If the Enlightenment was a movement which started among a tiny elite and slowly spread
to make its influence felt throughout society, Romanticism was more widespread both in
its origins and influence. No other intellectual/artistic movement has had comparable
variety, reach, and staying power since the end of the Middle Ages.
Beginning in Germany and England in the 1770s, by the 1820s it had swept through
Europe, conquering at last even its most stubborn foe, the French. It traveled quickly to
the Western Hemisphere, and in its musical form has triumphed around the globe, so that
from London to Boston to Mexico City to Tokyo to Vladivostok to Oslo, the most
popular orchestral music in the world is that of the romantic era. After almost a century
of being attacked by the academic and professional world of Western formal concert
music, the style has reasserted itself as neoromanticism in the concert halls. When John
Williams created the sound of the future in
it was the sound of 19th-century
Romanticism--still the most popular style for epic film soundtracks.
Beginning in the last decades of the 18th century, it transformed poetry, the novel, drama,
painting, sculpture, all forms of concert music (especially opera), and ballet. It was
deeply connected with the politics of the time, echoing people's fears, hopes, and
aspirations. It was the voice of revolution at the beginning of the 19th century and the
voice of the Establishment at the end of it.
This last shift was the result of the triumph of the class which invented, fostered, and
adopted as its own the romantic movement: the bourgeoisie. To understand why this
should have been so, we need to look more closely at the nature of the style and its
Folklore and Popular Art
Some of the earliest stirrings of the Romantic movement are conventionally traced back
to the mid-18th-century interest in folklore which arose in Germany--with Jakob and
Wilhelm Grimm collecting popular fairy tales and other scholars like Johann Gottfried
von Herder studying folk songs--and in England with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele
treating old ballads as if they were high poetry. These activities set the tone for one
aspect of Romanticism: the belief that products of the uncultivated popular imagination
could equal or even surpass those of the educated court poets and composers who had
previously monopolized the attentions of scholars and connoisseurs.
Whereas during much of the 17th and 18th centuries learned allusions, complexity and
grandiosity were prized, the new romantic taste favored simplicity and naturalness; and
these were thought to flow most clearly and abundantly from the "spontaneous"
outpourings of the untutored common people. In Germany in particular, the idea of a