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The Roots of Romantic Music

Diamond Yao By Diamond Yao Published on November 27, 2015

“Music is all around us. All you have to do, is listen”. This quote concluded 2007’s 1 August Rush movie, a film chronicling an orphaned child musical prodigy’s (Freddie Highmore) quest to find out the truth about his birth parents. This kid hears beautiful music in everything, from the cacophony of the streets of New York City to a mundane conversation. He then proceeds to integrate all of these impressions into one grand rhapsody he performs in the movie’s finale. This attitude might seem very avant-garde, but in fact, it stems from a long musical tradition that goes back a little more than two centuries. Its emphasis on ordinary life and on the passing feelings one has of one’s own situations takes its roots directly from musical Romanticism, a movement that emerged in the late 18th century and early 19th century as a backlash to Classicism. The fact that it appeared at that particular point in time is no coincidence: it was during this period that Europe was experiencing multiple social revolutions on all fronts. The aim of this work will be to prove that both of these events are linked by cause and effect; that is, musical Romanticism is a direct result of heavy social change of the time. The revolutions brought about the novel ideas of freedom, liberty and the possibility of a new order based on intense focus on the individual. These values were in turn reflected in the intellectual and cultural makeup of society. Musicians, being part of this changing society, were consequentially heavily influenced by it and, as a result, created art that reflected this change. 

August Rush, Directed by Kirsten Sheridan (2007; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2008), DVD.

Before examining these questions, it would be useful to know what Romanticism is. It is important to bear in mind that, because of the very subjective nature of this artistic movement (it is based on personal feelings), it meant different things to different people. Novalis, a figure of early German Romanticism, described it as such: “By endowing the commonplace with a lofty significance, the ordinary with a mysterious aspect, the familiar with the merit of the unfamiliar, the finite with the appearance of infinity, I am Romanticizing.” K.W.F. Schlegel, another 2 German Romantic, had an equally awestruck definition: “It alone is infinite. It alone is free. Its overriding principle is that the poet’s fantasy is subject to no agreed principles.” However, not 3 everyone held a soulful admiration for it. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer of the late 18th and early 19th century, described classical art as healthy and romantic art as sick. He is 4 referring to the rigid orderly nature of the former, preferring it to the impulsive emotional craziness of the latter. This variety of opinions testifies to a very important cornerstone of Romanticism: it was born out of a time of tumultuous disturbances that each individual experienced in its own unique way, not the least being the French Revolution. 

The French Revolution was one of the most pivotal events that lead to Romanticism. It is therefore primordial to know of what it consisted before exploring how it affected that movement. In the end of the 18th century, Enlightenment ideals had already spread all over Europe and rulers governed accordingly. The only glaring exceptions were the kings of France, who carried on Louis XIV’s absolutist doctrines. The French court lived expensively on an empty national treasury, decked out in fine luxury. To keep up that lifestyle, finance ministers became expert swindlers and the common people had to pay huge taxes they couldn’t afford. The nobility and aristocracy were endowed with an enormous superiority complex, mistreated commoners and lived frivolously. This is best illustrated by the sort of activities they did during their abundant leisure hours:

Arnold Whittall, Romantic Music: A Concise History From Schubert To Sibelius (London: 2 Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1987), p. 10 Ibid. Ibid, p. 9

“[…] even [the lords and ladies of the nobility] sometimes tired of such an unnatural life that was all elegance and sophistication, so they invented a new pastime. They played at Simplicity and Nature. This consisted of living in charming shepherds’ huts which they had built in the grounds of their chateaux, and giving themselves the names of shepherd and shepherdesses taken from Greek poems. What could be more natural or more simple ?!” However, this state of affairs was clearly not sustainable, and in 1789, the king called a meeting of the Three Estates (nobility, clergy, bourgeoisie) to discuss a solution to France’s cripplingfinancial crisis. Unfortunately, none of the proposals of these people pleased the king, so he dismissed them. At this act, a man named Mirabeau challenged him and said that they wouldn’t leave except at the point of a bayonet. The king, not accustomed to have his authority challenged, ordered troops to disperse the assembly by force. French people, hearing this, were enraged. They had put all of their hopes on this assembly. In despair, they stormed the Bastille, thus starting the Revolution. The people were declared to be the true rulers, with the king merely a representative of their interests, and plenty of social reforms were implanted. Louis XVI made multiple unsuccessful attempts to thwart the revolution, including secretly plotting with other countries against his own people. This was a decisive turning point for the French population. Furious, people took to the streets shouting things like “Death to all aristocrats ! Liberty ! Equality ! Fraternity !”, changed their ways of dress and attacked noblemen. The Jacobins, a radical faction of the Revolution, set up the Revolutionary Tribunal that sentenced to death by guillotine anyone who disagreed with them. Robespierre and Danton, two extremist Revolution leaders, lead the country into terror by beheading countless people (including the King and Queen). After everything had calmed down a little, a young general named Napoleon would declare himself emperor and set out to conquer vast parts of Europe, setting off a destructive strings of wars.

E.H Gombrich, A Little History Of The World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,  1985), p. 253 Ibid. 

It should be noted, however, that social change at the turn of the century was by no means restricted to the French revolution. Many more instances of unprecedented progress were also occurring one after the other. Politics everywhere were being irreversibly altered: Joseph II (the Holy Roman emperor) abolished serfdom. The Austrian empire granted its people freedom of religion. The American Constitution was drafted. On the scientific side, Montgolfier flew his first hot air balloon, Volta produced the first electrical current and the city of London had its first gas lights. The close of the 18th century was a major turning point in the entire Western world.

This shift of social era coincided with a shift in the intellectual thoughts developed. Timothy Lenoir argues in his article Generational Factors in the Origin of “Romantische Naturphilosophie” that the generation of the 1790s were exposed to a unique set of circumstances as they were intellectually coming of age. As a result, they adopted a very different stance on a variety of issues compared to previous generations. Among them was Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He thought that the unifying thread of history was the general progression of humanity towards the Ideal of Freedom. He also had some radical ideas concerning the entity of the state: he thought it was a transcendental ideal that could only be achieved if the individuals in society were truly free. Kant did not limit his revolutionary insights to politics. In fact, his thoughts on 11 the arts greatly influenced musical Romanticism. He claims that beautiful art had to come out from within one’s self. This is a concept central to this movement and the polar opposite of the rigorous structure present in Classicism. He states plainly in his Critique of the Power of Judgement:

“[…] Everything contrived and laborious in [art] must be avoided; for beautiful art must be free art in a double sense: it must not be a matter of renumeration, a labor whose magnitude can be judged, enforced, or paid for in accordance with a determinate standard; but also, while the mind is certainly occupied, it must feel itself to be satisfied and stimulated (independently of renumeration) without looking beyond to another end.”

Kant also makes an interesting point when he is describing his personal hierarchy of the arts. According to him, music occupies the lowest rung in terms of the level of culture it provides to the mind. It merely plays with the senses. At the same time, this reality allow it to simultaneously occupy the highest rung in terms of agreeableness. These statements concord perfectly with the 13 essence of musical Romanticism.

Kant’s ideas got quickly picked up by young university students of the time. Among them was Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, a future German Idealist philosopher. He attended a school that suppressed Kant’s work because it was considered highly dangerous. This did not deter him from reacting to all the changes that were happening around him. He formed a secret society of young radicals, corresponded with the Jacobin club in Strasbourg, planted freedom trees on campus and sang revolutionary songs. Along with two friends, he would encourage the French Revolution by building a program of intellectual and educational reform which would teach young men that they were free agents of the world. Just as it had happened with Kant, 

this rebellious streak would translate into his later philosophical writings: he sought to bring man and nature together to find their ideal point of perfect fusion. This is especially interesting in 16 the context of Romanticism, because it is essentially what the movement is based on: it often thought of as a reaction of the rural against the urban. In other words, Romanticism is a return 17 to nature. This concept of unity between man and nature is also the perfect opposite of Classicism. Classicism aims to cut off man from nature. In Classical thought, nature is primal, wild and unknown. On the other hand, man is rational and moderated. Therefore, his creations are structured and striving to achieve an ideal of perfection. Schelling’s statement is therefore a 18 fundamentally Romantic one. 

The nature of music was heavily debated as a result of the changing social landscape. Since Aristotle’s time, all art was thought of as a matter of imitation. Adam Smith, a Scottish 19 moral philosopher and one of the key figures of the Enlightenment, contradicts that concept. He claims in The Early Writings of Adam Smith, not without a certain disdain, that instrumental music is not necessarily an imitative art. However, it can express genuinely original things of its own that don’t exist, as he eloquently explains:

“[…] music seldom means to tell any particular story, or to imitate any particular event, or in general to suggest any particular object, distinct from that combination of sounds of which itself is composed. Its meaning, therefore, may be said to be complete in itself, and to require no interpreters to explain it.” He also elaborates on how music does not imitate feelings, but rather produces new ones in the listeners. This sort of attitude is perfectly Romantic and reflects a shift on how people think about music: it is seen as a force in itself representing abstract ideas. This is at complete oddswith Classicism, who regarded music (and arts in general) as something based on the imitation of real subjects.

The Romantic composers were subjected to this tumultuous backdrop. The newfound freedom of the era inspired fresh hopes and optimisms in the artists, sometimes by very direct influences. The German composer Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was studying Schelling while he was composing his first three-act stage work Silvana. This was classified as a‘Romantic Opera’. Later on, he got to know Schelling personally whilst in Munich and subsequently composed Der Freischütz, a extremely emotional opera based on German folk legends. Hector Berlioz, a French Romantic known for his Symphonies fantastiques, was taught 23 by Lesueur, a writer of popular revolutionary songs of the French Revolution.

Such drastic changes also meant that the old social hierarchy was completely destroyed. Musical artists could not rely on Church or royal commissions anymore. Instead, music grew a much larger audience of commoners that were on equal footing with the composer. Performance venues transitioned from royal courts and churches to concert halls filled with enthusiastic fans. Practically everything in society fell to pieces and had to be reinvented. This left the musician with only himself as a stable source of inspiration. He was therefore free to express his own individuality in his art. His music’s focus became his personal feelings and emotions. This new development made the old ways of writing music completely obsolete. The formality and rigidity of the classical forms (sonata, symphony, etc.) could not handle what the artist had to express.

He had to invent new ones to suit this new era. In fact, the many “classically correct” pieces written during this period are now forgotten. What stayed were the rebellious ones, the “incorrect” ones, because they were the ones who were relevant with the times. A modification of musical forms was inevitable, and thus was born musical Romanticism. 

This transformation reflected in the music in many ways. Most obviously, subject matter changed. While Classical music was based on purely aesthetic abstract preoccupations, Romantic music took on an incredibly human content. Romantics drew their attention to ordinary people, lost loves, inspiring dreams, powerful passions, nationalist pride, political struggle for freedom; just about anything concerned with the human experience. They wrote about things that were happening in their own lives and crafted their own responses towards news events of the time. They themselves became their art in a very unprecedented way. Berlioz used his infatuation with the British actress Harriet Smithson to create the fantastical apparitions in his Symphonie fantastique. Such an individualistic approach to creation was groundbreaking, but it was typical of the Romantics.

This personalization of music lead to the birth of new structural features characteristic of this period. Melody became very important and musicians wanted to make their instrument “sing” the emotions of the composition. They sought to imitate the human voice as closely as possible to accurately reflect the human content of the pieces. This tendency gave way to the composition of “songs”. Felix Mendelssohn wrote several Songs Without Words rooted this typically Romantic self-expressive mood. When asked about the actual meaning of the Songs, he replied, very Romantically: “The thoughts that are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” Harmony was also the subject of innovation. Musicians experienced with dissonances and atypical note intervals to create emotional tension. Bass was made heavier to increase drama. Tone colour was skillfully used to characterize a piece. Certain keys were associated with certain meanings. Complex arrangements of woodwinds and strings would create spectacular effects that further emphasized the production’s point. This new development was supported by the growth in size of the orchestra. In the last movement of his Ninth symphony, Beethoven ended up with four horns, three trombones, a contrabassoon, a piccolo and various percussion instruments, something that would be unimaginable to Classical simplicity. To convey the exact mood of the music, composers invented certain terms to direct its interpretation such as: dolce (sweetly), espressivo (expressively), cantabile (songful), dolente (weeping), maestoso (majestic), gioioso (joyous). All of this evolution springs from composers’ desire to express themselves and their 37 own ideas as clearly nuanced as possible.

Musical Romanticism has its roots in the social upheavals of the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of the 19th century. The collapse of the old order, along with the ensuing instability characteristic of the new era opened the door for revolutionary ideas on all fronts. Music was no exception. It sought to emancipate itself from the decidedly archaic ways of Classicism that were no longer appropriate. This process resulted in Romanticism, a movement that would have far-reaching consequences. For the first time, the composer could express themselves in their art, paving the way for countless others that would follow. In many ways, musical Romanticism laid the foundation for how we think about music in the present 21st century and its masterpieces are still widely enjoyed today.


August Rush. Directed by Kirsten Sheridan. 2007. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2008. DVD.

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Bara, Olivier and Alban Ramaut. Généalogies du romantisme musical français. Mayenne:

Librairie Philosophique J. VRIN, 2012.

Gombrich, E.H. A Little History Of The World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press,


Hughes, Charles. “Music of the French Revolution.” Science & Society Vol. 4 No. 2 (Spring

1940): 193-210

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgement, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,


Lenoir, Timothy. “Generational Factors in the Origin of “Romantische Naturphilosophie.””

Journal of the History of Biology Vol. 11 No. 1 (Spring 1978): 57-100

Machlis, Joseph. The Enjoyment of Music. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, inc., 1963.

Ringer, Alexander. The Early Romantic Era. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Rosen, Charles. La génération romantique. France: Éditions Gallimard, 2002.

Smith, Adam. The Early Writings of Adam Smith. New York: Sentry Press, 1967.

Whittall, Arnold. Romantic Music: A Concise History From Schubert To Sibelius. London:

Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1987.

I am a serial Post-It user with a poet's heart and a logician's mind. If I am not busy trying to (pointlessly) perfect the art of juggling a million contradictory ideas at the same time, you can ... Show More