New Oxford History of Music, vol. 9: Romanticism (1830-1890), edited by Gerald Abraham. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. xx + 935 pp. ISBN 0-19-316309-8.
It takes temerity these days to write a history of music. The very nature of "history," that ingenious compound of fact, perception, opinion, and bias, is being energetically questioned these days (not, of course, for the first time), and the assumption of expertise across a far-flung subject requires diligence and a spice of chutzpah. It may take even more chutzpah to assemble and edit a collection of heterogeneous chapters on different subdivisions (but how to cut the pie?) of an era (but how to determine where it begins and ends?). And histories are such tempting targets; critics refill their back orders of vitriol and warm up the word processors for a gleeful discourse on how the enterprise might have been wrought better. The bigger the target, the more ebullient the critics, and this is a very large target indeed. Therefore, before I begin cataloguing the sources of my displeasure with this volume, let me first hand out the verbal version of Purple Hearts to all involved in the enterprise and point out that there is much intriguing and useful information to be found here—the fact that there are four entire pages on the works of Ernest Reyer (1823-1909) is symptomatic both of the reigning virtue and vice of this collection.
This book is, like most such histories, massive and skimpy at the same time, massive in the aggregate, puny in the particulars. The volume begins with a minuscule introduction by Gerald Abraham, in which he evades the sticky problem of defining Romanticism, especially with regard to music (après Dahlhaus, this seems all the more problematic), and justifies the choice of the chronological boundary-markers of 1830-to-1890. Romanticism is of course multifarious and notoriously difficult to define, but more is required than one finds here. Citing the elderly Goethe's summations of Romanticism without reference to friendlier witnesses is comparable to asking a Reaganite conservative for a definition of liberal Democratic principles. Abraham's justification for beginning where he does is that the generation of 1830 (Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, Glinka, Mendelssohn, et alii) was the first generation of full-fledged Romantics, whatever he conceives that to be—stating that it is "a concept [only one?] more easily recognized than defined" may be true, but begs the question. By beginning at 1830, Abraham thereby dodges, albeit unsuccessfully, the uncomfortable problem of so-called "transitional" figures, including Schubert, whose early lieder were indeed composed under the disparate signs of Mozart, Zumsteeg, and Gluck, but whose later lieder are surely Romantic, if anything at all is to be defined as such. Those essayists in this volume who begin their stints by acknowledging whatever in the immediate past bore most heavily on their subject compensate in some measure for the uneasy nature of beginnings and endings imposed on eras (Robert Pascall, for instance, writing of Beethoven's grip on later composers and the increased awareness of Baroque and late Renaissance repertoires). The deaths of Wagner, Liszt, and Franck, along with the impending deaths of Bruckner and Brahms, for Abraham spell the end of Romanticism's heyday and the emergence of various reactions to it.
After Abraham's introduction, the body of the book is divided into ten large chapters by genres, probably a necessary evil in such collections: chapters on orchestral music, chamber music, opera, and piano music, all considered through the twenty-year span from 1830 to 1850 that Abraham considers to be the first stage of Romanticism, followed by chapters on opera from 1850 to 1890, the symphonic poem and kindred forms, the major instrumental forms from 1850 to 1890, solo song, and choral music. "Wagner's Later Stage Works" enjoy a chapter all to themselves, by Arnold Whitall. Some of the chapters are written by a single person (chap. 1, "New Tendencies in Orchestral Music: 1830-1850" by Gerald Abraham; chap. 2, "Chamber Music: 1830-1850" by John Horton; chap. 4, "Romantic Piano Music: 1830-1850" by Willi Kahl; Whitall's chap. 5 on Wagner's later operas; chap. 7, "The Symphonic Poem and Kindred Forms" by Gerald Abraham; chap. 8, "Major Instrumental Forms: 1850-1890" by Robert Pascall; and chap. 10, "Choral Music" by Gerald Abraham), while the chapters on opera and solo song are subdivided into sections by nationality, each section by a different writer. For example, ch. 6, "Opera: 1850-1890," includes sections on German opera by Gerald Abraham, on French opera by David Charlton, on Italian opera by Julian Budden, on Russian and Eastern European opera by Gerald Abraham, and on British and American works by Nicholas Temperley. Much the same cast of characters, but with David Kimbell writing on Italian opera and Siegfried Goslich on German opera, is responsible for the discussion of opera in the second quarter of the century.
No doubt due to the chief editor's special interests, Russian and Eastern European music is everywhere evident, with sections on song in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. Indeed, much of the volume is his contribution, constituting the final essays of an important nineteenth-century scholar; all of those grateful to Gerald Abraham for his considerable oeuvre and expertise will read his chapters, and even the exasperatingly brief introduction, in the valedictory awareness of his passing.
Elegiac sentiments, however, do not entirely mitigate the inequities evident everywhere: for example, Robert Pascall has the unenviable task of encompassing all of the major instrumental forms everywhere (piano sonata, piano variation, organ music, suite, serenade, symphony, and chamber music of all sorts) composed between 1850 and 1890—by anyone's estimation, eventful years—in a mere 114 pages. This is the sort of book that leads one to make quantitative comparisons—how many pages devoted to A versus how many pages devoted to B—and then fuss about the inevitable disparities.
Where there are so many cooks in the kitchen and thumbs in the pie, the quality is doomed to be uneven. Few of the chapters are as good as Whitall on Wagner, but then not many of the contributors had the luxury of a single composer and group of works on which to focus their attention. Consequently, Whitall could bring into his discussion such issues as the nomenclature of and distinction between various stages of Wagner's complicated creative process, the curious relationship between the works and the composer's life, the extent to which Tristan und Isolde is radical in its treatment of tonality, the contrast between Wagner's understanding of Siegfried as a character and ours, the long shadow Wagner cast over those who came after him, and much else. There is less resorting to laundry lists of names and compositions here and more encapsulated ideas and interpretations than elsewhere.
And there are other such pockets of excellence as well. Julian Budden's miniature disquisition on Italian opera from 1850-1890 is a model of its kind, beginning with a brief, clear summation of the historical situation after the revolutionary turmoil of 1848-9 in Europe and continuing with the state of Italian opera at mid-century; the pre-reform operas of Mercadante and Pacini; the resurgence of opera buffa; the reforms of Franco Faccio and Boito; the "Verdian synthesis" and Verdi's later operas; the conservatives and the radicals in late nineteenth-century Italy; and finally, the first hints of verismo. The writing is of a higher order than virtually anywhere else in the book. Budden's nutshell-sized opinions and summations are satisfying in themselves (for example, he invokes the "texture . . . as alive as that of a Beethoven quartet" in Falstaff) and impel the desire for further exploration of the compositions in questions—precisely what is called for in a book of this sort but is so difficult to achieve.
What sort is that, anyway? Reading it, I am reminded of the author-information forms one is required to fill out for presses considering one's works for publication, with their queries about markets and audiences. This is not a textbook, unless the professor wishes to invite being lynched, but a reference work of a peculiar kind, one in which Kleinmeister and little-known works jostle their way from the back burner to the front burner. Unlike in The New Grove, where these same Kleinmeister receive even greater attention, those selected for inclusion here are arranged in chronological juxtaposition and succession so that relationships can be readily perceived. The implicit assumption, not stated anywhere in the introduction, is that the reader can easily find more detailed discussions of the likes of Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Berlioz, but might otherwise be unaware of the context surrounding the works of the acknowledged greats, or what some present-day reformers of historiography are now calling Dead White Males. Consequently, one can find capsule sections on Fromental Halévy's Guido et Ginevra and La Reine de Chypre, Ludwig Spohr's double quartets, the operas of Friedrich Flotow, Bizet's Djamileh, the program symphonies of Joachim Raff, and the songs of Stanislaw Moniuszko, to cite only a few of the more esoteric items.
Confronted with a volume like this, reviewers tend to turn immediately to those sections pertaining to their own field and to find more faults there than anywhere else. I am no exception, and the ninth chapter on "Solo Song" was the first one I read, blue-pencil in hand. The subject is inherently problematic in surveys—those thousands of short pieces, with often-lengthy foreign titles, and poets to acknowledge as well as composers. Space restrictions must be particularly aggravating under the circumstances. With all due sympathy for the writer's predicament, I nevertheless have a few bones to pick with Leslie Orrey, who is responsible for the subsection on the solo song in Germany. He begins by invoking the lied composers active between the death of Schubert in 1828 and Schumann's 1840 "song year," but surely the Berlin composer Bernhardt (not "Bernardt") Klein (1793-1832) is a near-exact contemporary of Schubert. Disappointingly, Prof. Orrey bars certain students from full access to this portion of the chapter by failing to translate the titles of songs; of course, undergraduate and graduate students should be fluent in German if they wish to delve into lieder, but that ideal situation seldom exists. One must turn to the index to find that the poets Eichendorff, Chamisso, Reinick and Kerner all had first names; Marianne von Willemer is given her full name but with a misprint. In a footnote concerning the ninth poem in Chamisso's Frauenliebe und- Leben, Orrey gives as the gist of the poem that "nought is now left but memories" and omits the fact that the woman is now a grandmother speaking to her granddaughter: there is a considerable chronological gap in the narrative. Carl Loewe, in his setting of the poetic cycle, included this poem—and where, one wonders, is Loewe? In the bibliography, yes, and in the chapter on opera from 1830 to 1850 but not in the chapter on solo song in Germany. In a volume where Reyer and Raff have their day in the sun, it seems unfair to omit the ballad composer par excellence of the entire century, someone furthermore whose works are still performed and recorded. Where is Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, whose songs include many of her best works? Significant American scholarship on the lied is in short supply in the notes and bibliography. Gustav Mahler receives a single paragraph of works listed, with no discussion at all. When Orrey refers to the "impressionism" of Brahms's late style and equates impressionism with "colouristic, non-functional [sic] harmony," I shudder. However, the essayist is to be thanked for efforts to resuscitate the unjustly neglected Adolf Jensen, whose compositional abilities Brahms praised; for observing that the influence of Liszt on Wolf has not yet been duly investigated; for noting that there have been few serious examinations of Brahms's songs to date (a situation fortunately en route to alteration); and for an excellent summation.
It is too easy to fall into the trap of expecting historical surveys to be all things to all people. Whatever my disappointment with aspects of this latest entry into the lists, I take great pleasure in gleaning tidbits I would probably not have sought on my own from within its distended covers (the unique characteristics of Meyerbeer's opéras-comiques, for example) and for aperçus galore (Saint-Saëns's proclivity for stolid rhythmic patterns from the Wagnerian mold, for example). If one wants more, that wish is the inevitable pedal point to any perusal of a volume of music history.