Romantic Music: The Ideals of Instrumental Music
At one point in the study of the Romantic period of music, we come upon
the first of several apparently opposing conditions that plague all attempts to
grasp the meaning of Romantic as applied to the music of the 19th century. This
opposition involved the relation between music and words. If instrumental music
is the perfect Romantic art, why is it acknowledged that the great masters of
the symphony, the highest form of instrumental music, were not Romantic
composers, but were the Classical composers, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven?
Moreover, one of the most characteristic 19th century genres was the Lied, a
vocal piece in which Shubert, Schumann, Brahams, and Wolf attained a new union
between music and poetry. Furthermore, a large number of leading composers in
the 19th century were extremely interested and articulate in literary expression,
and leading Romantic novelists and poets wrote about music with deep love and
The conflict between the ideal of pure instrumental music (absolute
music) as the ultimate Romantic mode of expression, and the strong literary
orientation of the 19th century, was resolved in the conception of program music.

Program music, as Liszt and others in the 19th century used the term, is music
associated with poetic, descriptive, and even narrative subject matter. This is
done not by means of musical figures imitating natural sounds and movements, but
by imaginative suggestion. Program music aimed to absorb and transmit the
imagined subject matter in such a way that the resulting work, although
“programmed”, does not sound forced, and transcends the subject matter it seeks
to represent. Instrumental music thus became a vehicle for the utterance of
thoughts which, although first hinted in words, may ultimately be beyond the
Practically every composer of the era was, to some degree, writing
program music, weather or not this was publicly acknowledged. One reason it
was so easy for listeners to connect a scene or a story or a poem with a piece
of Romantic music is that often the composer himself, perhaps unconsciously, was
working from some such ideas. Writers on music projected their own conceptions
of the expressive functions of music into the past, and read Romantic programs
into the instrumental works not only of Beethoven, but also the likes of Mozart,
The diffused scenic effects in the music of such composers as
Mendelssohn and Schumann seem pale when compared to the feverish, and detailed
drama that constitutes the story of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830).

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Because his imagination always seemed to run in parallel literary and musical
channels, Berlioz once subtitled his work “Episode in the life of an artist”,
and provided a program for it which was in effect a piece of Romantic
autobiography. In later years, he conceded that if necessary, when the symphony
was performed by itself in concert, the program would need not be given out for
the music would “of itself, and irrespective of any dramatic aim, offer an
interest in the musical sense alone.” The principle formal departure in the
symphony is the recurrence of the opening theme of the first Allegro, the idee
fixe. This, according to the program, is the obsessive image of the hero’s
beloved, that recurs in the other movements. To mention another example: in the
coda of the Adagio there is a passage for solo English horn and four Tympani
intended to suggest “distant thunder”.

The foremost composer of program music after Beriloz was Franz Liszt,
twelve of whose symphonic poems were written between 1848 and 1858. The name
symphonic poem is significant: these pieces are symphonic, but Liszt did not
call them symphonies, presumably because or their short length, and the fact
that they are not divided up into movements. Instead, each is a continuos form
with various sections, more or less varied in tempo and character, and a few
themes that are varied, developed, or repeated within the design of the work.

Les Preludes, the only one that is still played much today, is well designed,
melodious, and efficiently scored. However, its idiom causes it to be
rhetorical in a sense. It forces today’s listeners to here lavishly excessive
emotion on ideas that do not seem sufficiently important for such a display of
Liszt’s two symphonies were as programmatic as his symphonic poems.

His masterpiece, the Faust Symphony, was dedicated to Berlioz. It consists of
three movements entitled respectively Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles, with
a finale (added later) which is a setting for tenor soloist and male chorus. The
first three movements correspond to the classic plan of an introduction in
Allegro, Andante, and Scherzo. Liszt attempted to sum up the ideas of Romantic
“Music embodies feeling without forcing it – as it is forced in its
other manifestations, in most arts and especially in the art of words – to
contend and combine with thought….it is the embodied and intelligent essence
of feeling; capable of being apprehended by our senses, it permeates them like a
dart, like a ray, like a dew, like a spirit, and fills our soul.”