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Classic and the Romantic

The above terms, as denoting two schools of music, are often used by the public generally and even by musicians without clear ideas or well-defined limitations. It will help toward a proper use of these terms if we look for a minute at their origin. Let us briefly recount it.
Genesis of "Classic."
Greece and Rome were for ages the leaders of the world, the former in fine art development, in poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, drama, music. It set the pace which Rome followed. The latter was too busy in conquering and ruling the world to originate much in the fine arts. Still the wealth and luxury were there which called for these. So Grecian artists and their works were imported, and Rome, as well as Athens, became a great art center. The stimulus given to all the fine arts by religion, moreover, was extraordinary; first the worship of Jupiter and all the Olympian gods; later that of the Christian religion. Thus under the tutelage of these two mighty nations with their wealth of art treasures, the world made great strides in its advancement.
In Rome the citizens were of different ranks or classes. Those of the first rank were called the "Classici." From this the term "classic" has been extended to the first rank of literature, and all the fine arts, so that Pope thus defines "classic," "an author or a work of the first rank, more commonly denoting a Greek or a Latin author, but also applied to the best modern authors." Every author while still alive has his opponents and rivals, and as it takes at least two or three generations properly to focalize attention upon any work, for public opinion and sentiment to crystallize and shape itself, and personal antagonisms to die away, the term "classic" has narrowed itself in popular estimation to authors who are dead and gone. Naturally music has followed the lead of literature and other tine arts. So music which is placed by common consent in the front rank is naturally called "classic." Thus   Riemann in his "Dictionary of Music": "Classical, a term applied to a work of art against which the destroying hand of time has proved powerless. Since only in the course of time can a work be shown to possess this power of resistance, there are no living classics."
Genesis of Romantic.
Beginning from about the fifth century a great change came over the face of the world. The so- called Dark Ages came on. Hordes of barbarians overran all Christendom, the great Roman empire was broken up, the Latin language ceased to be spoken, and the fine arts were quite neglected. Conventional laws were practically abandoned. This was the age of adventure, of mystery, of unbridled fancy, of extravagance. The Crusades occupied the center of the European stage for over three centuries. Everything was in a transition state. Music and other art works were only preserved in the depths of monasteries. The age of chivalry supervened.
A corruption of the Latin language was spoken and written in France and Spain from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries which was called, from its Roman origin, the Romance language. It became the language of the troubadours and minstrels who roamed all Southern Europe with their songs of love and chivalry. These ballads and popular songs, called the "romance music," were the unpromising forerunner of modern "romantic" music. Not only music, but literature, architecture, and all the fine arts broke loose from their old trammels, and their development consequent upon this took the title of "romance," or "romantic." About the sixteenth century, nearly coincident with the advent of the Reformation, came on the Renaissance, or "new birth," of the fine art world, the most noted feature of which was the revival of interest in the old literature, architecture, music, painting, sculpture, etc., of ancient Greece and Rome which was called "classic" by all. Thus there arose naturally and inevitably the rivalry of the "classic" and the "romantic" in music as in other fine arts. This rivalry and conflict are still our heritage.
Classic and Romantic Contrasted.
As the centuries have come and gone, these age limits have grown indistinct, and the terms "classic" and "romantic" now represent to us in the fine arts and certainly in music the following marked characteristics: The former, art works and forms which have the stamp of approval from the verdict of the past; the latter, entire freedom of fancy and imagination, quite unhampered by old rules and traditions; the former, elegance of form, symmetry, simplicity, clearness of outline, perfection of development; the latter, mostly ignoring purity of form and regularity of outline, but aiming directly at the various points or effects desired by the nearest routes and without trying to smooth the road; the former building its climaxes with sure foundation and regular growth, until the laying of the keystone is as sure to ensue as the procession of the equinoxes; the latter piling up discords and cutting across lots with a rush that takes the breath away, but "getting there" with an overpowering climax; the former, phrasing with care; the latter, coloring and shading; the former, definite; the latter, veiled and mysterious; the former, limited; the latter, expansive; the former, worshipping the accord; the latter, using the discord with perfect freedom, resulting often in infatuation with it; the former, resulting too often in coldness and severity; the latter, too often in lurid and garish shading; the former, rejoicing in harmonious completeness; the latter, in reaching the goal by the nearest route.
The Line of Division.
Each department of fine arts has its own well- recognized division line between the Classic and Romantic periods, which lines may vary in different branches by many centuries. In music the division line has gradually advanced. In the time of Beethoven the line was drawn at about the middle of the seventeenth century, among the then acknowledged classic masters being Palestrina, Monteverde, Scarlatti, Bach, and Handel. Beethoven himself was regarded as too original in his ideas and treatment of themes to be received into the noble company of the classics. By many of his contemporaries his compositions were decried and derided, yet his fame has far outlived that of his critics. The musical world has awarded to him not simply the palm for originality and forcefulness in composition, but that of a true conservator of musical form, as his works are the highest types of development in the Sonata form. Since his death the dividing line has been by unanimous consent advanced to include Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
As to their immediate successors, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Rossini, although by many they are on general principles called "classic," yet there is still question as to whether their names will finally be inscribed within the temple of classic fame. Not that much of their music is not thoroughly inspired or worthy to stand beside or above many acknowledged classic compositions, but the verdict depending upon two things: first, whether their works are on the recognized classic models: and, second, whether, as defined by Riemann, these are "works of art against which the destroying hand of time has proved powerless." Not enough time has yet elapsed to get them into proper perspective.
So we may come farther down and take in Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Liszt, Tschaikowsky, and many others who have become very famous and have now joined the majority. Thereby they are enrolled as authorized candidates for Classicism. In like manner we may express our opinion as to the proper and probable niches to be reserved for our present day composers, Grieg, Dvorak, Elgar, Perosi, Strauss, and some of our leading American composers. Only by discussion and comparison can public opinion reach its final verdict. Yet we can tabulate certain general principles which may clear away misconceptions and assist in the final decision.
General Principles.
First, we must not be misled by the rather common idea that difficulty of performance and comprehension is synonymous with Classicism. There is "classic" music of all degrees of ease or difficulty; but as a rule its symmetry and clearness make it easy of comprehension by anyone who has learned to listen, think, and analyze.
Second, the term Classicism has to do specifically with definite form as recognized by existing canons, and we will have to revise these definitions before we can accept as "classic" works which entirely ignore regularity of form. How far such revision of definition will go it is useless for us to speculate. In accepting Beethoven as a "classic" these canons were greatly stretched. Yet Beethoven had definite form which the world recognized, which justified the extension of the boundaries to include his name. Every writer of genius and originality stretches the inclosing limits, although the extent of this elasticity is reached before some of them gain admittance. Yet to be thus excluded is not to be condemned. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the world will be the final judge as to the merits of all compositions.
The strength of Classicism is that a vital, pregnant subject, developed systematically and symmetrically to its elegant and logical conclusion is most satisfactory and leaves a clean and sweet taste behind. Its weakness for modern use is that in confining compositions to existing form canons it naturally cramps ideas so that much music written in most perfect form is dry as dust.
The strength of Romanticism is that it leaves entire freedom for expansion of fancy, that its devotee can stray from the beaten path at any point to grasp any desirable thing. A myriad of effects are thus possible and feasible to the romantic writer which are denied to the classical. The weakness is that unbalanced minds here as in all departments of life will stray off into grotesque and monstrous absurdities and there is none to say them nay.
The list of modern and present writers illustrates all this. Weber, the idealist; Meyerbeer, the spectacularist; Berlioz, the realist, broke away from the traditions and strict rules in vogue up to their date, and the world received them and their lovely compositions with open arms. Schubert with his immense melodic fertility; Chopin, with his exquisite piano designs; Schumann, with his intensely subjective moods; Mendelssohn, with his reposeful creations, all held more closely to established forms.
Wagner started as a disciple of Gluck and Beethoven, but diverged more and more, plunging into mysticism, and culminating in the "Nibelungen Ring" and "Parsifal." His seems, indeed, the extreme of Romanticism. His influence on succeeding composers has been extraordinary and the end is not yet.
Whether future ages will establish a "classic" canon to include him and his disciples, Strauss and others, who now out-Wagner him, it is idle for us to speculate about. It seems more likely, however, that Brahms, the later Verdi, and Dvorák represent more fully the types which future Classicism will enroll. It is to be noticed, however, that all the modern writers who have succeeded have had a strict schooling in the classics. Herein is a lesson for us all, whether we write in Classic form or in Romantic vein.

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You are reading Classic and the Romantic from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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