War of the Romantics

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The War of the Romantics is a term used by music historians to describe the aesthetic schism among prominent musicians in the second half of the 19th century. Musical structure, the limits of chromatic harmony, and program music versus absolute music were the principal areas of contention. The opposing parties crystallized during the 1850s. The conservative circle was centered on Johannes Brahms, Joseph Joachim, Clara Schumann, and the Leipzig Conservatoire which had been founded by Felix Mendelssohn. Their opponents, the radical progressives in Weimar, were represented by Franz Liszt and the members of the so-called New German School ("Neudeutsche Schule"), and by Richard Wagner. The controversy was German and Central European in origin; musicians from France, Italy, and Russia were only marginally involved. Composers from both sides looked back on Beethoven as their spiritual and artistic hero; the conservatives seeing him as an unsurpassable peak, the progressives as a new beginning in music.

The conservatives[edit]

Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim and Johannes Brahms were early key members of a conservative group of musicians. This core of supporters maintained the artistic legacy of Robert Schumann who had died in 1856.

Robert Schumann was both an enthusiastic admirer and occasional critic of Liszt and Wagner. Schumann had been a progressive critic and editor of the influential music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he founded in 1834. Schumann maintained exceptionally enthusiastic and artistically fruitful friendships with the emerging vanguard of radical romantics — Liszt in particular — as well as with musical conservatives such as Mendelssohn and Gade.

However, after Schumann sold the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik to Franz Brendel it became an enthusiastic supporter of Liszt and his circle. Clara Schumann had long been the more conservative aesthete in the Schumann marriage. She perceived the change as a slight against her husband’s legacy. The young Brahms, who had been very close to the Schumanns during Robert’s decline, also took up the cause. The conservative critic Eduard Hanslick was very influential on their behalf. Associated with them at one time or another were Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Friedrich Gernsheim, Robert Fuchs, and Karl Goldmark, among others.

Liszt, Wagner, and their followers[edit]

The key figure on the Weimar ("New German") side was Franz Liszt. The other leading composer of the group was Richard Wagner. Other notable figures siding with Liszt were the critic Richard Pohl and composers Felix Draeseke, Julius Reubke, Karl Klindworth, William Mason and Peter Cornelius. The composer and pianist Hans von Bülow supported the Liszt-Wagner side for a while but later turned to become a great admirer of Brahms, calling him the third of the Three Bs. There were several attempts, centering around Liszt, to create a lasting and formal society. The Neu-Weimar-Verein was one attempt to form a club. It lasted a few years and published minutes of their meetings. The Tonkünstler-Versammlung (Congress of Musical Artists), which first met in Leipzig in June 1859, was a more successful attempt at forming an organization. (See New German School.) It eventually led to the founding in 1861 of the Allgemeine Deutsche Musikverein (ADMV)(q.v.), the 'United German Musical Union', which espoused Liszt's musical enthusiasms.

Main disagreements[edit]

A central point of disagreement between these two groups of musicians was between traditional and new musical forms. Liszt and his circle favored new styles in writing and forms. The Leipzig/Berlin school championed the forms used by the classic masters, forms codified by musicologists such as Adolf Bernhard Marx of the early 19th century. The Weimar school increasingly used various kinds of program music (explicitly pictorial and suggestive). Liszt developed the symphonic poem. "New wine required new bottles" was his motto.

In reaction to Liszt's first symphonic poems and later by the Faust Symphony, Hanslick published a statement of principles, (On the Beautiful in Music, 1854) asserting that music in itself did not and could not represent anything explicit. It could however be used to suggest realistic impressions in the manner of Hector Berlioz, as well as impressions and feelings, such as those represented by the movement headings in the score of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. Wagner believed that this attitude was closer to Liszt's intentions than any attempts at exact pictorial representation.[1]

The conservatives' manifesto[edit]

One significant event out of many was the signing of a Manifesto against the perceived bias of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This effort, whose author was almost certainly Brahms, received at first four signatures, among them those of Brahms and Joachim, though more were canvassed and eventually more were obtained. Before the later signatories could put their names to the document, however, it found its way into the editorial offices of the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo, and from there was leaked to the Neue Zeitschrift itself, which parodied it on May 4, 1860. Two days later [2] it made its official appearance also in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo with more than twenty signatures, including Woldemar Bargiel, Albert Dietrich, Carl Reinecke, and Ferdinand Hiller.

The manifesto read:

The undersigned have long followed with regret the pursuits of a certain party, whose organ is Brendel's "Zeitschrift für Musik".
The above journal continually spreads the view that musicians of more serious endeavour are fundamentally in accord with the tendencies it represents, that they recognize in the compositions of the leaders of this group works of artistic value, and that altogether, and especially in northern Germany, the contentions for and against the so-called Music of the Future are concluded, and the dispute settled in its favour.
To protest against such misinterpretation of facts is regarded as their duty by the undersigned, and they declare that, so far at least as they are concerned, the principles stated by Brendel's journal are not recognized, and that they regard the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New German School, which in part simply reinforce these principles in practice and in part again enforce new and unheard-of theories, as contrary to the innermost spirit of music, strongly to be deplored and condemned.[3]

Signing the manifesto cost Joachim some heartache. Joachim had himself been a member of Liszt's circle at Weimar. He had left since he no longer wanted to support Liszt's artistic ideals, and regretted Wagner's influence; however, he still felt friendly towards Liszt.

The war[edit]

The 'war' was carried out through compositions, words, and even with scenes at concerts. Brahms's first piano concerto, his first orchestral piece to be performed publicly, was met with hissing when performed in Leipzig. This was its first performance to have published reviews, and perhaps influenced by the hissing, the reviews were negative.[4] Reputations were at stake and partisans sought to embarrass their adversaries with public slights; the Weimar school held an anniversary celebration of the Neue Zeitschrift in Schumann's birthplace Zwickau and conspicuously neglected to invite members of the opposing party (including Clara Schumann). Musicians on one side saw the dispute as pitting Brahms' effective and economical sonata and classical forms against some of Liszt's works which appeared in comparison almost formless. Those on the other saw, on the Lisztian side, musical form best fitting musical content, pitted against works reusing old forms without any feeling for their growth and reason.

Wagner poked fun at the conservative side in his essay On Conducting, when he portrayed them as 'a musical temperance society' awaiting a Messiah.

The attitudes of the Weimar side were also often inconsistent. By 1859 Liszt himself was becoming more interested in writing church music and embracing the conservative ideals of the Catholic Church. He retained a fascination with the music of Meyerbeer (having composed piano transcriptions of music from his operas), a composer despised by both the New German School and by Wagner (whose 1850 essay Jewishness in Music, reprinted and extended in 1868, is an anti-Meyerbeer diatribe). Moreover, Liszt's concepts of programme music, (e.g. in his symphonic poems), were diametrically opposed to Wagner's ideals of music drama as expressed in the latter's essay The Artwork of the Future.

Although actual hostility between the two sides was to subside over the years, the 'war' was a clear demarcation between what was seen to be 'classical music' and 'modern music', categories which still persist (although differently defined) to the present day.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Wagner's "Open Letter on Liszt's Symphonic Poems", 1857, Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik April 10, 1857, which originated as a letter, Feb 15 1857 to Princess Marie von Sayn-Wittgenstein (see Walker, p 231 note, paperback edition). Liszt's prefaces to the works also seem to back up this view.
  2. ^ (Walker, p 350)
  3. ^ Quoted after the translation from German in: Walker: Weimar Years, p.349.
  4. ^ Brahms, Johannes,and Avins, Styra, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 190.


  • Thorpe-Davie, Cedric. Musical Structure and Design, Dover Publications, 1995, ISBN 0-486-21629-2.
  • Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, Cornell University Press 1993, ISBN 0-8014-9721-3. pp. 338 – 367 is entitled and covers specifically The War of the Romantics, but it is a theme elsewhere.