Musical Romanticism: Beauty, Expression, and the Sublime
Romanticism set in motion a transformation of musical sensibility whose consequences have been playing out ever since. It first made itself felt in the later music of Beethoven, inspired the aching beauty of Schubert’s songs, and was transformed by Schumann, Chopin, and Wagner into a style of raw visceral force and arcane sophistication. Romantic aesthetics also shaped how most of us still think about music, whether classical or not: when we look to music for self-expression or ecstasy, condemn it as inauthentic or praise it as sublime, we are thinking in Romantic categories, and hearing with Romantic ears. But what was it that united the Romantics, and how should we hear them now? We think of their music as something simple, when in fact it was richly contradictory: in its precarious fusion of pathos and irony, utopian hope and nationalist nostalgia, Romanticism embodied its era’s highest ideals and deepest tensions—ones that would prove ever harder to resolve as the century progressed. If artists are prophets, as the Romantics thought, then what did their music prophecy? Did it promise the renewal of European culture, or embody the forces that would eventually tear it apart? And how did it set the terms on which we judge and experience music today?
In this course we’ll explore the music and aesthetics of Romanticism, placing them in the context of the ideas that shaped them and the cultural and political shifts they catalyzed. We’ll listen to works by Beethoven, Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, and others, placing it in dialogue with their own writing and that of contemporaries like Goethe, Schiller, George Sand, and E.T.A. Hoffmann. We’ll read later observers like Jacques Barzun, Thomas Mann, and Eric Hobsbawm, discussing their views on Romanticism’s meaning and subsequent impact. We’ll ask: How does Romantic music relate to Romantic philosophy, literature, visual art, and poetry? And we’ll try to understand what this contested history means for us—both for how we hear the Romantics, and how we’ve come to hear everything else.
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
February 01 — February 22, 2022