Romantics and the real world

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

Ludwig Van Beethoven. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Ludwig Van Beethoven. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The word `Romantic' has some very contemporary resonances, not just in music but in attitudes to life. In its true sense, it is idealistic, something that is increasingly lacking in today's world.

A FEW weeks ago, I had to deliver a lecture on the Romantic period in Western classical music, with musical illustrations. The lecture just happened to take place the evening before "Valentine's Day", which has recently become so famous and infamous in India because of the strenuous efforts of the media.

Of course, my intention was very different from that involving the promotion of a particular day as the appropriate point of celebration of romance. What I wanted to do in that lecture was to show that being "Romantic", in the sense of musical style, was very far removed from the images conjured up by the word "romantic" today, which suggest emotions of a generally mushy and slushy variety.

But as I was identifying what seemed to me to be the more important features of Romantic music, it struck me that these also had very contemporary resonances. Not just in music, but in contemporary attitudes to life, and perhaps in the current absence of some features which, in that earlier period in Europe, gave grace and meaning to both music and life.

Consider first what the word "romantic" actually means. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions at least five uses of it over the centuries. The first (dating from 1659) referred to "of the nature or having the qualities of romance (that is, a fanciful story) in respect of form or content". By 1667, this definition had been extended to "of a fabulous or fictitious character, having no foundation in fact". A few years later, in 1671, being romantic was essentially the same as being quixotic: "fantastic, extravagant; going beyond what is rational or practical".

A further extension of this came by 1711, when the word was defined as "imaginary, purely ideal". At last, more than a century later, in 1885, we get the first known use of the term that has relevance for musical style as well: "characterised by the subordination of form to theme and by imagination and passion".

Notice that none of these definitions has much resemblance to the current widely prevalent usage of the term, which is sort of lovey-dovey and starry-eyed. In fact, in my copy of the OED, I could not find any such definition, which emphasises the amorous and sentimental. Curiously, though, the "thesaurus" function in the word processing programme I currently use immediately came up with "loving" as the closest synonym!

Indeed, even in Romantic music, there is relatively little than can be classified as mushy and sentimental - the essence of Romantic music is actually very different. Most of Romantic music is anything but mushy: it is strong, vibrant and passionate. Even Chopin, the composer most typically identified with drippy sentimentality in the popular mind, composed some music that was positively militaristic and triumphalist, in his "Polonaises".

The Romantic style in music can be said to originate from Beethoven, whose music stretched the boundaries of form as previously defined by classical composers like Haydn and Mozart. Not only did Beethoven push to the very limits of what could be seen as "acceptable" in terms of formal structure, he also introduced what appear today to be almost post-modern sensibilities.

Thus, his innovations were also to use silence - at particular points and in particular ways - as an effective musical device; to create surprise and shock through the introduction of unexpected elements and phrasing; and to combine a sense of chaos with controlled symmetry.

Yet in one crucial way, Beethoven was far from being a true Romantic, for his music was not only very definite and definitive but also complete in itself, almost awe-inspiring in its wholeness. The late Leonard Bernstein once remarked that Beethoven's music is like a cathedral, in which every part must necessarily be there, and it is impossible to imagine it in any other way.

By contrast, the later Romantics, especially Robert Schumann, specialised in what they called "fragments". The Romantic fragment in music and poetry was intended to be imperfect when complete, and incomplete when perfect. The German poet Friedrich Schegel defined it thus: "A fragment should be like a little work of art, complete in itself and separated from the rest of the universe like a hedgehog."

These fragments were composed as small pieces, often parts of larger cycles of pieces or songs, which also relied on much allusion to other music and to self-reference. There was a lot of use of absent or suppressed melodies, which only the initiated would comprehend - Schumann, for example, sometimes used them as a means of communicating with his beloved Clara, whom he was for a time barred from meeting.

But also, fragments were part of the Romantic obsession with ruins, with architectural structures that suggested or implied a larger completeness that only the imagination could fill. The power of suggestion and of musical hints therefore dominated, along with a recurrent theme of longing and restlessness in much of the music.

These are not the only features that have something in common with artistic sensibilities today. There was a feature, which was in sharp opposition to the earlier Baroque and Classical periods, when music was more in the nature of an outward activity, as a religious offering or serving a social function. Among the Romantics, composition was a very self-absorbed and inward-looking activity. And their music, too, exhibits much concern with "identity" and has hints of identity crises and even schizophrenia, which would be quite familiar to the more "post-modern" of our thinkers today.

In another respect, however, Romantic music could never fully capture the current imagination (or perhaps, the other way around: the current imagination cannot fully appreciate the subtleties and complexities of Romantic music). This is because, finally, it is idealistic, and finds fulfilment in non-corporeal sources of delight and gratification. Melody, dynamics of phrasing and harmony, suggestion and silence as the means of sublimation of romance, may simply have become too pure to be satisfying in an increasingly impure world.

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