Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to The Musician

Letter No.: 
VWL284
Wednesday, October 13 1897

The Romantic Movement and its Results

The death of Brahms has revived in all its vigour the old controversy on the subject of classical and romantic music.  Several simple-minded people who wished to be considered progressive were shocked to find that, in the opinion of experts, Brahms belonged to the classical school.  These conventional radicals had always connected the word "classical" with pedants and reactionaries, and now they were forced to leave Brahms - for whom they really had a sneaking admiration - in the cold, as being behind the times, while they pinned their progressive faith on those composers who, for no other reason than that they were not classical, have been dubbed "romantic".
It is, of course, true that there is no room for the reactionary in music, and that no movement which is out of the straight line of musical evolution has ever produced any good results; therefore, if Brahms is really lagging behind the age it may well be argued that his  music is not likely to stand the test of time.  But musical toryism is not necessarily implied in the word, "classical".  The tenets of both schools can be held alike by progressives and reactionaries, and their real cause of conflict can be broadly stated thus: that the classical composers work on a purely musical basis, while the romanticists include some external non-musical factor as the emotional basis of their work.
However, among the immediate successors of Beethoven, the progressives were all of the romantic persuasion, and this continued to be the case until Brahms appeared and returned to the apparently obsolete methods of Beethoven, producing music which was, as his admirers say, pure music, rather than music eked out by other arts, or, as his detractors have it, the "mere development of musical themes", without any of the emotional influences which give the dry bones life.
It seems, then, either that it is true that Brahms is born out of due time, and can have nothing to say to this generation, or else that the whole movement which led up to Schumann and Wagner was a river destined to be lost in the sand.  However, if we trace the course of the romantic movement we shall find that though its day is over, yet it has not perished in the wilderness, but that it has reached its goal and done its work, and that this work was the creation of the New Art of Richard Wagner.
The beginning of the romantic movement is to be found in the reaction against formal perfection which followed the death of Beethoven.
Beethoven was a classical composer - this does not mean that he was not imaginative, but it does mean that he was a musician and nothing else - that the emotional germ of his music was simply a musical pattern in his mind, which was translated into an analogous musical pattern on paper.  With Beethoven, then, abstract form and emotional expression were inseparable, because they both sprang from the same source.
Like so many other new movements, the romantic school owes its origin not to the appearance of some new factor in the composer's scheme, but to the loss of an old one.  The power which the early romanticists lacked was the sense of abstract form, which Beethoven had used to elucidate and formulate the emotional side of his music.  Of emotions these pioneers had enough and to spare, but there was wanting the distinct decorative pattern on which to weave their emotions into an organized whole.
In particular, then, their musical organization was incomplete, but art, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the lack of musical qualities had to be made up from without; thus, instead of the power to organize their ideas through the means of a nice sense of proportion, there came upon the first romantic composers an intense desire to make their music intelligible by connecting it with the outside world: in fact, to make it in some sense "a criticism of life".
To accomplish this end the musician must, through his music, put himself in imagination into an emotional state foreign to his musical nature.  This cannot be done except by the co-operation of one of the other arts, namely, that of the dramatist; and thus an external growth, having in it some of the characteristics of dramatic art, is grafted on to the musical stem.
Schubert and Weber, the founders of the school, were not, of course, aware that they were laying the corner-stone of a new art; they aimed at writing music, just as their predecessors had done before them; but Schubert, on the one hand, found himself most inspired when he guided his emotional utterance by the thoughts of some poet whose words he was setting to music; and Weber, on the other hand, was seldom other than trivial, and even vulgar, except when he was illustrating some situation which particularly appealed to his imagination, such as the weird forest scene in Der Freischutz, or the romantic story on which the "Concertstuck" is based.
At first, then, the new dramatic element in musical composition influenced musicians quite unconsciously.  The first composer who recognized it was Berlioz.  He not only recognized it, but welcomed it and invented elaborate dramatic situations and programmes, which the hearer is to conjure up through the medium of music.  Of him, indeed, it may be said that the dramatic element did not inspire his music, but rather that his music illustrated the events which his dramatic nature conceived of.  Thus the new factor takes its place side by side with the musical element.  However, the romantic movement is not yet full-blown; a further most important development has yet to take place before it is time for the flower to drop and the fruit to appear.  The early romanticists had no other means of satisfying their dramatic longings than that of illustrating other people's thoughts; Berlioz, though he invented his own programmes, yet invented them first in his character of dramatist, and illustrated them musically afterwards.  It was left to Robert Schumann to take the final step, when, for the first time, the dramatic and musical ideas sprang simultaneously from the same mind.  On the whole, the musician was paramount in Schumann's nature, and he was often content to illustrate the work of others; but from the first his music had a dramatic as well as a musical basis - that is to say, not that his music had two germs but that it had one germ of a composite nature.
This is the history of the romantic school - first one art influenced by another; then one art illustrating another, and finally the first glimmerings of a new art which combines the dramatic and musical art in one.  After Schumann it was for ever impossible to call the new art "music"; the dramatic element had to be recognized as of equal importance with the  musical.  To make this new art complete but one step was necessary - to transfer it to its proper home, the theatre - and this was done by Richard Wagner.
Wagner, then, is not a freak of nature standing outside the line of evolution, but he is the logical outcome of the romantic movement in music: in this way he dealt it its death blow, and out of the tentative gropings of Schumann evolved a new art - a subtle blend of music and drama - the whole being entirely distinct from either of its component parts.  This is the first result of the romantic movement.
The second result is that no progressive musician can go on writing romantic music; that is over and done for, and the way has been cleared for pure music to resume its sway.  The next musical pioneer after Wagner must be a man who will start again on the lines from which the romanticists broke away, and who will write pure music out of a purely musical heart - and who has done this if not Brahms, the first whole-hearted classical composer since Beethoven?  True, there has been an interregnum, but that does not make Brahms a reactionary, it only means that he has waited his time.
Thus the problem is solved, and the position of affairs clearly defined.  There are now two arts, the musical and the musico-dramatic, either of which a man can take up and be in the forward movment.  The real reactionaries are those critics who applaud the performance of an opera in the concert-room as if it were a symphony, or attach a "meaning" to a symphony as if it were an opera and needed a libretto of theirs; and among composers the real laggards are those who having the brains to write neither a symphony nor an opera are content to sit on the fence, and, under the high-sounding titles of "symphonic-poem" and the like, to attempt to hide their ignorance both of  music and poetry.
The romantic school has lived its life and done its work, and has died an honourable death; to honour it truly is to let it rest in peace.

R. Vaughan Williams

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Format: 
Letter
Original database number: 
971013