War of the Romantics

The Romantic period occupies the middle half of the 19th Century. (For an in depth discussion of its overarching traits and characteristics, see the previous blog entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy.)

In the last quarter of the 19th Century we encounter two transitional figures that lead us into the twilight of German musical dominance. These are Richard Wagner, the great and epic opera composer, and Johannes Brahms, the grand symphonist. During their lifetimes, these composers were proclaimed the standard-bearers of two divergent movements within classical music. These were ABSOLUTE music on the one hand, and PROGRAM music on the other.

Absolute music has no other meaning than the notes on the page, pure and simple. There is no ‘extra-musical’ inspiration (i.e. beyond the music) from a story or image or title or anything at all outside of the music itself. It is absolute. Examples include symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets etc.; in other words, all the traditional forms.  

This is in contrast to program music, which is a direct response to a story, image, title, character, or whatever else. It is a depiction in sound of something. Examples include Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (which is about being out in the countryside), Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and most works by Liszt and Richard Strauss. In fact, these last two composers invented a new genre, which they called a ‘TONE-POEM’ or ‘SYMPHONIC POEM’, which was a single movement (unlike a symphony which had several movements) and was explicitly pictorial or depicted a narrative.

As you can probably see, these two genres of music – absolute and program music – stand on opposite ends of a spectrum. Now, what do you get if you take some over-hyped Romantics spoiling for a fight? The War of the Romantics.

The War of the Romantics

This so-called ‘war’ was a deep philosophical split among musicians, music critics,  and music-lovers, where one camp believed that the other was perverting, debasing, and contaminating True Art.

From our perspective it seems fantastically overblown. Could people really get that worked up about something like this? Well, unfortunately we have a tragic parallel in the two great rap artists Biggie and 2Pac. The feud between these musicians resulted in two gang-related homicides, with both men being cut down in their prime. This is equally beyond comprehension. 

In the 19th Century, the conflict was somewhat more restrained, with only occasional outbursts of physical violence at concerts. The war was predominantly restricted to vociferous condemnations in print and vocal denunciations at performances.

Out with the Old...

East Coast vs. West Coast. Absolute Music vs. Program Music. People instinctively want to belong to a group for we are, after all, pack animals. The fact that emotions become disproportional to the issue is indicative of our nature, not the issue.

Here are the two basic arguments. For the Wagnerians, Brahms was accused of being antiquarian, academic, and conservative, because he returned to the old forms that they believed were now obsolete. Wagner was hailed as a trailblazer. Contrarily, for the Brahmsians, Wagner was appealing to the masses with degenerative, manipulative, and grandiose drivel, while their hero was preserving the venerated and sacred genres of Beethoven (who incidentally, interchanged genres unperturbed whenever it fit his creative inspiration in the moment.).

Here is the truth: Both were innovators; Wagner forged new genres and Brahms infused established genres with a modern musical vocabulary, which made them new again. 

At any rate, Wagner was the emblem of program music, Brahms of absolute. Neither one was self-proclaimed but rather, co-opted by the different factions. Both composers actually had a grudging respect for one another, though the spectacularly pompous Wagner would never have admitted it. (Brahms, who was less pretentious, actually bought the expensive handwritten autograph copy of one of Wagner’s scores.) 

So, where does the real difference lie?

Both men viewed themselves as the rightful heir of Beethoven. Wagner believed the Great Master had achieved all their was to achieve in the purely instrumental forms. As substantiation, Wagner pointed to the fact that even Beethoven felt this, because he added voices to the Ninth Symphony in seeking expression beyond mere notes. For Wagner, it therefore followed logically that vocal music was where the future lay. Accordingly, he composed operas, or what he called ‘music dramas’. Wagner’s music dramas aimed for the total integration of all artistic elements: music, poetry (the sung text, called a libretto), drama, movement, costume, acting, painting (in the stage sets.) Because Wagner’s music is in service of telling a story, it is deemed program music.

Brahms, on the other hand, resurrected the traditional forms of Beethoven’s era (i.e. the symphony, string quartet, sonata etc.) after they had been abandoned for an entire generation. Every composer of the 19th Century felt Beethoven’s shadow looming over them; Brahms himself said, ‘You have no idea what it is like to hear the footsteps of a Giant thundering behind you.’ So, many composers turned to lesser-known genres to make their name (think of Schubert and the Lied – see Public Displays – Part 1.) Brahms is two generations removed from Beethoven and so he felt enough distance to compose in those hallowed forms. Accordingly, he began to use all of those purely instrumental genres, i.e. absolute music.


The noisy cliques on each side truly believed that the other was irreparably corrupting a great art form. Remember that for the Romantics Art was Religion, so for them this was a holy war. Both sides openly declared in the same regrettable words of the former President of the USA, ‘if you weren’t with them, you were against them.’   

Irrespective of these outrageous claims, the next generation of musicians bore no such burden of choice. Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler gleaned from both Brahms and Wagner, absolute and program music. And their works were all the richer for assimilating these different influences.

Kirsten Hicks