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What makes a piece of music Romantic?

By Lara J Carim, on 13 May 2013

Would you describe the piece of music below as Romantic, romantic, or both?

> Extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 ‘Pathétique’

The answer, as with most model humanities essays, is of course ‘that depends’ – on whether we are talking strictly about the Romantic period within the history of Western classical music, or whether we simply experience the music as inspired and embodied by strong feelings.

Romantic music with a capital ‘R’ – European music composed roughly between 1810 and 1870 – can be fairly easily classified according to a set of musical characteristics, such as heavy use of stringed orchestral instruments, changes of key and unresolved chords – but capturing what makes a piece of music stir us is much harder to identify – and a challenge that Professor Christopher Peacocke set himself in the first musical event of the Festival of the Arts on 8 May.

Professor Peacocke – who holds the Richard Wollheim Chair of Philosophy at UCL – was moved to investigate this phenomenon when, tasked with teaching music humanities at a US university, he realised the gap in the literature on the philosophy of music.

Peacocke quickly dismissed the ideas that Romantic music could be simply equated with music that involved great intensity of expression, or with music that embodied particular emotions, such as terror, longing or ecstasy. There are of course numerous pieces that predate the Romantic era but are very expressive – Mozart’s string quintets, for one.

Instead, Peacocke proposed that Romantic music is distinguished by how emotion is expressed, not just the emotion itself. The drive for authentic expression of strong emotion that characterises Romantic music can be aligned, he suggested, with ‘expressive action’, a concept borrowed from philosophy which describes actions that are instinctive responses to emotions, such as slumping when we hear bad news, or skipping when we receive good news.

Further, Romantic music draws on the human capacity to represent one thing metaphorically as something else. A strong example is the way that Schubert uses syncopation to convey waves lapping against boats, and then rapid light sets of notes to embody the reflections of mountain peaks referenced in Goethe’s lyrics:

> Extract of Matthias Goerner singing ‘Auf dem See’, from Schubert’s Goethe Lieder

Romantic music tends in fact to make heavy use of metaphors to encompass dramatic changes in mood, such as the transition from despair to serenity found over the course of Mahler’s 2nd symphony, known as the Resurrection Symphony.

Romantic composers aimed to use a combination of the set of musical techniques described above to achieve a certain notion of authenticity – a core aim of the rich brew of ideas and political ideas that unifies the Romantic cultural period.

In summary, Peacocke suggested there are three conditions that a piece must fulfil to be classed as Romantic:
• that the listener perceives the action of performing the music as an expressive action
• that the music is expressive of some emotional mental state
• that the means of expressing the emotion oversteps the classical form in some way.

He boldly argued that the types of music that meet these three criteria are so quintessentially Romantic, that people with no formal knowledge of classical music would experience and describe them as such.

This assertion stimulated a lively question and answer session, ranging from the role of the rediscovery of Bach in Romantic music and the Indian classical music form Raga, completed a lunchtime event that had the rare quality of being both intellectually demanding and relaxing.

Lara Carim is Head of Digital Communications

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