Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music

By Peter Van Der Merwe | Go to book overview

14 Romanticism

I. ROMANTIC NATIONALISM

The ancien régime

By the nineteenth century Romanticism and nationalism had fused to form a single broad movement. It was not only that nationalism, from the start, had been imbued with the Romantic spirit. Romanticism, conversely, was to a large extent a nationalistic movement: a revolt by the Germanic peoples against the cultural hegemony of the Latins, in much the same way as, centuries before, the Italian Renaissance had been a revolt against the Arabs and French. In literature this new revolt was led by the English, in music by the Germans. In both cases, nostalgia for a glorious and largely mythical past was mixed up with a surge of popular culture.

Like any other revolt, it can be fully understood only against the backdrop of the ancien régime. The Age of Reason was the last time when Latin culture dominated Europe. The civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome enjoyed enormous prestige, their modern descendants set the tone in all the arts, and the northern Europeans continued to regard themselves as faintly barbaric. And if it was an Age of Reason, it was equally an Age of Rules. The eighteenth-century gentleman's devotion to rules, convention, and correctness in general was like the Fabian socialist's enthusiasm for municipal regulations: they represented progress, order, and the triumph of civilization over chaos and barbarism.

Meanwhile, reverence for the ancient civilizations coexisted with a thoroughly modern outlook. A zest for 'improvement' (that eighteenth-century predecessor of the nineteenth-century 'progress'), common among the aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie, applied not only to technology and science, but equally to the arts, and particularly to music, with its lack of ancient models. With the exception of church musicians and a few 'virtuosi', generally regarded as rather odd, few people took much interest in music more than a few years old.

It was an overwhelmingly agricultural society, in which even the townsfolk, for the most part, had what would now strike us as rustic tastes. 'High' art, which contrived to be at once both classical and up-to-date, was the preserve of a small upper

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