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what the Romantic felt

October 17, 2010

Having nothing better to say, or do, today (except every task that is (a) overdue and (b) urgent…), I thought I would post the texts of a couple of talks I’ve given recently. More or less recently, that is. This one was presented at the New Zealand national piano teachers’ conference in Hamilton in January.


I’d like to pose a question. If you were to find yourself inexplicably thrust into the future by a hundred years or so, and you were to pick up a music history book, under what heading do you think you would find our current era? For almost a century now, we have had time to contemplate the Modern of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as well as the Neo-Classicism of some of his other works; the Post-Modern of the 1960s and 70s, depending on where you draw the line. And then what? Even accepting those terms I’ve just mentioned (and that’s a bit of a stretch, as they are definitely moot) do we really have no idea what Period (with a capital P) we are actually in, right now? So how on earth did the Romantics and Impressionists know what era they were in? Well, for the most part, I suspect, they didn’t. And for the rest, they probably guessed, as we do now.

Good morning. My name is Ian Munro, and it’s a great pleasure to be here to speak about music with colleagues and music lovers who are as interested in the wonderful world of (piano) repertoire as I. I have been asked to illuminate the topic of ‘Romantic and Impressionist Music’ —  something of a large task, I think. But before I get into that, I want to tell you a bit about myself.

I’m an Australian, born and raised in Melbourne, where I was fortunate to have a keen amateur musician and unusual thinker as a father. Dad, who came from a poor family, never was able to have piano lessons when young, and told me once that he heard his first symphony orchestra concert in his late teens, an experience that riveted his very soul. It’s an experience that I never had in quite that way, but one that I’ve encountered from time to time in others. I mention Dad because it was his real love of music and not anything he said, or any record he played, or any concert or teacher he took us to, that helped to foster my own passion for music. If any of you had an interest in electronics (like I did, when I was a teenager), you would know of the mysterious effect known as ‘induction’, in which the electric current in a coil can induce a current in another coil even though they are not directly connected. It’s an arcane simile, I know, but it strikes me as analogous to what went on in my young imagination. From early piano lessons with two Viennese émigrés, one a dapper Jewish man — Mr Hurst — who had a car (a significant reason for his engagement in teaching the Munro boys, as he could drive out to our house on the fringe of Melbourne). The other was a Hungarian lady called Mrs Rostas, who taught me for only a year and a half from when I was about eleven years old. To Mr Hurst I’m grateful first for not putting me off learning more about the piano, and for introducing me early on to my first Romantic composer, in some respects the quintessential Romantic, Robert Schumann. Mrs Rostas I remember as an formidable and remarkable lady and I realised later that we were fortunate to have come across her at the time we did, because I had certainly not impressed anyone with any great promise at the keyboard up until that time. How could I? All I really had spent my time on were sport, art, building aeroplanes and getting into mischief. Mrs Rostas introduced me to our friends: technique, repertoire and musical thought. She also made me cry the very first time but I never thought the worse of her for that, because I cried in the shock of realisation that this was a person who reviewed my abilities and found them lacking, in the process instantly imparting the flash of recognition that the thing of which she was speaking was something vitally important to her — and to me, from that moment. And she introduced me to repertoire that switched me on. For me, it was a little piece by a great man from her homeland, Béla Bartók, who had been her own piano teacher. From the Ten Pieces for Children, composed in 1908, ‘Evening in Transylvania’ mesmerised me — it still does, with its pared down language that nevertheless manages to evoke an exotic yet authentic world of Central European folk music and musicians around the campfire, perhaps, and the setting is so impressionistic that one can almost smell the country itself. To my mind, this little piece has elements of Romance and Impressionism, all succinctly wrapped into a modestly modernistic package — and it appeals to children too: a small miracle of sophisticated musicianship. I’ll play it for you now if I may.

Example 1: Béla Bartók: ‘Evening in Transylvania’

What happened over the coming years was a process, sometimes slow, at other times headlong and not always forward, of growing in music. I had a number of piano teachers, music history and theory teachers who helped me with organising my fingers, arms, ears and brain. I composed, first by singing into a cassette recorder and painstakingly transcribing it back into manuscript books. Later, when I was writing agonising love poems and setting them to music, I fancied that I had developed quite a sophisticated grasp of modern harmony and compositional idioms. Not so long after that, of course, I realised the truth, or rather, glimpsed the truth, but was unable to articulate it in a very useful way. I think it was Dad, again, who put it best. He said at one time, possibly when I looked to be a little downhearted at how things were for me in music, that — “Son, it’s a long road you’ve set out on, but it’s worthwhile, and it won’t often be steep. So keep going and enjoy it.”

My time at university in Melbourne was one of the happiest times in my life, partly because of leaving school and gaining independence, but mostly because of the sheer feeling that, at last, I could immerse myself in music and just music. Even the tedious tasks — theory mainly — were about something I loved, and there was also the first invitation to reflect on the philosophical aspects of music, the history made by individual musicians as well as the ‘progress’ (with due acknowledgement of the contentious nature of that word) of musical thought. Personally, I was consolidating the desire to be a performer, although I passionately wanted to compose too. Among my class mates were a couple who have gone on to become professors of music history and critics, but that avenue was always less interesting for me, not because I didn’t see the value in thinking, writing and teaching music in those ways, but because playing and creating it was my big thing.

And so it remains, twenty-five years later. Why am I telling you all this? Well — and I hope that it’s not too tedious to hear — because it’s important that you don’t think that I regard myself as any sort of musicologist, or expert, in the Romantic or Impressionist Periods, if such periods really existed. This ramble is meant as a reflection on my personal odyssey among the great musical works that have had a part in shaping my life, and most of those works are full of romantic ideas. I don’t even consider that I have any tremendously orthodox views on them — in fact, I probably don’t, because I believe that Romanticism is best viewed as an aspect of human life and creativity that was with us long before any eponymous period and has continued to the present day. In other words, Romanticism was with us in some ways long before the 19th century, and has continued in the work of a significant number of artists in an unbroken history up to the present day. Some argue that music simply is romantic by its very nature — an idealistic, non-utilitarian expression of hopeful, inspired souls. The Romantics believed in the individual: particularly, that everything they had to share with one another in art was the product of individual genius and to be enjoyed and received by another individual; that experience is individual. It’s therefore natural to speak of Romantic music in terms of personal experience and understanding. Above all, I’m talking from the point of view of a performer and a composer.

Impressionism, another fickle concept about as defined as smoke, seems to me sometimes as a beautiful and quite rational extension of Romanticism, rather than an overturning or denial of its excesses, with all its beauty, its evocations, literary allusions, exotic fascinations and erotic overtones (or are they undertones?). It’s why I will deal with Impressionism and Romanticism side by side, rather than strictly chronologically. At other times, Impressionism, in music and in painting, although perhaps in different ways, is strikingly modern (ah yes — Modern: the most useless of all the classifications, until the invention of Post Modern, or ‘PoMo’. Every era since the Ars Nova of the 14th century has regarded itself, rightly but meaninglessly, as modern anyway). Just about every alarming trend in 20th century music was foreshadowed by Debussy, for me the most inspiring and surprising composer of those hundred years just gone by, and one whose music and working methods are throwing up all sorts of innovations and conundrums, the more they are researched. I thoroughly recommend the writings of my colleague Roy Howat, whose ‘Debussy in Proportion’ (1986, Cambridge University Press) helps to establish Debussy as a composer of fastidious technical brilliance, great formal control and intellect. There is very little left to chance with Debussy, and the musical architecture, hidden or otherwise, is classical in its sense of formal balance and beauty. And he wasn’t all that impressed with the term ‘impressionism’ either, which isn’t so surprising, as it was first used in a derogatory sense to imply ‘unfinished’ or incompetent art. Incidentally, Roy’s latest book, ‘The Art of French Piano Music’, which was published by Yale University Press only 6 months ago, is another major contribution to the literature.

I mention beauty quite purposefully, because the concept has received an amount of unwarranted scorn in our time and has been, I believe, quite misunderstood. Why beauty became quite such an outsider is a great topic for debate, partly, I would imagine, because there would be those who would reject the observation outright that beauty has fallen off the radar for many modern artists. But I contend that it has, and especially in academia where most musicians receive their advanced training, and most composers learn strategies not only for coming up with the notes that inhabit their pieces, but also with the aesthetic doctrines that, by virtue of their hegemony among their artistic peers, become that dreadful thing: the benchmark of their work. In the academic world of PoMo art and analysis, one needs a reason for making something beautiful, and once one has explained this reason (or rationale), one  must be prepared to offer a sophisticated deconstruction of the very notion of beauty, so that its employment can be seen to be an oh-so-knowing post-civilization sort of intellectual trope. Now there’s a word in favour if ever there were one. What you will rarely find is the sort of everyday use of the word ‘beauty’, as we all instinctively understand it. And I wonder why.

After all, it’s one of the key reasons we love music: because it’s beautiful, even when that sense of beauty takes in all sorts of variations and contrasts, including, paradoxically, ugliness (as it must). Am I too naive in this? I really don’t think so, and I think that current trends in composition are bearing this out. Not only that, but we are in some way hard-wired to recognise beauty, aren’t we? We understand it even when we are very young indeed. Who remembers having a crush on someone pretty in primary school? I do. And I remember looking at books of the Australian Impressionists — Arthur Streeton was my favourite, but a whole generation of others swept me up with their romantic landscapes, enhanced and re-imagined, more wistful versions of what I saw from the car window as we travelled between Melbourne and Adelaide. The Romantics never really went away, and the modernists who told us (usually in their music but often also in accompanying essays) that we misunderstood music, beauty and all that, have actually been quite wrong about what music means to most people. I don’t say they were wrong to write the music they did, but they were wrong — at least in part — about the reasons for which they wrote it and the reasons why it was received so badly, on the whole, by an overwhelmingly unsympathetic public. We do and always have understood that what makes music beautiful is not major chords and lovely melodies. It takes a lot more than that. Moreover, beauty and ugliness do not form anything like a simple opposition. In fact, for centuries composers have understood and exploited the clash and tension between them in order to heighten our experience of both. Otherwise, what is a harmonic appoggiatura all about? And why would the music of late Romanticism be so replete with agonising and extended dissonances, followed by correspondingly intense gifts of repose and resolution? Of course, this became arguably self-defeating, as all inflation is. By 14th century standards, a tritone was a veritable diabolus in musica, whereas by the late 16th, already it had become merely a means by which a simple cadence might be tweaked to strengthen the pull of the tonic, albeit that the voice leading had to be carefully observed. One can look at all sorts of micro harmonic moments this way, and if one does, startling anachronisms can appear. Two of my favourites are by Bach and Mozart.

Example 2:     from JS Bach: Prelude in C major (WC II)
Example 3:    from WA Mozart: Sonata in C major K330

In both cases, the harmony is real, the clashes are real. Would anyone seriously argue that these men were unaware of the passing dissonances they were revealing? But, ‘passing’ is a term that can mislead as well as explain. After all, everything passes, when you think about it. This lecture, for instance, will mercifully be over quite soon.

By the mid to late 19th century, the use of the harmonic appoggiatura had become so complex and elongated that, it’s tempting to assume, the relation to the chords it was transitioning between became less important than the dissonance itself, which in turn assumed the role not of dissonance but of newly minted harmony. If we compare Mussorsgsky and Debussy, it’s almost possible to see this process in its very formation. Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-81) is sometimes described as a musical ‘realist’. He certainly wrote with an astonishing earthy humanism, set texts in a way that was startlingly modern in using naturalistic speech rhythms, and used harmonies that seem to have been arrived at by brilliant empirical experiment. He deeply influenced Ravel, Debussy and others, sometimes to the chagrin of the french critics, but that’s another story. Mussorgsky’s great cycle Pictures at an Exhibition was written in 1874, coincidentally the very year of the first exhibition in Paris of works by the group of young French painters soon to be known as the Impressionists. Mussorgsky’s ‘Old Castle’, a haunting sicilienne, evokes his friend Hartmann’s painting of a very Eastern looking conglomeration (actually, it’s not known for certain which Hartmann painting is referred to). Some way into the piece, the sighing dissonances culminate in a very extraordinary chord, which is held for two full bars before semi-resolving onto a major ninth, then rocking back and forth.

Example 4: Modeste Mussorgsky: ‘The Old Castle’ (Pictures at an Exhibition)

Compare that with Debussy’s prelude ‘Feuilles Mortes (Dead Leaves)’ from the first book of preludes, where from the very opening chords, he plays more freely with the biting dissonance of minor ninths, making few concessions to the notion of resolution.

Example 5: Claude Debussy: ‘Feuilles Mortes’ (Preludes II)

Debussy was an amazing synthesizer of diverse materials. Like many great artists, he took what he needed from wherever it was available, and sometimes his borrowings are surprising (Stravinsky memorably said, “All good composers borrow; great ones steal.”). In forming his new language, he borrowed from Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Liszt, music-hall, Wagner, Balinese gamelan, church modes, plain chant, possibly even Brahms and Tchaikowsky and certainly Borodin. (He was very anxious to meet Brahms and Liszt and shared Tchaikowsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck for a while.) The list goes on. But he makes it all his own. It’s not the actual chords in ‘Feuilles Mortes’ that are new, it’s the way he uses them. Or, if you like, the way he hears them and persuades us to hear them too. Even Mussorgsky, having taken us so far from the familiar modality of the opening bars of the ‘Old Castle’, does keep the tonal centres ready at hand to which to return if need be. With Debussy, he effortlessly disregards them and slides suavely in parallel motion, as if he were saying to his old professor M. Durand: “This is what I was on about: now do you see?”

And what of Modernism today? Although this talk isn’t about music of the present day, it’s topic does extend into today’s music, as romantic tendencies extend into today’s people. It seems to be one of many paradoxes that the spirit of true Romanticism lives on and is expressed most fervently in the music of some of our leading post-post-modernists. By that I mean the elaborate, tender, expansive, evocative, mysterious, allusive, literate, passionate, alchemical, mathematical, satirical, homagic fantasies of Brett Dean, Thomas Adès, George Benjamin and many others. All of these creative musical men, I believe, are far more romantic in the essence of their art than many of our excellent colleagues whose music exploits simpler melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements, because it’s not the materials that count so much as the impulse and the thought. Since the simplistic thought-provoking devices of the Minimalists, our attention has, we are told, been directed back to musical building blocks, and from that have come the so-called neo-romantic works of Glass and others. But I would argue that such music has little to do with the idealism inherent in the Romantic urge, and more to do — alas — with 20th century cynicism and what George Steiner termed the Great Ennui, a symptom of the Death of God and all that philosophical defeatism.

Getting back to Impressionism. As I mentioned already, the term was adopted after an exhibition in 1874, in which Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Cézanne, Dégas and a few others showed the paintings that had so singularly failed to sell in the Paris Salon. Monet’s innocently titled ‘Impression: Sunrise Le Havre’ of 1872, in a way, prompted the pejorative use by a critic, and the seal was set. Manet soon joined the group, which took to painting directly from nature, out-of-doors or en plein air in the style of Camille Corot. It was a way of getting to grips with colour and real-life subjects in ways that were hampered by the conventions of the studio. I don’t know about you, but I used to be puzzled why so many of the lively pencil and pastel sketches I loved were transformed into beautiful but slightly dulled, more sombre pictures when finished in the studio, and the plein air movement was a reaction to this, in part. Manet, in particular, was delighted to find that, out-of-doors, he was able to ‘colour the shadows’, as he put it. In music, perhaps if there is a correlation, it is in the sense that there needed to be a fresh way of looking at — or rather hearing — the sounds with which we had become familiar. And a way of capturing the immediacy of musical subjects without succumbing to the rules of the past, or the Conservatoire.

So what is it that makes a Romantic or Impressionistic chord or melody, and can we even break the music down into such component parts and still find in them the Spirit of the Age? We have no difficulty in recognising that a particular sequence has an emotive effect on us of one kind or another: a ten second snippet of Rachmaninov is unmistakably romantic. But even the most romantic chord — Wagner’s Tristan chord of 1865, for example — was foreshadowed by what went before, and could have been understood as a passing harmonic step in music 50 years earlier, as well as 50 years later (scholars have pointed out that that chord was in use by Beethoven, and much earlier by Bach and even Machaut). In fact, it’s ironic in some ways that the musical materials, for want of a better expression — the actual notes, chords, rhythms — of Romanticism are largely indistinguishable from those of Modernism. It’s the desire to say something different that matters. Mahler, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg and Stockhausen might have had widely different artistic aims but, at least in some of their purely instrumental music (I’m thinking of Stockhausen here), the materials are not all that different when examined up close.

My earliest conscious encounter with the music of a Romantic composer was when I was put to learning Robert Schumann’s ‘The Jolly Farmer’ from the Album for the Young. To me, it was a pleasant, easily understandable, descriptive piece that could have been about any happy person or thing, and could have been by Mr Mozart or Mr Haydn, so simple and regular was the form. The melody was catchy and immediately memorable, or memorisable, even though — to me already at that early age (I would have been about 7) — it seemed almost too jolly, too childlike, so had a hint of the unfashionable adult trying too hard to youthful. Of course, nobody mentioned to me that Schumann was Romantic: it would have meant nothing to me if they had, and would probably only have led to confusion. Soon afterwards, my teacher introduced me to a piece from a book my father loved to play called Scenes from Childhood, although this was not one I recognised: ‘Kind in Einschlummern (Child falling asleep)’. (Actually, dad’s favourite piece was ‘Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child)’, to which he sang the words, “Can I have a piece of cake?…Please?”) I think Mr Hurst was interested to put my rather large hands to good use, and he was right to. This little piece swept me up, with its evocative, magical spell, belying its economy of material. Here it is now.

Example 6: Robert Schumann: ‘Kind in Einschlummern’ (Kinderszenen)

That poignant question mark at the end — the ‘unresolved’ subdominant, as the theorists would have it — perfectly describing the exact moment when conscious though lapses into sleep, or death. And have you ever noticed that if you give the pedal a good push just as you play the last chord, there may come with it one of those unearthly sighs that only the piano can make? When I was taught later on about Chopin and his adage that the pedal was ‘the soul of the piano’, I thought of that chord, and that sound. I also thought about Schumann’s vivid, passionate relationship with childhood, because these pieces are no mere teaching tools. Bach and others gave us delightful teaching material but Schumann, surely, went much further. He was a father, so he must have written in part with his children in mind, but the music speaks also very much of personal memory, fantasy, pain, fear, even incomprehension, as well as childish abandon and joy. It’s possibly not going too far to say that Schumann invented the modern concept of children’s music. Music that at once functions as music for children to play and as music about children, for a start. Beyond that, though, there is music that nostalgically remembers what it was like to be a child, and also expresses the remnant child in the adult soul. The concept of childhood has changed greatly over the centuries, too, and we can all be grateful that we live at a time when it is recognised that common people like us deserve a full and nurtured life as children. Significantly, I think, the great Impressionist Debussy also excelled at writing multi-layered music for children, even if his subject matter sometimes reflected political orthodoxies — to be blunt, prejudices — that have since been rejected.

So often, as we know, music has appeared to follow in the footsteps of the other art forms, whether or not that is actually the case, but we’ll accept for now that it is. Romanticism flourished in the wake of the Renaissance and the periods that followed, in which the ‘discovery’ of the value of the individual and the early beginnings of a middle class gaining personal power and freedoms, especially those independent of the Church, led to a growth in art reflecting the experiences and desires of those who were not born kings and aristocrats. From before the age of Lord Byron, who, with Goethe, encapsulated in his writing and person the spirit of the age, the idea of the Sublime entered the philosophical vocabulary of the intelligentsia (an anachronistic word, I know). Kenneth Clarke — of ‘Civilisation’ fame — would have you believe it was a Byronic invention, and is keen to claim it for England. But he needn’t have worried: it had already been enunciated by Edmund Burke in 1757 and was taken up with alacrity. Burke was a Whig MP — a politician — so it was natural for him to take credit for an idea that was in the air. In any case, it’s a very useful prism through which to view the Romantics. And it is true that many aspects of Romanticism in music, too, can be understood in terms of a yearning for the Sublime: a dawning realisation that Rousseau was right to remind us of the freedoms promised by birth but denied almost universally in life. Yearning is good. The Romantics yearned for better individual lives, as we do; for more of the good things in the world: beauty, love, fantasy, self-worth, national pride, awe-inspiring things of both man-made and natural origin (which obviously included art and music) and, above all, the elevation of Man with a capital M. The borders of Romanticism are pretty blurred, as I’ve mentioned already. If the heightened emotions of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (based not on Byron’s poem but on Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, mind you), and the sublime, heavenly sensibility of slow movements from the clarinet concerto and quintet for piano and winds, are anything to go by, Mozart might be regarded as an early Romantic, at least in these and similar works.

A neat definition taken from the old Cyclopaedia of Music & Musicians (of 1946), tells us that the Romantic is: “The period following Beethoven’s era when composers broke away from the formalism and aims of classicism and favoured characteristic detail, sentiment, imagination and effect.”

Following this is the debatable claim: “It was primarily a movement of revolt… Subjective emotion and imaginative vigour replaced the pedantry and artificiality into which the Classic Era had degenerated.” The writer was American composer-critic Marion Bauer. I don’t think it’s necessary to agree or disagree with such an analysis. German Romanticism in literature took root in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the subsequent restoration. Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt (as well as Richard Wagner) grew up in the midst of these turbulent times. Schumann was passionately interested in the fantastic world of Jean Paul Richter and ETA Hoffman. Even his personality seems to have been shaped by a literary imagination: he styled himself Eusebius, Florestan and, occasionally, Master Raro (a conflation of Clara and Robert), depending on his mood.

The French Revolution was a great disappointment for many, of course, as was Napoleon. We know how wretched Beethoven was when he realised his hero had feet of clay, and worse. Byron himself was possibly the arch pessimist. But it didn’t matter. Hope and idealism were again in the air, and in the art.

Forgive me for again returning to consider how much that which we recognise as Romantic is in many respects a continuation of those beliefs and concerns that have been around for a very long time and continue to the present. What distinguished this movement, perhaps, was a desire to test the extent to which these ideas might be pushed, and pushed they were. After all, if a thing is good, more of it will be better, right? If nature is beautiful, then improving on nature will be better: again, not an original Romantic idea but one that can be seen in its extreme form in some of the unearthly, exaggerated landscapes by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich — those purple mountain immensities and chasmal turbulent seas. Likewise, in music, if something moves me, then more of that something should move me more, shouldn’t it? Such reasoning, surely, explains the glut of oversentimental, maudlin parlour pieces and songs that swamped the 19th century. Composers of genius have always understood the power of structure and restraint in the delivery of emotional impact. Beethoven’s slow movements, with a few notable exceptions, are remarkably compact. And it’s no coincidence that one of the most successful Romantic forms was the ‘character piece’ (usually collected in groups or cycles), a relatively brief and self-contained morsel whose structural restraint worked as a check on whatever overblown emotion it might contain. It’s also worth noting that most composers of the period tried their hand, some many times over, at that quintessential Classic form, the Sonata, as though they, too, recognised the truth that emotional abundance in art seldom works without strict control. Having said that, the examples of really great sonatas are relatively few. Liszt’s single work, two of Chopin’s three and Brahms’s instrumental sonatas undoubtedly rank among them. A much more successful marriage of classic form and romantic content was the solo concerto, to which scores of examples attest. It’s interesting to note how many diverse composers took an interest in the ‘degenerated’ forms of the previous era. Grieg’s accompaniments to Mozart’s piano sonatas are real oddities, as are Schumann’s and Mendelssohn’s to Bach partitas, as well as many of the cadenzas written by contemporary composers to classical concerti. But they show that, far from rejecting the classical era, the Romantics studied it avidly. One of powerful and unique things about the human animal is the way it has developed these methods for communicating with the future and learning from the past via writing and art.

Ask most people what they understand by romance and they will soon talk of love. Now, that’s got to be a big part of it, but love has surely been with us for a long time. There is a beautiful little piece by Bach in the Anna Magdalena Notebook called ‘Bist Du bei Mir (Be thou with me)’. It illustrates beautifully the deep impact of heartfelt music simply and modestly expressed. Flash forward 150 years or so to Grieg (yes, only 150 years!) and we find another token of love, the song ‘Ich Liebe Dich’, and I’ll play it in it’s arrangement for solo piano by Grieg himself. Now, there’s certainly containment in Grieg’s song, but the sentiment is altogether more fervent and impassioned. One is saying, ‘I’m very fond of you, old girl, and glad you’re around’ — and the other, ‘I’d die for you, most beloved goddess!’

Example 7: JS Bach: ‘Bist Du bei Mir’ (Anna Magdalena Notebook)
Example 8: Edvard Grieg: ‘Ich liebe Dich’

Actually, I should just mention that ‘Bist Du bei Mir’ isn’t in fact by Bach but was from an opera by Gottfried Stölzel, with a text that is all about being unafraid of death when the beloved is near. An interesting choice for a teaching piece.

In my reading and preparation for this talk, I quickly became aware how little I know, how much I have to learn about these vast subjects and how ill-fitted I am for the task. The following observations came to me more or less as I was playing through a lot of Romantic repertoire, and probably need a bit of refinement, but I’ll mention them anyway.

In playing Debussy, I’m often struck by the exactness of his language, how hard it would be to imagine a greater or lesser number of notes achieving the exquisitely crafted lines and perfect balance of little masterpieces like the prelude ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ or ‘The little shepherd’, for instance, from the Children’s Corner suite. If he is an Impressionist, then his impressions are marvellously exact, musically speaking. But then, isn’t this the essence of Impressionism? Not vague or general, sketchy in the way Monet’s critic saw his lovely painting of the harbour at Le Havre, but instantly comprehensible representations, mysteriously imparting something of the life energy of the subject that more ‘finished’ art cannot? Leaving the details to the imagination because they only distract from the way we actually see and comprehend what we see (or hear)? And it is also quite clear from Debussy’s earlier music (say, the music he wrote before L’Après Midi) that he worked to absorb all of the music he was taught — Chopin, Wagner, Massenet, Schumann — before he knew how  to depart from them.

Pieces like the Ballade of 1890 show this process in motion, as it were. If one were a fly on the wall at poor Emile Durand’s harmony class circa 1875, what grotesqueries would one have heard from the 13 year-old Achille-Claude, trying to goad his poor professor into outrage at what he called “ungrammatical horrors”? But why were these scenes likely and what was Debussy thinking? We can trace, very broadly speaking, a deepening of the richness and complexity of harmony throughout the 19th century, to a point when, famously, Schoenberg rocked its foundations by questioning its very rationale. But wasn’t that what Debussy was doing too? Except that he wasn’t advocating tossing out tonality, just looking at it afresh and showing how much more there was to hear in it. Many of the chords he used, exotic to our ears still, were hardly new, and even Bach judiciously employed consecutive fifths (a real no-no in traditional harmony as we teach it even now). But the operative word is surely ‘judiciously’. Bach’s fifths were strictly, if playfully, ‘allowed’ by the rules of voice leading, as were the complex and sometimes extraordinarily crunchy dissonances employed by a wide variety of Romantic (and Classical) composers, so long as they were passing. Passing fads, passing shadows, passing ‘unresolved’ moments between recognised, ‘acceptable’ chords. It’s no wonder that, by the 1880s, such an idea was seeming outmoded, especially after the chromatic developments of Richard Wagner. A young genius like Debussy would have asked, with justification: what makes one chord all right and another not, especially if the latter is all right if in transition? In a way, I think Debussy was something akin to a ‘realist’ too (and he made remarks to this effect), which is why I wanted to make the connection earlier with Mussorgsky. My old painting teacher always said, “paint what you see, Ian”. Perhaps Debussy was saying: “write what you hear” — and to him, he had learned to hear harmony not as other people did, and showed us how to listen again, in a similar way to how the Impressionist painters showed us how to look. It possibly explains why other composers who took some of the superficial features of Debussy’s art and imitated them did not make anything really new with them, because they did not understand the process by which he had developed his ears in order to hear them. I’m thinking of people like Cyril Scott, Arnold Bax, Déodat de Severac, Alexander Grechaninov, Rebikov — all fine composers in their way but hardly great discoverers in the way Debussy was.

How fascinating, too, to reflect on Debussy’s burning ambition, fulfilled on a visit to Vienna in 1887, to meet Brahms. Is it too fanciful to hear in that great composer’s late works some of the sounds echoing in the young Frenchman’s head? I’d like to play the first of the pieces from op.119, an intermezzo. And, given that they date from 1893, six years after Debussy’s visit (and around the time Debussy was writing his String Quartet and Prélude à l’Après Midi d’un Faune), is it possible that the influences were only felt in one direction? Listen and see what you think.

Example 9: Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo op.119

Contemporary descriptions of Debussy vary enormously, but even friends and admirers were hardly uncritical of Debussy the man. Percy Grainger loved his music but was disappointed to meet the composer in 1907, observing that he behaved like a “spitting little wild animal.” Others found him slightly gauche, that he couldn’t spell very well (he had been home schooled), was often rude, had an aggressive manner at the piano yet was a master of tender subtleties and extremely quiet playing, and had a unique and magical felicity with pedalling. He loved either very simple food or complex and exotic fare, a man of contradictory tendencies, and probably some ego imbalance: alternatively self-doubting (we know he was rarely satisfied with his work) and full of himself. I suspect that his famous caustic remarks directed at Grieg, a beautiful composer then very much in vogue in Paris (and not a million miles away from Debussy aesthetically) are explained not just by Grieg’s protest at the Dreyfus affair (in which he tried to ban his music from being performed in France) but also by Debussy’s character. Grieg’s at least superficially simple harmonic tricks might have irked Debussy, whose own were hard won after years of development. And yet, like Debussy’s so-called impressionism, Grieg’s folkloric practices and harmonic magic were all his own and, on closer inspection, are full of subtleties and genius. They each developed in the shadow of the giant, Wagner, and each yearned for a personal musical language that escaped the dominant German hegemony and reflected their own roots. Debussy, after all, preferred signing himself ‘Musicien Français’.

The common ground between the two can be found by any number of comparisons between, say, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces and Debussy’s Preludes. I’ve chosen Grieg’s ‘Klokkeklang’ from his op.54 set, a straightforward evocation of bell-ringing but harmonically subtle and surprising. Debussy’s ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’ is justly famous, and operates at an altogether higher level. In it, we experience Debussy’s power and poetry, his fantastic imagination and skill of evocation, his technical mastery in synthesizing a variety of disparate modes and, above all, his genius in hearing new sounds in the piano.

Example 10: Edvard Grieg: ‘Klokkeklang’ op.54
Example 11: Claude Debussy: ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ (Preludes I)

I must make a confession here. Grieg is a favourite of mine, and I consider that he is one of most unjustly underestimated of the Romantics. There is no doubt that Debussy had the more sophisticated mind, and went far further in his harmonic development, but Grieg’s best music, particularly his luminous songs, are some of the treasures of the repertoire. A few years after making fun of Grieg’s red beard, Debussy did in fact perform some of Grieg’s music and his alter ego, M. Croche, even had some kind words to say about them.

The Romantics, and those who followed, were captivated with the idea of the Exotic: far distant cultures, places, animals, monsters, art, food, and all manner of other strange things to titillate the palette and the mind. Anything with a hint of the grotesque was peculiarly to be savoured. But the paradox of geographic and cultural distance can be summed up with the question: distance from whom? The Chinese might have been exotic to an Englishman, but not to the Chinese. When I was a boy growing up in Australia, one of the most exotic sounding pieces I ever heard was the tone poem ‘Tintagel’ by Arnold Bax (and I really loved that piece). Perhaps one of the other key fixations during the Romantic era, namely Nationalism, can be viewed as the flip-side of the mania for the Exotic. Nationalism: the (re)discovery of the local, like the American and Canadian genealogists my brother Chris and I met in the records offices in Edinburgh, searching for roots, identity and meaning. And everyone was into it: collecting folk art and incorporating it into the modern art of the time.

The Romantics were also on a quest for more intensity of feeling and effect. And so we got bigger orchestras (think Wagner and Berlioz), bigger concert halls (Wagner built his own at Bayreuth), longer pieces, greater dynamic range (Beethoven set the ball rolling on that one). And then there was the way we played the music. Here, we have mostly only written descriptions to go by, but we can be pretty sure the concept of rubato came into its own, the quintessential romantic element in piano playing, surely, and something that an artist can use in a very individual way (Chopin was famous for it). Rubato allows for individual interpretation , expression, freedom, personality, genius. But the paradox is that its use, even at a simple level (speeding up and slowing down in a short defined region) depends utterly on the ability to think in two tempi at once: the pulse of the piece or region and the expressive rhythmic nuances that take ones playing away, and possibly but not always back to, that pulse. This is actually a high order of rhythmic understanding and hearing, so that it’s a paradox that effective, ‘genuine’ rubato as Chopin described it, is a skill that is developed only alongside an ability to understand and feel, even as an emotional tool, the strict ‘groove’ of an internal pulse.

Although some modern composers wrote in such a way as largely to preclude its use, and Ravel reputedly preferred a very limited application in his own music, by and large it has remained a crucial tool for the performing musician. But an excess of emotion and the music turns suddenly from dramatic to bombastic, moving to banal, sad to maudlin, sensitive to sentimental. Similarly, the virtuosity of the great Romantic performers of the day (Liszt, Paganini, Rubinstein and many others) one moment might make ladies swoon, and the next descend into empty showmanship and effect. Sometimes, a fine line lay between the two — I dare say it still does.

Possibly the most contentious underlying assumption of all is that music is progressing, and that the art of historical eras somehow develops further in sophistication from that of preceding ones. It seems probable, in general terms, that this is unarguably true: we really do have a vastly more intricate palette of sounds and technically developed systems of musical structure than our predecessors in some ways. But look again: apart from the self-evident truth that great composers of the distant past remain great, there is also the undeniable aspect of growth by accretion of knowledge, rather than revolutionary overturning of artistic movements. This is why we see so much remnant Classicism in the music of Mendelssohn; so much Romanticism in Debussy and so much Impressionism, Romanticism and everything else in composers today. When ‘Les Six’ — that rather ramshackle gang of young French composers brought together by Jean Cocteau in the 1920s — grew up and away from each other (and that didn’t take long!), Francis Poulenc, years later, rued being rude (excuse the pun) about Ravel. In truth, the ‘revolutionary’ aspect to the Gang of Six wasn’t much more than an example of the younger generation wanting to mock their elders and believe themselves utterly differentiated from them. Poulenc, clearly, had the nous to understand the debt he actually owed to them.

I realise that this ramble might have been not quite what some of you expected, and I hope you’ll forgive me for the personal angle I’ve pursued and indulged. On the one hand, it does reflect the Romantic belief in the importance of ones individual experience, but on the other, it necessarily precludes anything like a comprehensive overview. But, is an overview really possible? Schumann and Debussy are both worth a lifetime’s study, and the record companies — the Hyperions and Chandos’s — despite their wonderful explorations into much of the neglected repertoire of the Romantics, have yet to exhaust the golden seams buried in archives. There is simply so much more to the Romantic piano literature than the greatest works by Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms. So, to finish then, I’d like to pluck just three little fish from that sea.

The first is taken from Franz Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum of 1876, a collection of old a new music arranged and composed for his granddaughter Daniela and collected under the title ‘Christmas Tree’. In it, we hear one of the great Romantics turning in his old age (well, in reality, he was only 65) not backwards to nostalgia but always forward. It’s not hard to imagine that, if he had lived into the next century, he would have found much to be enthusiastic about.

My second piece is by a very different composer, the French eccentric Erik Satie. Very much an ideas man, he nevertheless wrote some beautiful miniatures and influenced a wide variety of composers such as Debussy, Stravinsky and Cage, with his queer, fresh view of the world and tongue-in-cheek humour. As an artist, though, he was serious, and I have chosen a little piece that shows just why he was such an inspiration to much greater composers. This is from the album Sports et Divertissements of 1914, an exquisite concoction of pictures, words and music describing all manner of Parisian amusements, introduced by a solemn chorale in which Satie inoculates himself from criticism by mocking those “shrivelled and annoyed” people who, in his words, “don’t like me”.

Finally, a little piece of my own. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t regard myself as worthy to keep these men company, but I wanted to show that all these musical ideas are alive and well among today’s composers. Gerald Abraham wrote that Satie was: “An amusing blagueur of minuscule talent.” Which I think goes to show that Constant Lambert was right when he wrote: “English critics have been unanimous in their disapproval, and one has yet to see that their contempt is based on any knowledge of his work as a whole. Satie is looked upon (…) as a farceur and an incompetent dilettante.” That was from Music Ho!, still well worth a read. Well, I like Satie. Inspired by him, this is an extract from a work I wrote in homage: Divertissement sur le nom de Satie. I will play the penultimate movement, in which M. Satie smokes a cigar and goes to bed.

Thank you.

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