all its expansive, creatively contradictory glory, has found another champion in MacAuslan.

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