So Romantic

By Walton, Chris | Musical Times, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

So Romantic


Walton, Chris, Musical Times


CHRIS WALTON appraises a semi-revisionist account of the music of the long nineteenth century

The Cambridge history of nineteenth-century music Edited by Jim Samson Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2001 [recte 2002]); xv, 772pp; L,80. ISBN 0 521 59017 5.

THE DUST-JACKET blurb is remarkably (though in part unintentionally) accurate: `This comprehensive overview of music in the nineteenth century [...] avoids mere repertory surveys, focusing instead on issues which illuminate the subject in novel and interesting ways. The book is divided into two parts (1800-1850 and 1850-1900), each of which approaches the major repertory of the period by way of essays investigating the intellectual and socio-political history of the time.'

This is indeed a comprehensive, impressive overview of the music of the period in question. It succeeds in this because Jim Samson has assembled an equally impressive selection of Anglo-American musicological minds to write it with him - John Butt, Thomas Grey, Roger Parker, Anthony Pople, John Rink, Julian Rushton and more. The century in question is the `long nineteenth century', i.e. from 1789 to 1914; the book's division into two halves at about 1850 is not purely arbitrary, since - as Samson points out - the revolutions of 1848/49 form a neat caesura in mid-century. Each half includes essays on aesthetics, reception history and the like (e.g. `The construction of Beethoven' and `The invention of tradition' in Part the First, `Beethoven reception' and `Music as ideal: the aesthetics of autonomy' in the Second), on socio-political issues (1: `The opera industry', `The profession of music'; 2: `The structures of musical life', `Music and social class') and, of course, on the music itself (e.g. 1: `Choral music', `Music and the poetic'; 2: `Chamber music and piano', `Opera and music drama').

That this volume `avoids mere repertory surveys' in favour of `novel and interesting [issues]' is a publicist's way of saying that this is a history book for post-Modern man, eschewing the grand narratives of old, and including, it is implied, a spot of socio-political, New Musicological genderbending of the kind in which we all indulge nowadays. But it also aims to `serve as a major work of reference', and one can always rely on the likes of Samson, Rushton et al. to temper new musicological abandon with good common sense. As it happens, there is in fact nothing gimmicky here, but much to admire. A few contributions manage to combine concision with breadth in a manner that could with difficulty be bettered (though it is a little unnerving that more than one chapter begins with an apology for the necessity to generalise). Samson & Co. skilfully chart music's course from Napoleon to Wilhelm 11, the vast increase in its means of dissemination, the rise of the music 'industry', of a musical canon, the aesthetic conflicts of the time, and the manner in which music, society and nationhood impinged upon each other. And much more. It is unfair to single out individual contributions, as this will reflect the preferences of the present writer as much as anything else; but I did particularly like the opera chapters in each half (by Parker and Grey respectively).

Jim Samson's brief, but admirably succinct, preface states the pros and cons of this book's format from the editor's perspective:

Single-author histories of nineteenth-century music are probably no longer tenable [...] Yet existing multi-authored histories present their own problems [...] Of course it is easy to criticise [...] How, anyway, can such surveys be anything other than partial and arbitrary? [...] Lacunae will not be hard to find for those who seek.

Samson thus does his best to pull out the rug from under the feet of all those experts on Augusto Rotoli, Wilhelm Baumgartner or Robert Pearsall who will scour the index of this tome in vain for a mention of their favourites. He is obviously aware that the main criticism that can be levelled at this book is that it is, as the dustjacket text implies, essentially a celebration of the existing canon (`the major repertory of the period'). …

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