Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music: Singing Devils and Distant Sounds

Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music: Singing Devils and Distant Sounds

Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music: Singing Devils and Distant Sounds

Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music: Singing Devils and Distant Sounds

Synopsis

Why are some of the most beloved and frequently performed works of the late-romantic period--Mahler, Delius, Debussy, Sibelius, Puccini--regarded by many critics as perhaps not quite of the first rank? Why has modernist discourse continued to brand these works as overly sentimental and emotionally self-indulgent? Peter Franklin takes a close and even-handed look at how and why late-romantic symphonies and operas steered a complex course between modernism and mass culture in the period leading up to the Second World War. The style's continuing popularity and its domination of the film music idiom (via work by composers such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and their successors) bring late-romantic music to thousands of listeners who have never set foot in a concert hall. Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music sheds new light on these often unfairly disparaged works and explores the historical dimension of their continuing role in the contemporary sound world.

Excerpt

“Each member of the audience sits alone, listening to the
work of the great, dead composer.”

—Christopher Small, Musicking

Imagine, then, the hushed throng in a large European concert hall, waiting upon the conductor’s signal to an orchestra ranked in glittering array before him, in the nineteenth-century fashion. Perhaps, like Christopher Small, we should be suspicious of this curious social ritual, apparently celebrating power and heroic mastery before a docile mass of habituated admirers. the silence is broken by a music whose solemn processional only gradually begins to be interrupted by rhetorical outbursts of more urgent emotion. These seem to initiate greater animation, as if in preparation for catastrophe, before calming once more. a more sensuous unfolding now quietly takes over; it will shortly embrace us with an impressive new theme that seems to aspire to higher things and grows in self-confidence. It carries our spirits forward, higher and higher, until a dizzying outburst of grandeur confirms the arrival of our heart’s desire—perhaps we visualize a sunburst glory out of the mists of a mountain landscape. Slowly, however, the moment passes and the music quietens with the realization of loss, becomes a nostalgic lament for what was, what might have been. At last we begin to relax our sympathetic involvement as the conclusion approaches and we prepare to join in the expected ritual of applause. We signal our thanks to the conductor and his performers for what they have invoked in us, for the music we may shortly affect to mock as “late romanticism,” as “a bit much,” however well played. Private engagement is replaced by public disavowal (we prefer not to gush). We may nevertheless cherish for later . . .

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