Isn't It Romantic?

The Triumph of Music
The Rise of Composers, Musicians, and Their Art
Tim Blanning
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 416 pp.

Though he died more than a century and a half ago, everyone knows what Beethoven looked like. We need only turn to the comic strip Peanuts, where his instantly recognizable bust glowers over Lucy’s hopeless flirtations with Schroeder, the toy-piano prodigy. Beethoven’s celebrity is nothing new: in 1827, fourteen-year-old Richard Wagner attended a concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus featuring the recently deceased master’s Seventh Symphony. The music moved Wagner profoundly, but, as he wrote in his autobiography, his feeling of awe was enhanced by “the added impact of Beethoven’s physiognomy, as shown by lithographs of the time, as well as the knowledge of his deafness and his solitary and withdrawn life. There soon arose in me an image of the highest supernal originality, beyond comparison with anything.”

Beethoven’s remarkably enduring fame is evidence of the “cultural supremacy” music enjoys in the modern West, according to Cambridge historian Tim Blanning. In The Triumph of Music, Blanning contends that over the past two hundred years, musicians have achieved levels of celebrity, fortune, and cultural influence unmatched by practitioners of any other art. This “triumph” is the result of a set of interlocking historical developments, all of which began in the 1700s: the emergence of a new kind of audience for the arts, a shift in aesthetic sensibilities, a consequent change in the status of artists, and a wave of technological development spurred by industrialization.

For Blanning, the cult of Beethoven is a typical product of this perfect storm of historical circumstances. In the second half of the eighteenth century, it became possible for composers and other musicians to make a living without depending entirely on aristocratic patronage: there was now a growing urban audience, which included a non-noble middle class, willing to pay to attend concerts in large halls like the Gewandhaus. As the role of this urban public increased, Romanticism emerged as the dominant artistic sensibility. Great art, the conventional wisdom now held, was above all innovative and expressive; “supernal originality” in personal conduct and appearance was typical of the superior beings capable of producing such works. Technological improvements in lithography and a dramatic proliferation of print media—the sources of Wagner’s information about Beethoven—intensified these other developments, transforming a select group of charismatic musicians from mere courtly servants into universally recognized icons.

According to Blanning, every social upheaval, economic transformation, intellectual development, and technological novelty of the past two and a half centuries has served to increase music’s reach, influence, and prestige. Today, music pervades many aspects of our daily lives, from the most public to the most intimate. Successful musicians enjoy unprecedented wealth and wield a unique cultural power that reflects the wide diffusion of their work. To trace the development of this remarkable state of affairs, Blannning brings together a wide range of material, from stories of nineteenth-century celebrity virtuosi to a discussion of the role of studio manipulation in the production of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As different as Lisztomania and Beatlemania may seem at first glance, Blanning provocatively insists that the two phenomena are closely connected. The link, as he sees it, is the enduring influence of Romanticism, which touched off a dramatic transformation of music’s function in Western cultural life. Before the late eighteenth century, music was often simply an ornament of power or an aid to religious contemplation. The Romantics changed all that. For them, music was the quintessential art form, the one to which, as nineteenth-century critic Walter Pater famously put it, all others aspired. When listened to for its own sake, with the quiet attentiveness audiences began to exhibit once Romanticism caught on, music seems to touch the emotions themselves. Where painting depends on the material crutches of pigment and canvas, and literature on the even more cumbersome paper and ink, music seems to exist at a seductive remove from the tangible world. Instruments and musicians make it happen, but the sounds themselves live in the air. Here, then, was the paradigmatic form of Romantic art: pure, unme­diated expression, conveyed in the most intense manner possible.

Of course, as the Romantic sensibility spread, the music being written changed as well, exploring a broader emotional range and using novel instruments to produce ever more spectacular effects. As Blanning notes, it is no accident that during the nineteenth century, when the harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary developed by Romantic composers became Europe’s musical lingua franca, a flood of new and improved instruments appeared, like the iron-framed piano (1825), the tuba (1835), the valved French horn (1839), the saxophone (1846), and the keyed flute (1847). After about 1850, the growing technological sophistication of factory production that characterized the Second Industrial Revolution transformed these new musical instruments from exotic rarities into widely available, relatively inexpensive consumer goods. On the eve of World War I, there were as many as 4 million pianos in Great Britain, one for every ten inhabitants.

The Romantic transformation of music, then, owes its enduring impact to more than a simple shift in taste and artistic priorities. Romanticism came along at the perfect moment, Blanning argues, retooling music in ways that met-and still meet-the demands of modernity with an almost uncanny completeness. In politics, for example, music became a crucial means of stirring ideological enthusiasm. At Jemappes in 1792, the soldiers of France’s Revolutionary Army achieved one of their greatest victories with the “Marseillaise” on their lips. Stirring works performed in public concerts—the Czech Bedrich Smetana’s Má Vlast (1882), or Verdi’s famous opera chorus “Va, Pensiero” (1842)—galvanized the myriad nationalist movements that proliferated after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. In Blanning’s opinion, a shared affinity for opera played a decisive role—perhaps the decisive role—in making Italian unification possible. “Without a common music,” he declares, “Italy might well have remained a ‘geographical expression’ but not a nation.”

Blanning’s argument, while generally compelling, grows strained when he asserts the equivalency of contemporary popular music and the art music of the nineteenth century. Though there are very real similarities in the nature of their fame, the aggressive, demotic earthiness of groups like the Rolling Stones is a far cry from the intellectualism of Beethoven, or even the showmanship of Liszt, which, despite a pronounced whiff of sex appeal, remained self-consciously in the realm of “high art.” This blurring of the boundaries between “high” and “low” audiences in music—though not in other arts—is one of the more dramatic developments of the last century, and one that marks a real break from Romantic precedent. The heroic musical geniuses of the nineteenth century, composers like Beethoven and Wagner, produced art for elites; rock stars, which Blanning presents as their present-day counterparts, produce art for a much broader audience, from working-class teenagers to academics. As the contemporary composer Milton Babbitt once pointed out, today’s most culturally sophisticated listeners, the ones who are comfortable reading recondite works of critical theory and looking at demanding conceptual art, generally prefer the same music as everyone else: various forms of rock and pop, perhaps more or less “alternative.” Though just about everyone knows what Beethoven looked like, relatively few present-day listeners, even those with elite educations and high incomes, can recognize much of his music. This development marks a major shift in Western taste that calls for further explanation.

Nevertheless, Blanning’s case for music’s current primacy among the arts is persuasive, particularly if we follow his example and exuberantly abandon conventional genre distinctions in order to consider the cultural landscape as a whole. Over the past two hundred years, music has acquired a steadily growing place in Western culture—one that would have been inconceivable without the aesthetic sea change Romanticism made possible. Every time one of us plugs in to an iPod or turns on the radio, it becomes that much clearer just how deeply music has penetrated our daily lives, and just how enduring its presence there will be.

About the Author

John Warne Monroe is an associate professor of European cultural and intellectual history at Iowa State University. He is the author of Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism in Modern France (Cornell University Press, 2008).