By David Leehey, Board President of The Symphony of Oak Park & River Forest
Our March 6 concert features music by the two titans of romantic-era German music, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Though today hearing the music of these two masters on the same program does not raise eyebrows, that was not always the case.
The "War of the Romantics" is a term used by some music historians to describe the aesthetic schism between two opposing musical philosophies in the 19th century. The conservatives favored Brahms, who was seen as the heir to the great tradition of German music as it had passed from the Baroque masters such as Bach, through the Viennese classicists (Haydn and Mozart), and on to the early 19th century romantics (Beethoven, Schumann, and Mendelssohn). They were believers in absolute music, meaning that the music, in its form, structure, melody, and harmony, could and should stand on its own merits. Their opponents were the progressives of the so-called New German School, led by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. The conservatives believed in writing sonatas, chamber music, concertos, and symphonies. The progressives were believers in program music, thinking that the music should tell a story (and often be accompanied by a narrative). This idea led to Liszt’s creation of the symphonic poem (or “tone poem”) and reached its apotheosis in the music dramas of Wagner.
As is true of many things in life, these two opposing camps were not really as dissimilar as many considered them to be at the time. Robert Schumann had been a progressive composer and critic as well as editor of the influential music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. He had artistically fruitful friendships with both the radical romantics — Liszt in particular — as well as with musical conservatives such as Mendelssohn. However as Liszt’s piano performance antics and the fervid audiences he left in his wake (sometimes called Lisztomania) swept through Europe in the 1840s, both he and his pianist wife Clara turned to the new savior of German music, Johannes Brahms.
Brahms and his fellow conservatives were to write a Manifesto against the perceived bias of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which after Schumann’s death was controlled by the progressives. The manifesto lodged a protest againts the leaders and pupils of the New German School, declaring its theories, principles and practice to be “contrary to the innermost spirit of music, strongly to be deplored and condemned”. This became a catalyst for spreading the conflict to the German press at large. Liszt, to his credit, did not debate the manifesto; instead, he let his music speak for him. Brahms, after this one foray into musical politics, was to do the same in the future.