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War of the Romantics

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War of the Romantics

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The War of the Romantics is a term that has been used by music historians to describe the aesthetic schism that broke out among prominient musicians in the latter half of the 19th century. The principal disagreements were about musical structure, the limits of chromatic harmony, and about the value of programmatic music versus absolute music. The opposing parties crystallized during the 1850s, with the conservative circle, based in Berlin and Leipzig, centered around Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Their opponents, the radical progressives, organized in Weimar around Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner (in exile in Zürich until 1861). The controversy was principally German and central European in origin; musicians from France, Italy, and Russia figured only marginally. Composers from both parties looked back upon Beethoven as their spiritual and artistic hero.


The Leipzig conservatives

Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms were early key members of the conservative Leipzig-based school. This core of supporters maintained the artistic legacy of Robert Schumann who had died tragically amid mental illness in 1856. Robert Schumann(incapacitated from 1854 till his death) was an enthusiastic admirer, and occasional critic, of Liszt and Wagner in the previous decades. Schumann had been a progressive critic, editor of the influential music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he founded in 1834. Schumann was exceptional in his abilities to maintain enthusiastic, artistically fruitful friendships with the emerging vanguard of radical romantics — Liszt in particular — as well as with musical conservatives such as Mendelssohn and Gade. However, after Schumann sold the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik to Franz Brendel, under whose editorial leadership it became a propaganda organ for Liszt and his circle. Clara, who had long been the more conservative aesthete in the Schumann marriage, perceived the change as a slight against her husband’s legacy. The young Brahms, who had been very close to the Schumanns during Robert’s decline, also took up the cause. The conservative critic Eduard Hanslick was very influential on their behalf. Associated with them at one time or another were Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Friedrich Gernsheim, Robert Fuchs, and Karl Goldmark among others.

The radical romantics

Besides Liszt and Wagner, other key figures on the Weimar/New German side of the divide included critic Richard Pohl and composers Felix Draeseke, Julius Reubke, Karl Klindworth, Hans von Bülow, William Mason, Peter Cornelius and briefly Anton Rubinstein and Joachim Raff. There were several attempts, centered around but not generally inaugurated by Liszt, to create a lasting and formal society. The Neu-Weimar-Verein was one attempt to form a club, which lasted a few years and had published minutes. The Tonkunstler-Versammlung (Congress of Musical Artists), which first met in Leipzig in June 1859, was a more fruitful attempt.

One of the central points of disagreement between these two groups of musicians concerned form and forms — very generally speaking, Liszt's "circle", and Liszt himself in composing, were perceived to prefer to write in new styles and new forms, while the Leipzig/Berlin school was regarded as preferring the forms used by the classic masters (and codified by musicologists of the early 19th century.) The increasing use of various kinds of program music (explicitly pictorial and simply suggestive) by the Weimar school, and Liszt's development of the symphonic poem reinforced this perception, as did his motto that new wine required new bottles, though exceptions were not always minor.

Hanslick was led, first by the publication of Liszt's first symphonic poems and later by the Faust Symphony, to publish a statement of principles, that music did not and could not represent anything outside itself — not only not realistic impressions after the manner of Hector Berlioz, but even impressions and feelings, the motto on the score of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. It should be noted in passing that at least Wagner believed that this was closer to Liszt's intention than any more exact pictorial representation (see his "Open Letter on Liszt's Symphonic Poems", 1857, Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik April 10 1857, which originated as a letter, Feb 15 1857 to Princess Marie von Sayn-Wittgenstein, Caroline's daughter and Liszt's effective — and treated-as — adoptive daughter, see Walker, p 231 note, paperback edition. Liszt's prefaces to the works seem to back this view up, as well.)

The Manifesto

One significant event out of many was the signing of a Manifesto against the perceived bias of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This effort, whose authors were unknown, received at first four signatures among them those of Brahms and Joachim, though more were canvassed and eventually more were obtained. Before the later signatories could put their names to the document, however, it found its way into the editorial offices of the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo, and from there was leaked to the Neue Zeitschrift itself, which parodied it on May 4, 1860. Two days later (Walker, p 350) it made its official appearance also in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo with more than twenty signatures, including Woldemar Bargiel, Albert Dietrich, Carl Reinecke, and Ferdinand Hiller.

The "war" was fought with compositions, words, and even with scenes such as staged catcalls at a concert to show dislike of the musical programme or conductor. Reputations were at stake and partisans sought to embarrass their adversaries with public slights; the Weimar school held an anniversary celebration of the Neue Zeitscrift in Schumann's birthplace Zwickau and conspicuously neglected to invite members of the opposing party (including Clara Schumann). From the point of view of musicians on one side, it pit Brahms' increasingly effective and economical sonata form — say — against Liszt works with no form at all; as seen from the other, it put works in which — to paraphrase again the motto above, this time into an expression used by Cedric Thorpe Davie — musical form best fit musical content — against works which reused old forms without any understanding of their growth and reason. The 20th century brought a diversity of music against which the conflicts of the 19th seem like so many shades of the same color against a rainbow, and often, as Arnold Schoenberg lamented, criticism was one-note* and one-shade in the face of a whirlwind of styles, experimentation, returns-to, but the War of the Romantics, the writing it left and the events we know, provide a very useful insight into the time and its creative artists for all of that.

As to the victor of this metaphorical war, classical works written in the 20th century were either so far away from the questions addressed for either side to be relevant — Robert Ashley's works for light come to mind as an extreme case of music for which these concerns have no relevance, but there might be pieces even more so before not so very long... — or often benefited from the thoughts and works of both. Nikolai Medtner acquired the nickname the Russian Brahms (mostly for his sure handling of sonata form, actually — his teacher Taneyev saying that he was born with it) but wrote a half-hour, one-movement sonata, op. 25/2 in e, with the internal form of a sonata exposition followed by a fantasy.

*Schoenberg's essay — About Music Criticism — published in Style and Idea, page 194, translated by Leo Black, pub. Balmont Music Publishers 1975, paperback edition ISBN 0-520-05294-3, 1984 — remarked that while earlier critics had at least been able to discuss "the problem of whether it is effective or admissible" to reverse the order of the inner movements of a sonata structure, or to have an unusual key sequence in a work (e.g. Brahms' 2nd cello sonata, with slow movement a semitone above the main key,) these problems entirely passed modern critics by; critics could only harp on harmony, tonality, harmony. In this respect even the new profession of criticism — and in the mid-1800s professional music criticism (in newspapers, often by non-musicians, that is, as is the habit today) was very new — may have been marginally better. (Or not.)


  • Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, ISBN 0801497213, Cornell University Press 1993. pp.338 – 367 is entitled and covers specifically The War of the Romantics but it is a theme elsewhere.
  • Cedric Thorpe-Davie, Musical Structure and Design, ISBN 0486216292, Dover Publications, 1995. Still available from some retail outlets.

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