Foreign-language equivalents of the term ‘Romanticism’ show a multiplicity of more or less similar meanings, whereby the old French word “romance” (poetry, novel) is to be assigned representative meaning. In the 18th century of literature, mystical, fantastic, fairy-tale or novel-like materials are commonly processed, whose musical equivalent, however, is to be sought at the earliest in the period from 1800. There are many different lines of development here, most of which obviously have one thing in common: The goal of a “fantastic” and “romantic” music directed in rejection of realistic technical progress.
The 19th century, starting from England, is marked by the technical revolution, which entails the lostness and anonymity of man in an emerging mass society. In addition to the Congress of Vienna (1815), the revolutions in France and Germany (1830/1848), which bring about a general democratization, can be mentioned as important political events.
Literature, art and music are received by the so-called educated middle classes, with strong differences in demands. Through the already mentioned spreading industrialization, unimagined possibilities of mass distribution (sheet music) and production of music and instruments are realized – apart from works of the highest pretensions, something emerges that could be called musical mass commodity and is consumed on a large scale as never before. In this context, Fanny Hensel advocated that the “sinking art […] must be lifted with a strong hand…” (Quoted in Tillara, p. 199)
At that time, music was performed both in the private sphere (domestic music, salon music) and in the public sphere (churches, concert halls, opera houses).
Technical progress and the associated technical way of thinking are reflected in particular in virtuosity (Paganini, Moscheles, Liszt). The musical aesthetic that dominated German Romanticism can be traced back to E. T. A. Hoffmann, Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, who saw in instrumental music a more perfect language than in wordless music.
Briefly summarized, the peculiarities of Romantic music can be described as the introduction of programmatic elements from the fields of philosophy, art and poetics, along with music-relevant new tonal languages and genres (which grew out of the Classical period), as well as the expansion of or departure from overly strict (sonata movement) forms. Extremes also emerge in the Romantic period: for example, oversized formal complexes are created in the area of the symphony, which stand in stark contrast to the typical Romantic art song tradition, most aptly represented by the character piece. Romanticism reveals the most diverse and free development of tonally bound polyphony in the Occident, which brings the constant musical expansion of all means to the (harmonic) limit: leading tones, chromaticism or even alterations form the last station of functional harmony. In addition, the shaping of dynamics grows alongside instrumentation, while melody lines oscillate between the smallest motifs and the longest arcs.
As far as musical genres in Romanticism are concerned, it remains to be noted that the majority of genres already existing in Classical music are adopted. Some undergo a transformation, others are developed further; only the following genres can be described as novel phenomena in the proper sense.
The character piece for piano
As a counterpart to the art song (see below), the so-called character piece or lyrical piano piece developed in the early Romantic period. Its main representatives include Robert Schumann and Carl Maria von Weber as well as Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
Stands out from the folk song/social song in that it is defined by stylistic complexity and a high standard of reproduction. The art song is the antithesis of the folk song and is understood as a personalistic artifact, which is based on certain aesthetic and interpretational criteria, although it must meet the requirement of “simplicity or unity” through short motives, line correspondence, language proximity and strophic structure. In the Romantic period, the art song reached its heyday through Franz Schubert, whose song oeuvre includes over 500 pieces.
The Symphonic Poem
Originating in the mid-19th century, the symphonic poem is characterized by the introduction of conceptually explicable content into music. Formally free or based on sonata form, rondo form or variation form, the symphonic poem includes only those pieces whose extra-musical content is explicitly expressed by the composer (even if subsequently). That “program,” however, is always to be understood only as a suggestion with respect to a composer’s own poetic statement about the music. While preliminary forms of symphonic poetry with programmatic references can already be found in Beethoven (Pastorale, 1807/08) and Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique, 1830), Liszt is considered the actual originator of symphonic poetry, who advocated a renewal of music through a direct reference to poetry (Overture to Tasso, 1849). In addition to leitmotifs, many motif transformations occur, which, supported by a modified instrumentation and innovative, expressive harmony, constitute the main characteristics of the symphonic poem.
Music and Salon
The emergence of salon culture is an entirely European phenomenon. The term “salon” has existed since the 17th century for the French region and later became common in other European countries. The salon is the name both for the reception room in private houses and for the circle of people who meet there. While the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries are institutions of high literary rank, the salons of the 19th century acquire great musical significance, mainly in German-speaking countries. Here, the spread of the piano as the main instrument of public and domestic music-making plays a leading role. Many piano virtuosos of the time (Chopin, Liszt) performed in the musical salons, and in keeping with the ambience of the salons, their own musical repertoire emerged: easily playable yet effective pieces of short duration. Romances, humoresques, fashion dances and character pieces determine the selection of music in the salons of the 19th century. A center of salon culture in Germany at the time was Berlin (Rahel Varnhagen).
More information on salon culture:
The Salon at Mendelssohns
“… a merit for the art conditions of our father city” –
FANNY HENSEL’S “SUNDAY MUSIC”
On May 18, 1847, the Vossische Zeitung published an obituary of Fanny Hensel, who had succumbed to a cerebral apoplexy four days earlier. Still under the immediate impression of Fanny’s death, the well-known Berlin music critic Ludwig Rellstab praises her as an extraordinary artistic personality. The author opposes the professional appearance of female composers in public, emphasizing “that a woman’s life is based on a different approach to her first profession” and praising the fact that Fanny, “although completely capable of any extended and difficult form, only appeared in public with outpourings of the most immediate feeling, preferably with beautiful songs”. Interesting in this context, however, are his remarks about another essential area of Fanny Hensel’s activity, the Sunday musics she alone organized after Felix left Berlin in 1829: “On Sunday mornings there took place, and the custom the deceased preserved to the last moment, an artistic feast of the rarest kind, where the classical works of the older, the best of the newer time, were heard in the most careful execution, and the enjoyment increased by the participation or presence of the most excellent artists who belonged to our city or visited it as strangers. This older custom took over […] the departed as a sacred inheritance and thus her domestic hearth remained at the same time the sacrificial hearth for the veneration of the best in music. This is a merit for the artistic conditions of our father city, for which we remain deeply indebted!”
With the Sunday music concerts, which were resumed in 1831 and continued with interruptions until her death, Fanny Hensel continued the concerts initiated in 1822 by Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, for which he had engaged musicians from the court orchestra. The matinees, which took place at bi-weekly intervals between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and were of a high artistic standard, offered Felix and Fanny the opportunity to perform their own compositions in addition to the works of other composers. After the move to the large estate at Leipziger Str. 3 in 1825, the Garden Hall overlooking the park, a room of about 105 square meters that could be transformed into an open columned hall by sliding back glass walls, was available for the Sunday matinees.(1)
While the audiences of the 1920s were still primarily friends and acquaintances of the Mendelssohn family, such as the Humboldt brothers, Hegel, Rahel and August Varnhagen von Ense, Droysen, Zelter, A. B. Marx, and traveling virtuosos and composers, under Fanny’s direction these matinees became a cultural center of Berlin – reserved for invited guests. According to a diary entry by Fanny, which retrospectively describes a particularly successful Sunday music of June 1837, at which Mendelssohn’s Paulus was performed in its entirety, “the public, according to a moderate estimate, had been about 300 strong.”(2) Famous guests in the 1840s included Franz Liszt and Clara and Robert Schumann, who frequented the Mendelssohn house during their stays in Berlin.
Fanny founded her own choir, invited musician and singer friends, and put together the programs. Occasionally she engaged orchestral musicians, such as the orchestra of the Köngstadt Theater in 1834 to perform her C major overture(3) and led the concerts as pianist and conductor. Johanna Kinkel, who lived in Berlin from 1836 to 1839, described in retrospect in 1856 the fascination that Fanny Hensel exerted:(4)
More than the greatest virtuosos and the most beautiful voices I heard there, I was fascinated by Fanny Hensel’s performance, and especially by the way she conducted. It was an absorption of the spirit of the composition to the innermost fiber and the most powerful outpouring of it into the souls of the singers and listeners. A sforzando of her little finger went through our souls like an electric shock and carried us away in a completely different way than the wooden tapping of a baton on a music stand can do.
The compositions chosen by Fanny are “the classics of the older” and “the best of the newer time”, or, as Rellstab puts it earlier in the already quoted obituary: “It was not the shiny, temporary, to which time pays homage, the eternal, eighth, which defies it, that her mind warmed and rose to.” This is confirmed by a reconstruction of the programs of the Sunday musics (1831-1847) made by the author according to – partly unpublished – diaries and letters of Fanny Hensel: most frequently represented are the works of Beethoven and her brother Felix, in second place rank J. S. Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Carl Maria von Weber, occasionally performed were works of contemporaries such as Chopin, Niels Gade and Louis Spohr. Since orchestral musicians were only exceptionally available to Fanny, the emphasis is on solo and choral songs, piano pieces, chamber music, and parts from oratorios, cantatas, and operas, although it is noticeable that Fanny ignores works by Schumann, Berlioz, and other composers who are significant from today’s perspective. The performance of her own works plays a surprisingly minor role overall: apart from the aforementioned C major overture, a few piano pieces, songs and duets, a cantata (presumably Job), the dramatic scene for soprano and orchestra Hero und Leander, the music for Goethe’s Faust II and the posthumously published Piano Trio in D minor op. 11 were heard.
Although Fanny Hensel also used the Sonntagsmusiken to a limited extent as a forum for her own compositions, she was primarily concerned with the work of the composers she valued most, especially Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart and her brother. She had already written down a possible concept for these concerts in her diary in 1825, where, under the heading “Proposal for the Establishment of a Dilettante Society for Instrumental Music,” she lamented the state of instrumental music in Berlin and called for “the efforts of knowledgeable and capable men,” since “the declining art [. …] must be raised with a strong hand”.(5) Although she could not perform symphonies in her concerts, she consistently pursued her demand, formulated in 1825, to “present great instrumental compositions in a dignified manner” within the framework of the Sunday musics. By performing important works of the Baroque and Viennese Classical periods, she thus made a significant contribution to the musical repertoire.
(Annette Maurer, in: Kontrapunkt….)
1 Michael Cullen, Leipziger Straße Drei – Eine Baubiographie, Mendelssohn-Studien Bd. 5, Berlin 1982, S. 48; Sebastian Hensel, Die Familie Mendelssohn 1729-1847, Bd. I, Berlin 5. Aufl. 1886, S. 141.
2 Tagebuch 1834-1843, Heringsdorf, 8. Juli 1839, Abschrift von Eva Roemer (Mendelssohn-Archiv der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin).
3 Briefe an Felix Mendelssohn vom 11. und 18. Juni 1834, in: Marcia J. Citron (Hg.), The Letters of Fanny Hensel to Felix Mendelssohn, Stuyvesant, 1987, S. 468 und 470.
4 Kinkel jun., Gottfried (Hg.). Aus Johanna Kinkel’s Memoiren. Teil VIII. In: Der Zeitgeist – Beiblatt zum „Berliner Tageblatt“ Nr. 46 (15. November 1886).
5 Zit. nach: Françoise Tillard, Die verkannte Schwester – Die späte Entdeckung der Komponistin Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy, München 1994, S. 199ff.