Flowing brooks and soupy pedals

What did Romanticism mean to Schubert and Liszt? Graham Johnson weighs the evidence; The Romantic Generation by Charles Rosen HarperCollins, pounds 30
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
For the German writer Novalis, the essence of Romanticism was "to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar". The Romantic Generation, by the distinguished American pianist and critic Charles Rosen, seems to share this achievement. The book is an impressive attempt to make sense of the cultural movement which gave us Schubert and Schumann, Chopin and Lizst, and it does so in part by placing these composers in the context of far less famous writers of the period.

Rosen gives long overdue recognition to the importance of the song cycle as "the most original musical form created in the first half of the 19th century". For him, it "most clearly embodies the Romantic conception of experience as a gradual unfolding and illumination of reality in the place of Classical insistence on initial clarity". In a discussion of Schubert's Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise, he compares the song cycles' sense of slowly coming into focus with the landscape descriptions of writers such as Etienne Pivert de Senancour (little known now, but a cult figure in his day), for whom Romanticism was embodied by moments such as these: "When the October sun appears in the mist over the yellowing woods; when a small brook flows and falls in a field closed by trees, as the moon sets; when, under the summer sky on a cloudless day, a woman's voice sings, a little distant, at four o'clock in the midst of the walls and roofs of a large city ...".

As a song accompanist, I find Rosen's literary sensibility refreshing but I was surprised that he gave little recognition to the way in which, in song composition, certain musical patterns and shapes come into being through verbal imagery. His comments on performance, however, are precise and illuminating: for example, he argues that pianists should avoid too much soupy pedal in Schubert; it should be treated, not as the norm, but as a special effect.

Though Schubert's shadow is a constant presence throughout, the book is dominated by Schumann and Chopin, with shorter chapters on Berlioz and Mendelssohn, and walk-on parts for Bellini and Meyerbeer. The single chapter on Lizst strikes me as one of the finest explications ever written of his genius: unlike Lizst's more faint-hearted apologists, Rosen doesn't try to deny the composer's flashiness and charlatanry, which he acknowledges as an integral part of the package.

Rosen's breadth of learning in so many disciplines is awesome, and he creates powerful syntheses out of diverse threads. Yet at the same time he can be capricious, even eccentric. To discuss Romantic landscape with an in-depth analysis of Louis Ramond de Carbonnieres and Aurelio di Giorgio Bertola but hardly a mention of Caspar David Friedrich seems almost perverse. One feels that he hasn't quite decided whom he's writing for: at one moment he is explaining that Es is the German for E flat; next, he's assuming his audience can read effortlessly from the printed musical examples.

Though the amateur may sometimes feel perplexed and excluded, this tour of the Romantic landscape is worth the occasional discomfort. It's a small price to pay for the dazzling insights which illuminate the text like lightning. There are paragraphs in this book I would gladly pay pounds 30 for- much less than the cost of a lesson with a master pianist.