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Encyclopedia > Romantic literature

Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in late 18th century Western Europe. It stressed strong emotion, imagination, freedom within or even from classical notions of form in art, and overturning of previous social conventions, particularly the position of the aristocracy. It followed the Enlightenment period and was in part inspired by a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms from the previous period, as well as seeing itself as the fulfillment of the promise of that age.

Wanderer over the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich


In a general sense, "Romanticism" was the group of related artistic, political, philosophical and social trends arising out of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. But a precise characterization and a specific description of Romanticism have been objects of intellectual history and literary history for all of the twentieth century without any great measure of consensus emerging.

Arthur Lovejoy, the founder of the "history of ideas," attempted to demonstrate the difficulty of this problem in his seminal article "On The Discrimination of Romanticisms." Successive generations of scholars have engaged with this question, with some believing that a general description of Romanticism is possible, and others arguing against it. Similarly, some scholars see romanticism as completely continuous with the present, some see it as the inaugural moment of modernity, some see it as the beginning of a tradition of resistance to the Enlightenment, and still others date it firmly to the direct aftermath of the French Revolution. The topic is complex enough that most "characteristics" taken as defining Romanticism have also been taken as its opposite by different scholars.

Still, in common usage, Romanticism is often understood as a set of new cultural and aesthetic values. It might be taken to include the rise of individualism, as seen by the cult of the artistic genius that was a prominent feature in the Romantic worship of Shakespeare and in the poetry of Wordsworth, to take only two examples; a new emphasis on common language and the depiction of apparently everyday experiences; and experimentation with new, non-classical artistic forms.

Romanticism also strongly valued the past. Old forms were valued, ruins were sentimentalized as iconic of the action of Nature on the works of man, and mythic and legendary material which would previously have been seen as "low" culture became a common basis for works of "high" art and literature.

Origins and precursors

The term 'Romanticism' derives ultimately from the fictional romances written during the Middle Ages ("romance" being the medieval term for works in the vernacular Romance languages rather than in Latin). These included the Arthurian cycle, and were notable for their use of magic and focus on personal characteristics of honor and valor, as well as a sense of lofty idealism and a "lost world".

In English, the term 'Romantick' was the experience of human inadequacy and guilt. This sense of struggle, vision and ever-present dark forces was allegedly present in Medieval culture. The Schlegel brothers were also responsible for making Shakespeare into an internationally famous writer, translating his work into German, and promoting his plays as the epitome of the Romantic sensibility. Many later Romantic dramatists sought to imitate Shakespeare and to reject Classical models for drama.

While this view partly explains Romantic fascination with the Middle Ages, the actual causes of the Romantic movement itself correspond to the sense of rapid, dynamic social change that culminated in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. However, Romantic literature in Germany preceded these crucial historical events. The 'Sturm und Drang' (Storm and Stress) movement in German drama was associated with Friedrich Schiller, and the early work of Goethe, in particular his play "Goetz von Berlichingen", about a Medieval knight who resists submission to any authority beyond himself. Goethe's novel "The Sufferings of Young Werther" (1774) had huge international success. This too concerned an individual who felt a strong contradiction between his own internal world of intense feeling, and the external world that failed to correspond to it. Werther eventually commits suicide. In later works Goethe rejected Romanticism in favour of a new sense of classical harmony, integrating internal and external states.


Main article: Romantic music.

In general the term Romanticism when applied to music means the period roughly from the 1820's until 1910. This usage was not contemporary, in 1810 ETA Hoffman called Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven the three "Romantic Composers", and Ludwig Spohr used the term "good Romantic style" to apply to parts of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. However, by the early 20th century, the sense that there had been a decisive break with the musical past lead to the establishment of the 19th century as "The Romantic Era", and as such it is referred to in almost all encyclopedias of music.

Romanticism's influence on Music

Romanticism the movement however, began having an impact on music well before this point in time, beginning with the introduction of elements of dance and song from outside of the court culture then dominant in the patronage of the arts. While often termed folk music, it is not necessarily clear that this term applies. What was happening was the growth of a middle class, which was fusing elements from the agrarian culture, including dances and stories, with their own sensibilities. One person who was influential in this process of fusion was Robert Burns who would set down songs and melodies from his native Scotland and publish them. These melodies attracted the attention of numerous composers, who then arranged and harmonized them.

Another aspect of literary Romanticism entering the musical vocabulary early was in the area of German opera. The German speaking world's main center for opera at the time was Vienna, and opera in Vienna was dominated by Italian opera, and heroic or pastoral texts in the tradition of Baroque drama. A young Goethe began writing opera texts in German, which were called Singspiels. The characters and situations were distinct, as were elements of the ideology, which incorporated the egalitarianism and personal spiritual qualities found in late Enlightenment figures such as Immanuel Kant and Voltaire.

The influence of words on music would reach in the area of poetry as well. The works of Goethe and Friedrich Schiller particularly would be set by composers, to produce commerically successful songs, or lieder. Since part of Romanticism, from folk tunes, was that music should follow speech, this was used to argue at the time that composers should create uniquely expressive melodies for the songs they set. This was in contrast to the practice then common of using the same music for completely different texts.

Romanticism, by having a unique reverence for what was old as being separate from the present, had strains which both revelled in form, and which rebelled against strictures not seen as "essential". In Romantic ideology, this tension between the demands of form and society, and individual, even heroic, sense of mission were present in the Sturm und Drang ethos of early Romantic, which was translated into musical terms in the 1760-1770 period. It would, however, be with the French Revolution and the rise of Cherubini and Mehul. Their use of stark orchestral effects, dramatic changes in dynamic and powerful tutti sections were the beginning of using the unexpected in music to its most forceful effect.

These influences would come together, particularly in Vienna and London during the Napoleanic Wars, to produce a style which was more rooted in formal layout of the structure of a movement of music rather than in imitative counterpoint, which had been the basics of composition pratice up until that point in time. The resulting pressures had swelled the length of pieces, introduced programatic titles, and created the free standing overture as a genre, which would later become central to musical Romanticism.

Another trait which marks the dividing line between Romanticism in music and its past, is the abandonment of the idea that music is primarily decorative and pleasing - a subsidiary art form. Beethoven and E.T.A. Hoffman would be the first of a long line of composers influential in Romanticism to assert that music was a primary artform, equal to the other major forms. The awareness that Mozart and Haydn had made a break with the past and established music on a higher plane was common to the first wave of composers influenced by Romanticism: Spohr, Mehul, Beethoven, even Cherubini, all ranked Mozart and Haydn highly, to which the Romantic pantheon would add Johann Sebastian Bach and George Friedrich Handel.

Romanticism in Music Flowers

The combination of atmosphere, a desire to establish a tension between past and present, new material, extended ambition for works of music, changed audience and political climate are all aspects of how Romanticism would become a decisive influence on the development of concert music in the 19th century.

In opera a new Romantic atmosphere combining supernatural terror and melodramatic plot in a folkloric context came together first in Weber's Der Freischütz (1817, 1821). Enriched timbre and color marked the early orchestration of Hector Berlioz in France, while the demand for freer forms led to Franz Liszt's tone poems, and rhapsodies, both essentially Romantic forms. The German musical tradition of the 19th Century that is typically labelled 'Romantic' would also include the work of Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. Liszt and Wagner each embodied the Romantic cult of the free, inspired, charismatic, perhaps ruthlessly unconventional individual "artistic" personality.

It was during this period that the Sonata Form was codified, and the study of counter-point, particularly fugues, was held in high regard. Reinvented Classic and Baroque structures inform the work of Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms especially, but Felix Mendelssohn, the editor and early reviver of Bach. The work of Mozart was used as a model by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Camille Saint-Saëns. The need for rigorous models was also a primary concern of Russian Composer Rimsky-Korsakov, who editted the scores of fellow Russian composers Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky with an eye to greater formal rigor.

Romantic nationalism was, indeed, a force to be reckoned with in music. Almost from the beginning composers were among the most vocal proponents of national unity and progress in society, from Beethoven's republicanism, through the nationalism of Schumann and Verdi, to the political sensibilities of Berlioz as he expressed them in his music, nation was a topic seen fit for music, in a way which is virtually invisible in the previous era. Romantic nationalism would then be taken up by composers, as they sought to produce a "school" of music for their own nations, in parallel with the establishment of national literature. Many composers would take inspiration from the poetic nationalism present in their homeland - beginning with Germany, but continuing forward through into the 20th century with composers such as Jean Sibelius. This was rooted in the Romantic argument that each "nation" had a unique individual quality that would be expressed in laws, customs, language, logic and, from their point of view of course, decorative and fine art.

Labels like 'Late Romantic' and 'Post-Romantic' link disparate composers of various nationalities, such as Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Samuel Barber and Ralph Vaughan Williams, all of whom lived into the middle of the 20th century. See Romantic period in music. The conscious 'Modernisms' of the 20th century all found roots in reactions to Romanticism, increasingly seen as not harsh and realistic enough, even not brutal enough, for a new technological age. Yet Bartók began by collecting Hungarian folk music, Stravinsky with lush ballets for Diaghilev and Arnold Schoenberg's later spare style had its roots in rich freely chromatic atonal music evolving from his late Romantic style works, for example the giant polychromatic orchestration of Gurrelieder.

Art and Literature

In art and literature, 'Romanticism' typically refers to the late 18th Century and the 19th Century.

The British poet James Macpherson influenced the early development of Romanticism with the international success of his Ossian cycle of poems published in 1762, inspiring both Goethe and the young Walter Scott. Romanticism in British literature developed in a different form slightly later, mostly associated with the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose book "Lyrical Ballads" (1798) sought to reject Augustan poetry in favour of more direct speech derived from folk traditions. Both poets were also involved in Utopian social thought in the wake of the French Revolution. The poet and painter William Blake is the most extreme example of the Romantic sensibility in Britain, epitomised by his claim 'I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's'. Blake's artistic work is also strongly influenced by Medieval illuminated books. The painters J. M. W. Turner and John Constable are also generally associated with Romanticism. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Keats constitute another phase of Romanticism in Britain. The historian Thomas Carlyle and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood represent the last phase of transformation into Victorian culture. William Butler Yeats, born in 1865, referred to his generation as "the last romantics."

In Roman Catholic countries, Romanticism was less pronounced than in Protestant Germany and Britain, and tended to develop later, after the rise of Napoleon. In France, Romanticism is associated with the 19th century, particularly in the paintings of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix, the plays of Victor Hugo and the novels of Stendhal. The composer Hector Berlioz is also important.

In Russia, the principal exponent of Romanticism is Alexander Pushkin; though Russian composers are also given the label. Pushkin's Shakespearean drama 'Boris Godunov' (1825) was set to music by Modest Mussorgsky.

Romanticism played an essential role in the national awakening of many Central European peoples lacking their own national states, particularly in Poland, which had recently lost its independence. Revival of ancient myths, customs and traditions by Romanticist poets and painters helped to distinguish their indigenous cultures from those of the dominant nations (Russians, Germans, Austrians, Turks, etc.). Patriotism, revolution and armed struggle for independence also became popular themes in the arts of this period. Arguably, the most distinguished Romanticist poet of this part of Europe was Adam Mickiewicz, who developed an idea that Poland was the Messiah of Nations, predestined to suffer just as Jesus had suffered to save all the people.

In the United States, the romantic gothic makes an early appearance with Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1819), followed from 1823 onwards by the fresh "Leatherstocking" tales of James Fenimore Cooper, with their emphasis on heroic simplicity and their fervent landscape descriptions of an already-exotic mythicized frontier peopled by "noble savages" like Uncas, "The Last of the Mohicans." There are picturesque elements in Washington Irving's essays and travel books. Edgar Allan Poe's tales of the macabre and his balladic poetry were more influential in France than at home, but the romantic American novel is fully developed in Nathaniel Hawthorne's atmosphere and melodrama. Later Transcendentalist writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson still show elements of its influence, as does the romantic realism of Walt Whitman. But by the 1880s, psychological and social realism was competing with romanticism. The poetry which Americans wrote and read was all romantic until the 1920s: Poe and Hawthorne, as well as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poetry of Emily Dickinson – nearly unread in her own time – and Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick can be taken as the great epitomes of American Romantic literature, or as successors to it.


Basis of Romantic Nationalism

One of Romanticisms key ideas, and most enduring legacies, is the reassertion of nationalism as a central idea in art and philosophy. From the earliest parts of the movement, with their focus on development of national languages and folklore, and the importance of local customs and traditions, to the movements which would redraw the map of Europe and lead to calls for "self-determination" of nationalities, nationalism was one of the key issues in Romanticism, its role, expression and meaning.

Early Romantic nationalism was strongly inspired by Rousseau, and by the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in 1784 argued that the geography formed the natural economy of a people, and that their customs and society would develop along the lines that their basic environment favored.

The nature of nationalism changed very dramatically, however, after the French Revolution, with the rise of Napolean, and the reactions in other nations. Napolean's nationalism and republicanism were, at first, inspirational to movements in other nations: self-determination and a "consciousness" of national unity were held to be two of the reasons why France was able to defeat other countries in battle. But as Republic turned to Empire, Napolean, he became not the inspiration for nationalism, but the object of it. In Prussia, the development of spiritual renewal as a means to engage in the struggle against Napolean was argued by, among others, Johann Gottlieb Fichte a disciple of Kant. The world Volkstum, or nationality, was coined in German as part of this resistence to the now conquering emperor.

Fichte would state the unity of language and nation this way in his "To the German Nation" in 1806

The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.


Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality-then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be; and only a man who either entirely lacks the notion of the rule of law and divine order, or else is an obdurate enemy thereto, could take upon himself to want to interfere with that law, which is the highest law in the spiritual world!

Nationalism and Revolt

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Nationalism and Empire

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National Romanticisms

American Romanticism

British Romanticism

Czech Romanticism

French Romanticism

German Romanticism

Norwegian Romanticism

  • Henrik Wergeland (poet)
  • Edvard Grieg (composer)
  • Adolph Tiedeman (painter)
  • Hans Gude (painter)
  • Johan Christian Dahl (painter)

Polish Romanticism

Russian Romanticism

Spanish Romanticism

Other countries

See also

Terms sometimes taken as related

Terms sometimes taken as opposed

  Results from FactBites:
Romantic music - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (3444 words)
Romantic music is related to Romantic movements in literature, art, and philosophy, though the conventional periods used in musicology are now very different from their counterparts in the other arts, which define "romantic" as running from the 1780s to the 1840s.
Romantic composers were aided by improvements in technology, which provided significant changes in the language of music, ranging from an increase in the range and power of the piano to improvements in the sound and reach of the symphony orchestra.
In literature, the Romantic period is often said to begin in the 1770s or 1780s with a movement known as "storm and struggle" in Germany.
Romanticism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2510 words)
In English literature, Coleridge and Wordsworth were the true architects of the Romantic movement, beginning with their Lyrical Ballads (1798), but the revival of 'romance' in this narrower sense was preceded by a cult of Sensibility.
While these precursors partly explain the Romantic fascination with the Middle Ages, the pleasures of stressful emotions, and the thrill derived from wilfulness, the actual expression of the Romantic movement itself corresponded to the sense of rapid, dynamic social change that culminated in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era.
Early Romantic nationalism was strongly inspired by Rousseau, and by the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in 1784 argued that the geography formed the natural economy of a people, and shaped their customs and society.
  More results at FactBites »



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