War of the Romantics  

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"The undersigned have long followed with regret the pursuits of a certain party, whose organ is Brendel's "Zeitschrift für Musik". The above journal continually spreads the view that musicians of more serious endeavour are fundamentally in accord with the tendencies it represents, that they recognize in the compositions of the leaders of this group works of artistic value, and that altogether, and especially in northern Germany, the contentions for and against the so-called Music of the Future are concluded, and the dispute settled in its favour. To protest against such misinterpretation of facts is regarded as their duty by the undersigned, and they declare that, so far at least as they are concerned, the principles stated by Brendel's journal are not recognized, and that they regard the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New German School, which in part simply reinforce these principles in practice and in part again enforce new and unheard-of theories, as contrary to the innermost spirit of music, strongly to be deplored and condemned."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The War of the Romantics is a term used by music historians to describe the aesthetic schism among prominent musicians in the second half of the 19th century. Musical structure, the limits of chromatic harmony, and program music versus absolute music were the principal areas of contention. The opposing parties crystallized during the 1850s. The conservative circle, based in Berlin and Leipzig, centered around Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Their opponents, the radical progressives in Weimar, focused on Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. The controversy was German and Central European in origin; musicians from France, Italy, and Russia were only marginally involved. Composers from both sides looked back on 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 in 1856.

Robert Schumann was an enthusiastic admirer and occasional critic of Liszt and Wagner. Schumann had been a progressive critic and editor of the influential music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he founded in 1834. Schumann maintained exceptionally enthusiastic and 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 it became a propaganda organ for Liszt and his circle.

Clara Schumann had long been the more conservative aesthete in the Schumann marriage. She 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

Key figures of the Weimar/New German side were Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Other notable figures were 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, centering around Liszt, to create a lasting and formal society. The Neu-Weimar-Verein was one attempt to form a club. It lasted a few years and published minutes of their meetings. The Tonkunstler-Versammlung (Congress of Musical Artists), which first met in Leipzig in June 1859, was a more successful attempt at forming an organization.

Key disagreements

A central point of disagreement between these two groups of musicians was between form and forms. Liszt and his circle favored new styles in writing and forms. The Leipzig/Berlin school preferred the forms used by the classic masters, forms codified by musicologists of the early 19th century. The Weimar school increasingly used various kinds of program music (explicitly pictorial and simply suggestive). Liszt developed the symphonic poem. "New wine required new bottles" was his motto.

Influenced by Liszt's first symphonic poems and later by the Faust Symphony, Hanslick published a statement of principles: music did not and could not represent anything outside itself. This excluded realistic impressions in the manner of Hector Berlioz, as well as impressions and feelings, the motto on the score of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. 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

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 Zeitschrift in Schumann's birthplace Zwickau and conspicuously neglected to invite members of the opposing party (including Clara Schumann). Musicians on one side saw this as pitting Brahms' increasingly effective and economical sonata form against (some) Liszt's works with no form at all. Musician on the other saw the musical form best fitting the musical content pitted against works reusing old forms without any understanding of their growth and reason.

Twentieth century diversity

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.)


  • Thorpe-Davie, Cedric. Musical Structure and Design, Dover Publications, 1995, ISBN 0-486-21629-2. Still available from some retail outlets.
  • Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years , Cornell University Press 1993, ISBN 0-8014-9721-3. pp.338 – 367 is entitled and covers specifically The War of the Romantics but it is a theme elsewhere.

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