Music Is the Most Romantic of All Arts

17 Sep

“Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing…

George Roux, Spirit, 1885

I read a sentence in a schoolbook a few years ago which said that “music is the most romantic of all arts” and this line stuck with me. It awoke something inside me, it inspired me at school and at home, it was the most beautiful sentence I had read. The idea that music was the most romantic of all arts enchanted me beyond belief. Later I read the entire essay by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a study of Beethoven’s instrumental music which first appeared in 1810 and was revised in 1813. Perhaps in our day and age the word “romantic” is simplified, overused and misunderstood, it stands for something shallow and sugary, but when Hoffmann used it to describe Beethoven’s music, he used it to describe the powerful, unrestrained passion, emotions and expressiveness. As much as I love paintings and enjoy reading books, I must say that only music awakens that something within me, and I imagine most of you would agree with me. When I listen to Chopin’s Nocturnes and his Waltz in A minor, Debussy’s work for flute and harp, some Ravel, and even other music such as Tindersticks or Echo and the Bunnymen, it sends me into a trance, my imagination is awakened and images appear before my eyes, sentiments I never knew I had suddenly posses me and afterwards I feel a catharsis calmness and a new found love and inspiration. Even in visual arts this romantic nature of music is portrayed. In George Roux’s painting “Spirit” a gorgeous ghostly white lady is seen playing the piano. Her thin waist and ethereal form are aesthetically pleasing and the man’s face shows both shock and awe. Perhaps he is a widow and this is the ghost of his wife playing their favourite tune. Painting is open to interpretation, but one thing is certain; only the music has such power to move us, bring us to tears, purify us, infuse us with yearning and romance, and even make us fall in love with whoever is playing it or sharing our love for it.

John William Waterhouse, Saint Cecilia, 1895

Now here are E.T.A Hoffmann’s words:

When music is discussed as an independent art, should it not be solely instrumental music that is intended, music that scorns every aid from and mixing with any other art (poetry), music that only expresses the distinctive and unique essence of this art? It is the most romantic of all arts, and we could almost say the only truly romantic one because its only subject is the infinite. Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing. . . .
Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world! Romantic taste is rare, romantic talent even rarer, and perhaps for this reason there are so few who are able to sweep the lyre with tones that unveil the wonderful realm of the romantic. Haydn grasps romantically the human in human life; he is more accommodating, more comprehensible for the common man. Mozart laid claim more to the superhuman, to the marvelous that dwells in the inner spirit. Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. Thus he is a purely romantic composer, and if he has had less success with vocal music, is this because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words? . . .

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, Her Mother’s Voice, exhibited in 1888

Monotonous beige and yellow colours and a slightly sentimental mood of this late Victorian genre scene painted by English painter William Quiller Orchardson hides a more wistful theme. Evening has fallen and a lamp is casting a yellowish glow all over the sumptuous interior and yet, despite the richness of the interior, a certain sadness hangs like a cloud over the room. An old gentleman was sitting in his armchair and reading the newspapers until something happened… A familiar voice, a very dear voice, colours the stuffy air filled with memories and hopeless wistful reveries. The voice awakens old wounds and merry memories that he can never get back “And all the money in the world couldn’t bring back those days”, to quote the song “This is the Day” by The The (and later Manic Street Preachers). His daughter, dressed in a fashionable pale pink evening gown, is sitting at the piano, playing and singing while a young man is standing by her side. She has her mother’s voice, as the title of the painting suggests. It is through music, singing, but still music, that the inexplicable yearning enters the man’s heart and soul and awakens a river of emotions which usually remain buried deep within him.

11 Responses to “Music Is the Most Romantic of All Arts”

  1. Michael Hill 18th Sep 2020 at 9:12 am #

    Very nicely written.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Upside-down Land 18th Sep 2020 at 2:00 pm #

    Thanks for the introduction to Hoffmann. It’s interesting to read his thoughts at the birth romanticism. While I am a big fan of Beethoven, I listen to little of his early work; I don’t care for Haydn or Mozart. My listening is comprised almost entirely of his 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies and his late string quartets. I am also a huge fan of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. However, I positively detest Chopin and no longer listen to Shubert or Shumann. Music is emotion. Do you care much for Faure, Khachaturian, Stravinsky, Bartok or Mahler? What about Bach, Rameau or Vivaldi? For me, Chopin is simply too feminine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 20th Sep 2020 at 8:13 pm #

      Haha I haven’t heard someone expressing such negative view of Chopin! I’m cancelling you, you have no right to express an opinion that doesn’t match mine! Cancel culture! (I’m being sarcastic and funny here!! 😆 ) I don’t agree with you at all, I ADORE Chopin’s music! I love Faure, Satie, Ravel and Debussy. I don’t like Bach. Rameau I can listen from time to time but I cannot say it’s on my playlist often. Vivaldi I’ve loved for years! Thanks for commenting, it’s always nice to hear your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Upside-down Land 21st Sep 2020 at 10:18 am #

        I am very picky, even with the composers I love most. My experience is that even the best artists create mediocre work 80% of the time. I most often listen to Bach’s Goldberg Variations as played by Glenn Gould. These recordings are as much creations by Gould as they are by Bach.
        Do you remember the first time you heard Satie’s Gymnopedies? What a revelation! Talk about being transported.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Byron's Muse 21st Sep 2020 at 10:02 pm #

          That’s the art question; should an artist be perfectionist, save only the best of the best works and destroy the rest, or keep going, keep creating art and see what happens. Flaubert, for example, was such a perfectionist and reworked his novels many times, Emile Zola thought every written word needs to be published. I lean on the latter, I try to write when I’m inspired, publish it and move on, through exploring different art topics I learn a lot of new things, so the journey is fun too. It would be so boring to write just 10 “perfect” posts a year. What do you think? I agree that Gould’s interpretations are so unique! I am not a big fan of Bach but Gould’s interpretation I can more than endure. I do remember about Satie and well…. every time you discover music that speaks to your soul, it is a like being transported!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Upside-down Land 22nd Sep 2020 at 12:33 pm #

            There is a story about Brahms returning to his childhood home with a journalist in tow. He took a knife and began prying out his early compositions from the holes in the wall. He had used them to reduce drafts in his room. As an adult didn’t want anyone publishing his early, inferior efforts.
            Artist have to tolerate the mediocre outcomes in order to have the good and great outcomes. It’s no different than shooting in basketball or batting in baseball. Not only is it good practice, but it is the nature of the beast that the best works be accompanied by wonder and humility. A 100% success rate would likely eradicate wonder and humility, and therefore every shred of greatness! Paradox R Us.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. smilla72 23rd Sep 2020 at 9:40 am #

    Hi Byron’s muse. Thanks for this wonderful text. I came to classical music when I was ten. Not with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Mozart’s Kleine Nachtmusik but with Carl Maria von Weber’s amazing overture to his romantic opera « Der Freischütz « . This overture illustrates even better than Beethoven’s symphonies the essence of what Hoffmann (who was not only the most influential German writer of his age but also a talented composer) describes in his essay. This overture is like German romanticism in a box. Besides Weber was the only composer who can really claim to have influenced Wagner. Suffice to say that Wagner brought everything anticipated by Hoffmann to its paroxysm. I love your description of music’s powerful charm upon you. You mention some of my favorite composers. Even composers like Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Boulez were in essence romantic, and I think that even Bach (the most « savant » composer of all times) was in his heart romantic albeit a very pious one. There is no truly great music that lacks romantic ground. Music’s aim is to take off the dust of everyday’s life from our soul. JM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 23rd Sep 2020 at 7:11 pm #

      Thank you for your eloquent and beautiful comment! “There is no truly great music that lacks romantic ground”, I love that sentence! I agree! Although I never considered Bach a romantic, for his personal life doesn’t seem too romantic but rather boring and too family-oriented. I agree that music, and I would say all art, is here to take away the dust of everyday life. Thank you for reminding me of Carl Maria von Weber, I listened to his music in school, but had forgotten on him since then.


      • smilla72 24th Sep 2020 at 8:49 am #

        Hi. Perhaps Bach deeply in his soul considered his strictly organized family-and duty-centered life as imposed upon him as that he (as a good christian) hat to accept it (amor fati) in order to please (a) god, (b) his father and forefathers, (c) the church and (d) his prince: so many authorities who would have crushed all rebelling heart. The young Bach had some truly romantic episodes in his life: he was for instance duelling himself and found his first wife dead when he came back from a travel: he did not mourn like many romantics would but composed instead a violin partita that contains in its fifth movement an expression of sublimated grief. He married shortly after this shock his second wife. Many of this children died early and he was always seeking refuge in his faith when « das Schicksal an die Tür klopfte ». Maybe his first wife was the love of his life. In his time a man could not be openly romantic and of course romanticism (as we know it) was not yet born. When Bach is mourning the dead of Christ in his Passions he may actually be mourning his wife. There is another painful detail that connects Bach to Romantics: rejection. He was rejected as « eine alte Perrücke » by his contemporaries. Faith was his refuge. JM

        Liked by 2 people

  4. kizitovalentine 11th Feb 2021 at 5:23 am #

    I love everything you put ou and completely share in your sentiments

    Liked by 1 person

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