Mahler: Father of Modern Music:
He Led the Break with Romanticism
Romantic music, most fully developed in the work of German composers of the mid-19th century, remains a favorite with modern audiences; but it also represents the beginning of a deep stagnation and a drying up of virility and originality. By 1870 it had already become a kind of background, an illustrative “sound track,” to ideas and ideologies that were themselves losing their interest and relevance: sentimental nationalism, Wagnerian mysticism, romantic Weltschmerz. In the Italy of that time we find the opera given over to cheap sensationalism, and only the eruptions of a Verdi redeemed the genre from time to time. Russian music, hardly come into its own, had already passed through the most heterogeneous development in an attempt to remain national and at the same time assimilate modern Western style. French music, rigidly formalistic, enjoyed in Offenbach an occasional respite from the tasteless glorification of the Second Empire, but was on the whole pompous and without ambition. In Austria and Germany proper, where the fanciful ideas of romanticism flourished most luxuriantly, great composers like Brahms and Wagner, themselves guilty in part of the cult of “program music,” yet also responsible for a tremendous widening of the musical medium, spread mediocrity by their influence. A genius was badly needed to rescue music from that Victorian complacency which so often mistook idle literary fantasy for true imagination.
The French solved the problem by a characteristic compromise. Debussy, substituting vague impressions of nature for the conventional literary “program,” managed to create a kind of impersonal music whose brilliance and aloofness were frequently taken for the qualities of pure abstraction. But what Debussy actually did was split the evolution of Western music in two: his own path was that of sensuous detachment; the other and later path became expressionism, exemplified in the work of such a composer as Anton Bruckner, who brought romantic music to a more personal level, making it the vehicle not of ideas but of individual—and often eccentric—emotion. The consequences of this split are felt today no less than when it first became apparent.
About the Author