Music, although the most abstract of the arts, cannot be understood apart from society. This is true both of musical forms (whether a composer writes sonatas, symphonies or operas), the instruments used, and also of the content, the human experience conveyed through melody, rhythm and harmony. Clearly, that experience is shaped by the historical period. Music, like any art, tells us truths about the world through its impact on our emotional life.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) can both be described as Romantic classics. They are classical in so far as they compose in the traditional forms established by the great classical Viennese trinity: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But their music is Romantic in its content. Schubert's music (like that of the later Beethoven) marks the dawn of Romanticism, Brahms the dusk.
The period that forms the background to Romanticism in general was shaped by the three great revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: the American, French and industrial revolutions.
The music of the great classical composers Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven charted the march of humanity to its self- emancipation. They express a universal spirit, the struggle for freedom from the old oppression for example, Mozart in The Magic Flute (1791), Beethoven in Fidelio (1806). These Viennese classics spoke a universal musical language.
The bourgeois leaders of the French Revolution led the masses to victory proclaiming 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'. But when the army of the discontented petty bourgeoisie tried to put the slogan into practice, their leaders dispelled any notion that they were ushering in a radical democracy.
The rise of Napoleon, though consolidating certain progressive trends, witnessed the rise of a new despotism and spirit of French nationalism. In 1804 Beethoven dedicated his 'Eroica' Symphony to the republican leader Napoleon but, on hearing that he had proclaimed himself emperor, tore off the dedication.
Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 at the hands of Britain and the autocratic monarchies of Prussia and Austria ushered in an era of reaction that consolidated the old regimes. The radical hopes of a generation were destroyed. In 1820 Schubert himself was arrested with a group of student rebels and held for a few days.
Meanwhile in Britain a new, explosive social and economic system was being born through the destruction of the old landed communities. Rural workers were uprooted from the land and herded into the new urban factories where they were forced to sell their labour to the rising class of industrial capitalists.
The Romantic movement in the arts was a protest against the new society that placed profit above human needs. It sprang from the longing for a new social unity to overcome the isolation of the individual lost in the unfamiliar, cold and inhospitable world of powerful market forces. It was in part backward looking, idealising the community of medieval feudalism. The German Romantics were disgusted by the figure of the bourgeois capitalist and the new society he was creating. But they couldn't yet see in an embryonic working class any alternative. Lacking hope for a better future, they harked back to the pre-capitalist past. This urge to recreate the old community led Romantic composers to cultivate the folk song which in turn, with the rise of 19th century nationalism, encouraged the emergence of national schools of music.
Thus Romantic music broke the mould of classical form: for example, the three or four movement sonata or symphony, each movement passing through definite phases such as main theme, development, second subject, recapitulation and coda (conclusion). The stress was now on the expressive content of music at the expense of traditional form, the composer giving free rein to ideas, feelings or fantasies.
Schubert, a native of Vienna, matured in a new era when musicians were no longer tied to the court, nobility or church but composed either for a bourgeois audience or for themselves. He lived the life of a rootless bohemian, staying with different members of his circle of close friends and colleagues before whom many of his works were first performed. Unable to obtain secure employment, he was supported by his friends at times of extreme hardship. Incredibly, outside this circle he was almost completely unknown, with only one public performance of his music during his lifetime. In a mere 14 years of composing, he wrote 900 pieces of music.
Schubert's music is more Austrian, or rather Viennese, than that of his three great classical Viennese predecessors. He virtually created the new German song (Lied), laying its foundation stone at the age of 17 with Gretchen at The Spinning Wheel. He wrote over 600 songs, which, in their melodic simplicity and emphasis on feeling, are akin to folk songs.
Apart from songs, Schubert wrote much chamber and piano music, seven masses and nine symphonies. His achievement is all the more extraordinary in that he lived and composed in the shadow of Beethoven, 27 years his senior, whose influence dominated the European musical scene. Strangely, they met only once, in March 1827, when Beethoven was dying. Schubert's early period was perhaps focused on songs rather than instrumental music because of Beethoven's supremacy in this field. In Schubert's early instrumental music, he adopted Mozart and Haydn as models rather than Beethoven, again perhaps because of a need to distance himself from his mighty contemporary.
With the flowering of his talent, however, he developed a unique and original 'free' style. An important Schubert trademark is frequent modulation, moving through a succession of keys to express sudden emotional shifts. In the course of this, he often passes from minor to major, conveying a change of mood from poignancy to playfulness or from sadness to consolation.
Whereas previously, melody had been one element in the development of a piece, with Schubert it becomes an end in itself and he produces an apparently endless stream of exquisite tunes. His instrumental works all exhibit the influence of his song writing, with its melodic inventiveness and rich harmonies. For example, the 'Trout' Piano Quintet, whose main theme is also a song, reveals Schubert at his most spontaneously joyful. His Death and the Maiden String Quartet expresses the dramatic power of many songs.
In his later works, Schubert achieved an extraordinary depth of expression, perhaps best described as tragic lyricism. There is a sense of desolation, as though he is mourning a lost world of human unity. At other times he achieves a profound serenity, as though glimpsing the capacity of human beings to create a world based on love and solidarity. Among these final masterpieces are the absurdly named 'Unfinished' Symphony, the 'Great' Ninth Symphony, his sublime String Quintet in C Major, the last three piano sonatas and his final three song cycles, The Miller's Daughter, Winter's Journey and Swan Song. The latter (1828) turned out to be Schubert's farewell.
Brahms was born in Hamburg. At the age of 29, he moved to Vienna where he spent the rest of his life. He was a conservative, an admirer of Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor who led the movement for German unification to success in 1870. As a musician, Brahms has been scorned as the epitome of 19th century bourgeois complacency. This reputation developed when the mid-19th century world of music became sharply divided between the 'Neo-German' school of Liszt and Wagner, and 'traditionalists' such as Brahms.
Romantic artists admired the past. In Brahms' case, this led him to adhere to the old classical forms. His sonatas, symphonies and concertos conformed to the by then traditional style established by Beethoven. In his orchestral writing, Brahms was haunted by the ghost of Beethoven. It took him 20 years to complete his first symphony. Its fourth movement pays tribute to Beethoven with an echo of his Ninth Symphony's Ode to Joy. Indeed, when first performed, Brahms' symphony was described as Beethoven's Tenth.
At the same time, his music breaks the classical mould by using traditional forms to achieve a Romantic effect. For example, he enlarges the scope of classical forms. Instead of the usual two themes, his opening movements often have three or four, full of melodic invention. An early example is his First Piano Concerto which has the open-ended, unrounded themes of Romantic music.
Hence the content of Brahms' music is infused with a Romantic spirit. His symphonies and concertos, chamber, piano and vocal music have remained relevant and popular because of their emotional power. His music is full of tension and contrast, moving from passages of dramatic force to ones of melancholic brooding. Each of his four symphonies establishes this balance between 'outer' and 'inner' elements, between public eloquence and private yearning. And despite official opposition to Wagner, there are distinct traces of his influence.
There are, in addition, suggestions of modernism in his work. Schoenberg, founder of the atonal 20th century Second Viennese School, identified, in particular, Brahms' techniques of deriving extended musical material from embryonic themes. Brahms has thus been dubbed a 'Janus' (the Roman God facing two ways), who points to both past and future.
Brahms has been described as a man of the people because of the place occupied in his work by dances, lullabies and folk songs, particularly Hungarian gypsy melodies. Brahms' songs reveal the influence of German music and of Schubert whom he resembles in his melodic originality.
This highlights the tragedy at the heart of Brahms' music on the one hand, his urge to be close to the people, on the other, his lack of faith in them. Brahms' pessimism about human destiny, his scepticism about radical social change, was shaped by several historical factors. He came to artistic maturity in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. The following 25 years were the age of capital, of liberal bourgeois supremacy with its apparently unbounded material progress. Though the great depression of 1873-96 dented bourgeois confidence, the last 25 years of Brahms' life remained a period of ruling class ascendancy in continental Europe following the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871. We thus see an interesting contradiction in Brahms. While looking to the past, he also captures the essence of his age, the relentless march of bourgeois materialism with its corrosion of human solidarity. And the hints of modernism anticipate the upheavals of the 20th century.
Both Schubert and Brahms, in their different ways, express the search for love and community in a world dominated by the bourgeoisie. It is a world in which the working class has not yet attained the unity and confidence enabling it to bid for the leadership of society 200 years after the birth of Schubert, 100 years after the death of Brahms, we live in a world in which the values that inspired their music can now be realised.