Classic and Romantic Music by Friedrich Blume

Faber: London, 1979


Professor Blume offers some 100 pages on each of his two topics, which are first elaborated in general terms and then analysed in stylistic detail (rhythm, harmony, motif, forms, genres etc). The blurb, and the review it quotes, are alike awestruck at this achievement; and to the imperial tailors, no doubt, the emperor's clothes shone equally resplendent. To me, Blume's look transpicuous by their absence. Yet his articles began as editorial contributions to the great encyclopedia Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. So they must surely be authoritative on such matters as origins, background and definitions, as well as lucid and accurate? Well, let's just check. First, origins. This distinguished study shows just how the musical use of Classic and Romantic arose; so claims the copywriter. But only in his copy, not in mine, which on p.8 has no idea when Classic was first used, and on p.9 isn't sure about Romantic either, and on no page shows any disposition to find out. The nearest ap­proach is copious citation from modern secondary sources, mainly German, in a dense smokescreen from which nothing clear ever emerges. Useless to consult the “highly selec­tive” (or, as I would put it, undiscriminating) bibliography; this avowedly favours works in English, preferably easily available paperbacks, which may not be everyone's idea of the immaculate documentation covenanted on the cover.

     Definitions are even hazier. The main thesis is that Classic and Romantic together con­stitute a seamless fabric cleanly cut off from the Baroque at one end and then washed away by revolutionary currents at the other. The thinking strikes me as even more mixed than the metaphor. To its author however it “exactly corresponds to the facts”. But how can verbal labels exactly cover any such case, however adroitly they are applied and however long they have stuck? There is also something desperately artificial, not to say false, about supposed cleavages that sunder Bach from his own sons and split Strauss in two. When it suits, however, these imaginary gaps are invisibly mended; thus much post­Baroque music continues in an “unbroken­line”, while strands that were “split” on one page are inexplicably “interwoven” on the ­next. This material is so thin that even its weaver and wearer loses sight of it. Who dares say, pontificates the preface, when the age of Classicism and Romanticism died? Please, sir, you do, on p.127 and again on p.191. Typically, the two death dates differ by a decade. But no doubt both remain exactly right, because any two different things may be equal to each other. This axiom appears, perhaps by accident, on the first page, where Romantic and Classic are “two phenomena” in the first paragraph yet “one and the same phenomenon” in the second. Later it becomes an article of faith: “in a given period the one fundamental idea of creative form splits into two lines, interpenetrating and reciprocally influential, yet at the same time striving away from and contradicting each other”. In German, this may be pure Kant; in English it's more like pure humbug. And the translation on the whole favours English, despite the persistent foreign accent of such phrases (both from the same page) as “a rejection of vast import” or “an epochal turn of widest range”.

     We come finally to the clarity and accuracy of the analytical commentary. The points are often penetrating, sometimes illuminating. But they lack definition and coherence, and soon become blurred and scattered against the dark background of confusion. Thus the 19th­century lied is said to be distinctively Roman­tic. One example given is Schubert's Novalis settings. The same page says that early and middle Schubert is thoroughly Classic. But all the Novalis settings are middle Schubert (1819-20). So they must be not only clearly Clomantic but really Rassic as well; which of course amounts to exactly the same thing. Many other points look oddly askew. Thus not even a Blume can persuade me that k387 has an Andante which modulates from C into D flat; or that Haydn op.76 nos 5 and 6 exhibit astonishing key contrasts which can sensibly be described as D-f sharp-d-D or E flat-b­B-E flat; or that C. F. Schubart's 1806 Ästhetik had the greatest influence on Jean Paul. Last, but unfortunately far from least, come the lists, passim, as in this academic cadenza for the violin concerto: “Leclair, Simon le Duc and Pierre Gaviniès con­tributed to its further stylistic and violinistic development quite as much as Gaetano Pugnani, Antonio Lolli, G. M. Giornovicchi, and Giovanni Viotti, or in Germany Ernst Eichner, Carlo Giuseppe Toeschi, Franz Benda, Karl Stamitz, Ignaz Fränzl, Christian Cannabich, Johann Friedrich Eck, and many others”. There are many other such litanies. Professor Blume has long enjoyed a good press with his typical hybrid of thesaurus and theosophy; but personally I find the former far too dry and the latter far too tenuous for any lasting pleasure or profit.  


The Musical Times, Feb. 1980 (p.100) © the estate of eric sams