Biedermeier Culture (David Leung)
Few historians will deny that employing the single term “Romantic period” to characterize the European music of the 19th century, at least in the first half of the century, is problematic. While Hugo Riemann recognizes the presence of anti-Romantic or non-Romantic trends in music, one of his contemporaries, Walter Niemann, speaks of the “near-Romantic” composers such as Sphor and Kuhlau, who were in a lesser rank, though they also composed within this Romantic period. Such style has attracted greater scholarly attention in the recent studies of German literary, art history, and music history, and has been labelled the “Biedermeier” style, which emerged in the year immediately following the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. The Biedermeier style is characterized as a retreat from Romantic striving and pathos, an abhorrence of excess in all forms, and a love of bourgeois tranquility, and it also concerns the things of everyday, modesty, decorum a reverence for the past, and the idea of self-improvement. Carl Dahlhaus, a modern German Musicologist, regards Biedermeier as a kind of culture and an artistic life which coincided with the 19th century Romanticism as its sister movement.
Since the intrinsic value of Biedermeier is “realistic”, rustic, domestic, and in favor of restoring the revered past, the Biedermeier music is based upon the classical model enchanted with somewhat noble simplicity and elegance, which easily associates with the Mozartean beauty. The Biedermeier thematic melody tends to favor the uses of classical topos and the phrases are usually short-breathed, easily assimilated with turns of phrase and gesture borrowed from the past. The graceful ornaments commonly found in music often retain much of the shape and expressive gestures of their Mozartean antecedents and are more concerns of an attractive melodic surface than an expression of a strong personal feeling. Even the employment of chromatic materials in music tends to be localized (within a diatonic framework) and ornamental, more than structural. As a result, at the turn of the 18th century when Romanticism started to play a leading role in all kinds of art, the Biedermeier music was written to conform to the stylistic expectation of 19th century “public”, and to embody the cultural aspiration of the conservative side of the society. Its essence and values originate in its appeal to and its comprehensibility by the rising middle class. Through the Biedermeier music, the disappearing musical conventions of the Classical era reappeared and were restored in a nostalgic haze, by which the aesthetics and core values of the music of the previous era thus were temporarily redeemed.
David Leung (theorydavid)