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Music and the Other Arts: Romanticism as Example

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Music +2 Age Level High School (16 to 18 years old)

The National Association for Music Education Composition/Theory Connect #11 standard asks: Demonstrate an understanding
of relationships between music and the
other arts. One entree into the subject is to consider the correspondences of artistic
movements in very  different art forms. For example: Just as there was a nineteenth-century Romantic movement in literature
and painting, so there was a nineteenth-century Romantic movement in music, the beginning of which some date to 1805 and
Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. For ideas on a comparisonof the Eroica and the highly romantic, highly heroic painting
below, see READ MORE or click the text box ↘


What is Romanticism?  

Romanticism is often defined by how it differs from what came before: the Classicism of the eighteenth century. An artist considered classicist subordinates self to the traditions of the art form. The Romantic period saw a new primacy of the artist: the expression of the artist’s individual ideas and feelings on whatever the subject.  Of Romanticism in music, Aaron Copland wrote: "It wasn't enough for a Romantic composer to write a sad piece; he wanted you to know who it was that felt sad." More often than not, the composer, it seems, is the one who is sad.

What is the subject here?  

Napoleon Bonaparte is the subject of both Beethoven’s Eroica and the 1912 painting L’Empereur by the American Carroll Beckwith. Early in his conquests, Napoleon was a hero to many Romantic artists, who romanticized him as a new kind of champion: of citizenry over royalty, of merit over accidental fortunes of birth. Preparing for publication this symphony composed for “a great man,” Beethoven wrote a dedication to Napoleon. Then news came that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor—a lord over lessers. Beethoven tore the dedication page from the manuscript. The music, however, went unchanged. 

Can we call both the music and the painting Romanticism? 

That is a something for students to decide for themselves. The Eroica has been called a portrait in music— a portrait of Napoleon, originally. The painting is a kind of a portrait of Napoleon—at several removes. We see not Napoleon himself, but a statue of Napoleon. What’s more, it is a statue seen from behind. This distance from the subject might indicate that the importance here is less on Napoleon than on the artist's feelings about Napoleon.  

Conductor Kenneth Woods recently wrote that we can date the beginning of musical Romanticism to the first movement of the Eroica, its Allegro con brio. (Follow the link to a public-domain recording.) We can most clearly perceive this, Woods says, by comparing it to elements of Mozart's final symphonies, such as the famous first movement of Mozart's 1788 Symphony No. 40, its Molto allegro. (Also in public domain.)


What differences do you hear between Mozart’s first movement and Beethoven’s first movement?

If students give the simple answer that Beethoven's movement is much longer, they’ve gone right to the heart of the matter. The movement is twice as long as any movement his first audience had ever heard. This was their first indication that they were hearing something markedly new.

Beethoven’s first movement has been called a “character study.” If so, what sort of character is being studied?

The title Eroica tells us that something heroic is about to take place. The music itself is quick to follow. While Mozart's movement begins conventionally slow and soft, Beethoven blasts us immediately with two great E♭ chords, played by full orchestra. If students identify this boldness with the symphony's subject, you might ask:

Do you find similarities between the subject of the music and the subject of the painting?

In the statue in the painting, the emperor Napoleon is dressed not as himself but as an ancient Roman emperor. In Napoleon's time it was a conventional honor to depict a statesman in classical ancient garb, but students might consider:

Does it seem that the painter, working a hundred years after Napoleon's death, is doing honor to Napoleon?

There might come a number of differing answers, all quite valid. On the one hand, Napoleon is not given the dignity of full representation. On the other, this view of Napoleon makes him almost a part of the painting's very dramatic sky. Turning attention to that sky might lead to the questions:

In the painting, the sun is low on the horizon, over an unnamed sea. Is this a sunrise or a sunset?

At the end of Beethoven's movement, do you hear a rising? Or do you hear a setting?

The painter Beckwith had a hundred years of hindsight on the life of Napoleon: there had been a rise and there had been a fall.  Beethoven's symphony debuted during Napoleon's ascendancy, just a few months before his triumphal victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. If students hear a triumph over adversity at the end of the movement, they might be just as surprised as Beethoven's first audience by what follows, a Marche funebre (funeral march, also in public domain).

Someone died in that first movement, and we can only assume that it was our "hero." Napoleon himself would live for another sixteen years. Who, then, was this hero?

One listener's interpretation: The Marche funebre is followed by a Scherzo, a rustic dance, which seems to tell us simply that life goes on after funerals. Beethoven would compose another six symphonies before it was time for his own funeral. And then life went on. And so did this music.

Beethoven, in composing the Eroica, was his own hero.


Napoleon Seen Against a Sky in War and Peace

Napoleon makes his first appearance in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a way that bears similarities to Beckwith’s painting, and perhaps to Beethoven’s symphony. A protagonist of the novel, young Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, is wounded and falls at the Battle of Austerlitz, in which Napoleon’s Grand Army defeats the allied armies of Russia and Austria. Lying face up on the ground, Bolkonsky’s view has suddenly shifted rom the battle to the final view of countless numbers of war dead through the ages: the sky. Though foe to his country, Napoleon has been a personal hero to the Russian prince, who had hoped to become a great military strategist himself. Later, still on the ground, he is stirred to consciousness by the sound of the French language. It is none other than Napoleon, who has come to inspect the enemy causualties:

               “Voilà, a fine death,” said Napoleon, looking at Bolkonsky.
               Prince Andrei understood that it had been said about him, and that it was Napoleon speaking. He heard  the man who had said these words being addressed as sire. But he heard these words as if he was hearing the buzzing of a fly. He not only was not interested, he did not even notice, and at once forgot them. He had a burning in his head; he felt that he was losing blood, and he saw above him that distant, lofty, and eternal sky. He knew that it was Napoleon—his hero—but at that moment, Napoleon  seemed to him such a small, insignificant man compared with what was now happening between his soul and this lofty, infinite sky with clouds racing across it.  

                                                                              (translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

Do the clouds racing across the sky in the painting make a favorable comment on Napoleon. Or might they, as in Tolstoy, diminish Napoleon?

Conductor Kenneth Woods wrote: "Beethoven could evoke adversity like no other composer before or since, but in the first movement of the Third Symphony, hardship and struggle are clearly there to be overcome by the heroic protagonist."

Can students identify that protagonist (Napoleon, originally) as a recurring theme of the movement?

Do they hear, too, the presence of something greater (and perhaps unconquerable) in the movement, such as the sky in the painting and in Tolstoy?

What do students make of the percussive beats at about the 8:30 point of the recording? Is this conflict? Do they hear violence?

At about the 11:40 point, do they hear suspense?

If so, how is the suspense achieved?

Suspense always carries a hope for one outcome over another. Napoleon's hopes were fulfilled at Austerlitz, but Austerlitz was not his final battle. Tolstoy's Austerlitz scene comes early in a famously long novel. And Beethoven's movement is only the first movement in a famously long symphony.

L' Empereur

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Bust of Beethoven

Smithsonian American Art Museum