It was the year Rossini premiered an opera that was such a disaster, it first seemed destined for the pile of flops produced by many opera composers of the day in the highly competitive box-office environment that was Italian opera (despite opening to bad reviews, The Barber of Seville quickly became one of the most popular operas ever!)
It was rough year for Beethoven, now 45, becoming mired in the legal proceedings over the guardianship of his late brother’s son, a process that would involve much time as well as creative energy, not to mention over a year of constant illness referred to as “inflammatory fever.” He wrote very little between 1816 and 1818, a two-year fallow period very unusual for a composer who’d been intensely active, constantly producing mature masterpieces for the previous 15 years or so – giving rise to rumors that the Great Beethoven had written himself out.” Things were looking bleak.
It was a busy year for Franz Schubert, too. He turned 19 that year and, that fall, turned down for a decent teaching job in what is now modern Slovenia (then part of the Austrian Empire), he moved out of his family’s home to live with a friend which set him on a track for independent living (though rarely successful). The following year, he would meet a singer who would make his songs well known to a larger audience in Vienna. Things were looking good.
The year before, Napoleon, having escaped from exile on the Italian island of Elba and regained his throne as Emperor of the French, was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. From there, the victorious English sent him off to exile on a more distant island – St. Helena – located over 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa in the South Atlantic, a volcanic rock about 5 miles by 10 miles. Things were looking... well, over...
There was another volcanic rock that would’ve been in the news in 1815 if Europeans had access to the kind of news reporting we’re used to today: dateline, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). On April 10th, 1815, after several days of increasingly violent eruptions, the long-dormant volcano Mt. Tambora erupted: the whole mountain turned into “a flowing mass of liquid fire” which would later be described as “the Vesuvius of the East.”
The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 is often described as the most dramatic volcanic eruption in modern history, its impact felt around the world, but Tambora in 1815 released four times the energy associated with Krakatoa. It is referred to as the “largest observed eruption in human history.”
While we talk of “global warming” (or more correctly, “climate change”) today, the ash spewed by Tambora spread across the northern hemisphere and caused what is referred to as “The Year Without Summer.”
The biggest impact was in the Northeast and in Western Europe. Temperatures went below freezing in New England throughout May and there were significant snowfalls during June (Quebec had a foot of snow in June). Lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania froze over in August.
Crop failures in New England helped spur a migration to find better farmland in the American Midwest.
It was not all “wintry,” however: it could be 95° the next day, then dip to near-freezing a few hours later.
The winter of 1816-1817 was also bitterly cold with low temperatures of –27° recorded in New York City.
Similar weather-related problems were recorded across China (in addition to increased flooding) with an outbreak of cholera (the result of serious flooding) that spread from India to Moscow. In Western Europe, there was an increase in rainfall which, in addition to the cooler than usual temperatures, led to considerable crop failures from Ireland and Spain to Central Europe.
That year, between 10,000 and 15,000 people left Vermont, for example, hoping to find a more suitable climate for farming, creating population issues across New England. Many farms there were also abandoned because more people were now migrating to newly industrialized cities in search of factory jobs.
Given the scarcity of oats to feed horses in Europe, Karl Drais, a German inventor, began working on alternate modes of transportation, resulting in 1817 with the unveiling of what later became known as a “velocipede,” the forerunner of the bicycle. Originally a “running machine,” it had two wheels that were propelled by the rider “pushing along the ground as in regular walking or running” (pedals were added later).
Justus von Liebig, a chemist who grew up during this time and whose family had been greatly affected by the summer’s resulting famine in Central Germany, later did research in plant nutrition and introduced chemical fertilizers.
In July, 1816, a miserably cold and wet holiday in Switzerland resulted in three vacationing writers deciding to amuse themselves by seeing who could write the best Gothic horror story (then the rage). The result was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lord Byron’s fragmentary tale was later appropriated by fellow traveler John Polidori who wrote The Vampire in 1819, a precursor of “Dracula.”
One thing associated with this volcanic eruption – the ash-cloud – spread a dry, sulfurous fog that tinged the air red and created rather odd and sometimes brilliant light effects at sunrise and sunset.
It’s interesting to note that the English painter, J.M.W. Turner, then 40, began painting “atmospheric” nature scenes which featured brilliant lighting effects like his “Eruption of Vesuvius” in 1817. These swirls of light and dark (often heightened by brilliant reds and yellows) would become a feature of his mature style.
|Turner: Eruption of Vesuvius (1817)|
It’s difficult, sometimes, for people to compare musical styles to artistic styles: while we think of Classical Music giving way in 1800 for Romantic Music as I was taught, I’m now seeing textbooks that say Romantic Music begins anywhere from 1820 to 1825.
This makes more sense, if you consider who – other than Beethoven – was composing then and what their music sounded like. We think of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony starting the new era with a bang but really, it had little impact on most other composers who continued to write in a more Classical style familiar to lovers of Haydn (moreso than Mozart who was, by and large, overlooked except for a handful of pieces).
But I’ll get into that in a later post.
The thing is, very often stylistic developments in music are not concurrent with stylistic developments in art or literature. There are “romantic” paintings from the late-18th Century just as there are “classical” paintings still being painted well into the 19th.
But then this overlap is familiar to music lovers who sometimes are confused that Schoenberg and Stravinsky, at the forefront of the New Music Bandwagon in the early 1900s, were competing, in a sense, with composers like Richard Strauss or Puccini or Rachmaninoff or Sibelius who were writing melodic, emotional music – compared to the abstractions and atonal works of what is still considered “contemporary music” almost a century later.
And the emergence of a style like Turner’s didn’t mean he was embraced by other painters or became a leader with a huge following of admirers and imitators. In this way, he might be comparable to Beethoven (accepting the fact Turner never earned the kind of posthumous reputation Beethoven would).
One of the hallmarks of the Romantic style was a love of nature and landscape paintings – often with humanity reduced to almost nothing or completely absent, and often featuring the ruins of the past to point out the contrast between man’s achievements versus nature’s longevity. Others painted beautiful scenes full of farms, cows, fields and ponds.
|John Constable: Wivenhoe Park (1816)|
|Francis Danby: Romantic Woodland (1824)|
This is a different kind of woodland world – less a refuge than a psychological confrontation with our fears of the unknown – different from what we experienced in the nature setting inspiring Beethoven’s 6th Symphony in 1806, his “Pastoral” Symphony with its “pleasant impressions upon arriving in the countryside,” bird-calls and merrymakings of the peasants followed by a thunderstorm and a song of thanksgiving after the storm. Here, it seems more ominous, two small children lost in a dark wood, perhaps reminding us of our worst fears and childhood nightmares.
Turner was described by fellow painter John Constable (whose famous “Haywain,” speaking of famous landscapes, was painted in 1821), sitting next to him at a Royal Academy dinner, as being “uncouth but [he] has a wonderful range of mind.” Another great painter of the day, Eugene Delacroix, described him as "silent, even taciturn, morose at times, close in money matters, shrewd, tasteless, and slovenly in dress."
When I asked my students if that last description of Turner reminded them of anyone we’d talked about, one said, “Beethoven!”
Whether Turner's painting of Vesuvius was inspired by delayed news of the eruption of Mt. Tambora or not, I can’t say. He had already been fascinated by light even before 1816: his famous “Hannibal Crossing the Alps” with its barely visible elephant dwarfed by storm clouds and either a blizzard or an avalanche was painted in 1812, the year of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia (remember, like Hannibal, Napoleon had crossed the Alps to invade Italy in the 1790s: there’s a likely allegorical reference to Hannibal’s fate and the long-for demise of Napoleon’s grip on Europe and the constant warfare with England).
Another historical event also influenced Turner’s style: the Industrial Revolution.
Just as the invention of the printing press had a major impact on literature and music and just as the Internet has influenced our own lives today, the Industrial Revolution which began in England in the 1760s transformed life in the 19th Century. We’re still dealing with its impact today, both in terms of its social and personal influences as well as in environmental issues.
In 1839, Turner presented his painting The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last birth to be broken up which is clearly more than an image of a glorious old ship. Almost a ghost ship, it represents, allegorically speaking, the Past, being hauled to its destruction by the Future, the dark steam-powered tug-boat.
And then there’s the railroad – initially intended to take coal from the mines to the factories for processing – which had become a form of public transportation in the 1820s (perhaps this too had something to do with the impact of crop failures and the necessary feed to fuel horses, the standard form of transportation at the time?).
England had its first intercity railway in 1830 between the industrial cities of Liverpool and Manchester and by the 1850s, England had over 7,000 miles of railroads. The Great Western Railroad (in England) opened its first line in 1838 and J. M. W. Turner painted one of his most famous paintings, Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway in 1844:
Considering the almost unintelligible aspects of Turner’s scenes in his later paintings, as far as his contemporaries would be concerned – people used to art being “representational” rather than ambiguous and indecipherable – it’s also easy to understand how he fits in with the development of what became known in France as “Impressionism” which began to develop only a couple decades after Turner’s last paintings. Whether he was a direct influence or not, I’m not sure, but quite often new stylistic ideas – creative artists trying to find new ways of expressing themselves – evolve independently or along parallel paths.
If, to put it differently by misapplying Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion (1686), “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” we could say that for every stylistic concept an artist may have, substituting “concept” for “action,” there will always be someone trying to figure out a different way of achieving the same thing or a different thing or, more importantly for the development of new artistic ideas, of achieving the opposite.
If you look at Constable’s landscapes, for instance, and look at his exact contemporary Turner’s landscapes, you have two opposing viewpoints of what a landscape could be. One is “representational” or realistic, the other is “impressionistic” or only vaguely representational, if representational at all. The one is comparable to a photograph – we may think it very pretty – and the other requires the viewer to “interpret” what the artist himself interprets from what he sees, a suggestion of something rather than a specific something.
In a sense, this non-representational style is more interactive, engaging the viewer in the re-creative process. One is “passive” – we look at it and enjoy it; the other may be “active” – we become involved in trying to figure out “what it means.”
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The French poet Stephen Mallarmé once said that naming an object takes away its power: “to suggest is to dream.” Poets and painters – and later, musicians – broke down the boundaries of reality (or at least, standard images of reality) by suggesting an image, whether through some kind of ambiguity or other implications.
In a sense, this has been in poetry and literature for a long time – from the days of biblical parables to poetic allegories and use of symbols of the 19th Century (the image of a black crow implying impending death, for instance; of black being evil against good’s pure white).
|1902 Illustration for "Moby-Dick"|
As an example, take Herman Melville’s novel (published in 1851) Moby-Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of a white whale. On the surface, it is simply an exciting story about a whaling expedition gone wrong. On the interactive, interpretive level (engaging the right brain), readers might see it as something deeper. Usually, we think “the eternal struggle between good and evil,” especially considering all the Bible-thumping rhetoric included within the tale – and considering Captain Ahab’s name is that of an idol-worshipping biblical king who opposed the prophet Elijah and whose wife was the ignominious queen, Jezebel.
On the surface, it would seem Ahab’s search for revenge against the whale pits a wounded man against a destructive beast but then the usual symbols for good and evil are reversed: Ahab is always dressed in black, the whale is atypically white. So therefore we tend to re-interpret this as man against nature, nature being good and the general whaling industry (Ahab) is evil.
(Of course, I also remember reading in college how one commentator saw it as an allegory about the railroad and the destruction of the American West – wait, what…? – despite the fact the Federal land grant program to westward rail expansion didn’t actually begin until 1855, four years after Melville published his novel, but hey… Perhaps a little too much ‘right brain,’ there…)
So, given this interpretive involvement between artist and audience, consider some of these other paintings as the 19th Century progressed:
|Turner: Seascape with Sea Monsters (1845)|
If this painting by J. M. W. Turner, one of his last, was a beach scene called “Seascape with Sea-Monsters” painted in 1845, six years before his death, consider these two more “representational” nature paintings:
|Thomas Cole: "The Picnic" (1846)|
|Eduard Manet: "Luncheon on the Grass" (1863)|
In these two paintings, we see two different approaches to the same apparent subject: a picnic (though Manet’s was originally called “The Bather”). Cole’s focus is more on nature and the smaller human figures encompassed by it; Manet’s is more on the people in the center with nature being reduced to a setting.
It’s interesting that we hear so much about how controversial Manet’s painting was: because of the nude woman sitting with two fully clothed men? No, actually: because it “glorified” the wooded park on the edge of Paris where young men went to meet prostitutes. Art in past centuries were full of naked or scantily clad people, but if he had called this “Picking up hookers in the park on Saturday,” it might have been, if nothing else, more honest.
|Edgar Degas: L’Absynthe (1873)|
In this portrait, we don’t see aristocrats or rich bourgeois people but common everyday people that you might find in the tavern down the street. The title refers to a popular distilled alcoholic drink that was described as an “addictive psychoactive drug” and its addicts as “sodden and benumbed.” There could be a deeper story behind these two if he had just called it "In a tavern" – but the title implies a specific viewpoint. During this decade, Degas went from being a “historical painter” to one employing common people – milliners, laborers as well as dancers – another stylistic change-of-focus.
While landscapes – or cityscapes, for the urban life – became hazier with painters like Claude Monet (not to be confused with Eduard Manet), giving rise to the term “Impressionism,”
|Claude Monet: “Impression: Sunrise” (1872)|
|Gustave Caillebotte: "Paris Street, Rainy Day" (1877)|
Caillebotte considered himself an Impressionist even if his style is often “less impressionistic” than many paintings by his colleagues. He was also interest in early photography as a form of artistic expression.
On the other hand, Georges Seurat developed a “pointillistic” style where, rather than using brush strokes, he created colors out of combinations of dots (points) in various colors. His most famous painting is the “Sunday in the Park on the Isle Le Grande Jatte” painted in the mid-1880s. For example, the woman with the parasol (and the monkey) is wearing a hat with a purple flower. If you would closely at the hat, you see it is comprised of red, blue, purple and lavender dabs.
|Seurat: "Sunday in the park..."|
His style was also controversial – I suppose most people couldn’t see why bother with such a minuscule painting technique, though it’s interesting to point out, seeing it from a distance, you’re not aware of the dots as you are when you look at it closely. On the other hand, we see this technique in the colored comic strips of newspapers in the late-20th Century.
This is the foot of the man wearing a top hat and holding a cane in the lower left corner of the painting.
A few years after Georges Seurat painted this, Claude Debussy was composing this:
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His “Claire de lune” (Moonlight) may be one of his most famous pieces. It is not as musically “ambiguous” as we might expect with the term “impressionism” in painting – it is still tonal and still has harmonic motion similar to what listeners would’ve expected at the time of Brahms and those following the legacy of Beethoven (remember, his “Moonlight” Sonata was given that nickname not by the composer but by a German poet in 1836, nine years after the composer's death).
However, things began to change – evolve, we might say: a few years later, he composed this, inspired by the lazy summer afternoon day-dreams of a faun (that Greek figure, half-man, half-goat).
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Here, Debussy stretches the phrases with cadences that never seem to resolve and though it’s tonal, it doesn’t sound as distinct as a “classical” composer would have used the concept of tonality and the harmonic motion of traditional chords.
Everything here is for the imagery, washes of color that suggest a mood and the image’s essence rather than its form and structure or melodic development (though there are recognizable recurring elements and melodic contrasts with variety provided by dynamics and the expectations of frequent fragmentary repetitions – for example, 1:55 to 2:17).
In the next decade, with his short miniature “Preludes” for piano, Debussy composed on entitled “Voiles” or “Sails,” inspired by boats with their sails wafting in the breeze.
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In this piece, Debussy avoids using traditional chords in traditional ways. In fact, he’s not even using a traditional major or minor scale. Instead of the standard patterns of whole-steps and half-steps that composers have been using for centuries, he’s using one built entire of whole tones which, unlike traditional scales, has no dominant chord available (like a C Chord moving to a G Chord, the most obvious tonal relationship defining C Major).
This tonal ambiguity gives the music a sense of “suspended animation” if animated at all, a kind of static quality suggested more by different layers of sound and grounded especially by the constantly repeated single note in the lowest register, as if everything above it is moving in different layers of time as well.
When it ends, it doesn’t really seem to ‘end’ in the sense of resolving any tension. In fact, there’s hardly any real tension at all – just as we might not feel any tension, lying in the grass on a sunny day watching boats on the river, their sails wafting in the breeze (unless you think maybe that low repeated pitch is kind of ominous) – rather than resolving and ‘ending,’ it merely stops. We have closed our eyes, perhaps fallen asleep, or gotten up and wandered off to receive our next impression…
- Dick Strawser