Vital Signs

Romanticism, Ever New

Modern music criticism has engaged in a Herculean endeavor to misunderstand Romanticism, both as a historic and as a modern phenomenon. The 19th-century Romantics are relegated to the status of antiques. Their musical language is declared suitable for the musical museums of formal concerts but not worth taking seriously by modern composers. Above all, the modern critic attempts to reduce Romanticism to a mere conglomeration of techniques, some effective and some excessive, but all nothing more than techniques, and those obsolete.

The main complaint the critics make against Romantic music is its subjectivity; it is too personal, too obsessively focused on the emotions of the composer. Subjectivity is equated with solipsism and, ipso facto, irrationality. Leaving aside the emotional qualities of most music, what is to prevent a composer from treating his subjective states "objectively"? The very fact that Romantic music conveys so vividly an enormous range of emotional states should indicate that the artists capable of expressing such affective variety cannot be helpless victims of their own feelings. A man chained by the subjective states of, say, Tristan und Isolde would be incapable of writing them down; as Richard Strauss said, only a man made of ice could have composed that opera.

One clue to the Romantics' objectivity is provided by their famous predilection for extramusical associations, for...

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