What Did the Romantics Mean?

Caspar David Friedrich, 1774-1840: Romantic Landscape Painting in Dresden

by William Vaughan and Helmut Börsch-Supan and Hans Joachim Neidhardt
Tate Gallery (London), 112 pp., £1.10

Robert Schumann: The Man and His Music

edited by Alan Walker
Barrie and Jenkins (London), 489 pp., £7.00
Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann; drawing by David Levine


Does each art have its proper sphere, some aspect of reality that it may reflect or imitate that is closed to the other arts? The eighteenth century thought so and attempted to define the nature and the limits of each of the arts, and to fix the opposition between art and reality that seemed indispensable to the autonomous existence of art in general.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the writers and painters—to be followed shortly by the musicians—broke through these limits. “Does not pure instrumental music appear to create its own text?” wrote Friedrich Schlegel in 1798, thinking of the extraordinary development of symphonic music in the late eighteenth century. The ability of music to create meaning and significance out of its own elements, independent of any attempt to mirror the world outside, became the model for the other arts.

In his novel Franz Sternbald’s Travels, Ludwig Tieck predicted an abstract art of pure colors, with neither subject matter nor represented form. The poet-philosopher Novalis proposed tales and poems “without sense and without continuity…made up of associations like dreams…acting indirectly like music.” The painter Philipp Otto Runge wrote that “music must exist in a poem through the words, as music must also be present in a beautiful picture or building or in any ideas whatsoever which are expressed through lines.” When Schiller spoke of the musical effect of poetry, he meant not the sound but the order and arrangement of the images and the modulation of the whole poem. A generation later, Schumann and Berlioz were to integrate specifically literary techniques into their music.

Not only the barriers between the arts. but the autonomy of art itself was destroyed. This breakdown of the distinction between art and reality began playfully when, in one of Tieck’s plays, the audience climbs onto the stage while the actors complain of their parts. Novalis, protesting the romantic justification of Shakespeare as a pure artist, is more in earnest: “Art belongs to Nature and is, so to speak, self-reflecting, self-imitating, self-shaping Nature. [Shakespeare’s works] are emblematic, ambiguous simple and inexhaustible, and nothing could be more nonsensical than to call them works of art in the limited mechanical sense of that word.” In forms as different as Wordsworth’s prclude and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. the work of art presents itself as autobiography, as fact, as part of Nature. Byron, with an international reputation as a Don Juan. wrote a poem called Don Juan, an open-ended work to which he continued to add as long as he lived. The characters in Brentano’s novel Godwi speak about “the author of Godwi,” and, at the end of the book, describe his death and write poems about him.

The elements of these works have a double status, fact and art, real and fictive at once. Two recent books, Robert Schumann: The Man and His Music, edited by Alan Walker,…

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