22 July 2019
I enjoy and appreciate a wide variety of music, and I spend a considerable amount of time listening, sometimes analyzing, sometimes following scores. As I’ve said, I use my time far more with listening to good music than to watching movies or TV shows. Time and resources are limited.
When listening to music within the Romantic genre, I often think about Goethe’s famous saying that “Romanticism is disease.” Much of popular music in the 20th century is within the Romantic movement. It is the bulk of music to which we are exposed, unless one makes a hard effort to listen to other genres (such as Renaissance, Baroque, Classical in the narrow sense (Haydn, Mozart), or ancient Chinese music, and so on).
Last night I could not sleep because of a noisy pool party two houses away, and a young man moving things into his father’s place at midnight, right next door to me, with much banging, as he was moving a pile of furniture legs and wood (his father does wood working). So I used AirPods for concentrated listening, and to hide the screams of children and the banging of unloading wood piles. I listened with a question in mind: What is there about Romantic music that would induce a mind such as Goethe’s to call it “disease”? And note, one finds similar thoughts in late Nietzsche, once he turned on that famous Romantic, Wagner, and labeled his music as “degenerate,” which I take to be a rough equivalent to “diseased.”
I listened to a number of Romantic composers with my question in mind. First, I focused on the slow movements, saving more outwardly expansive movements (such as the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Eroica) for another time (and because I have analyzed it previously, as the work of aggression and rebellion). I listened to some Shostakovitch, Rachmaninoff, Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms, and of course Wagner (using the central music of Tristan und Isolde, “O sink hernieder…”) There is indeed a similar quality in these composer’s works that marks them as unmistakably within the Romantic movement. My brief notes are not meant to be a criticism of the music, but analysis. In fact, I enjoy this music very much, and occasionally turn to it for its melodic beauty and emotional depth.
There seems to be what can be called a breach from reality in the Romantics, or a wallowing in excess. Listening to this music reminds me of something in Homer: explicitly, it brings to mind the passage in the Odyssey in which Odysseus has his crew strap him to the mast, so that he can listen to the Sirens without pursuing them into the waves to his own death. As you may remember, Odysseus goes wild from the Siren songs, so beautiful are they, and yet he cannot seek them out, as he longs to do. The best Romantic composers are geniuses at singing Siren songs that are so beautiful and enticing—but one enters at one’s risk. To listen in moderation (occasionally) should be no problem, but one can easily become in effect addicted to their seductive beauty. This applies to the great Romantic composers—and to no one more than to Wagner, whose aficionados / devotees are well known for being so addicted that some travel around the world to keep attending performances of the Ring or other of Wagner’s operas. (Or recall to mind how some youths followed “The Grateful Dead” from one location to another, so entranced were they by the music). This behavior displays excess.
If one listens closely to Schumann, for example, one falls in love with the beauty, and wants to keep listening. The music provides an excess of tenderness, a feeling of ecstasy, of a movement into one’s own private feelings and daydreams from which it may become difficult to escape. Pleasure is indeed addicting, and the pleasure given by the Romantic composers can be extreme, as they are geniuses of exciting chosen emotional responses.Haydn does not set out to overwhelm one’s mind with sentiment, with intense feelings (anger, love, grief, fear), but the Romantics do. And again, they are masters of engendering and one can say manipulating passions. Again, the masters in this regard are probably Beethoven (in some of his works, such as the Eroica) and R Wagner.
For example, if I listen closely (while doing nothing else) to the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, or to the andante of R Schumann’s Quartet for piano and strings in E-flat, I feel intensely drawn in, enraptured, and taken off by a kind of Erlkönig (Goethe’s symbol) into another realm. I am charmed to enter into my own private feelings and thoughts and memories. That pull and withdraw into oneself, if not balanced by a reasoned attunement to reality as a whole is, I think, the essence of the “disease of Romanticism.” It is like good wine: one can drink it responsibly; but one can be so taken in by the taste and its effects at “relaxing one” as to become a “wino,” at which point real damage is done.
In the wise words of the ancient Greeks, “Nothing over-much,” meaning “nothing in excess.” There is no substitute for a balanced, sane life, governed by reason. I think that this is what underlies Goethe’s dismissal of Romanticism as “diseased.” It traps one in the abyss of self.
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