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the sum total of the nation's elements, functioned as a kind of "eternal present," which was

embodied in the folk song. Thus, the use of folk songs or a stylized folk idiom acquired a symbolic
significance in addition to its purely musical value.
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One of the most famous programmatic works of the century can easily be approached in terms of
its preoccupation with national significance. Smetana's Vltava (The Moldau) uses the image of a
flowing river as a symbol of national unification. There are several types of water imagery, from
the opening sextuplets, which represent mountain brooks, to the familiar tune that (according to the
program) represents the broad river, to the slow trills that represent the rippling sound of the river
at night, to the metaphorical rapids that conclude the work. In addition, the folk-stylization of the
"wedding scene" reflects the eternal present of rural Czech culture, while the well-known Vysehrad
theme ostensibly evokes the deeper recesses of Czech history. It is noteworthy that the means used
to evoke national character are not necessarily nationally distinctive. Thus, while the wedding party
in Vltava is represented by a stylized Czech dance, the Vysehrad theme, a symbol of Czech selfdetermination, is a rather commonplace harmonic progression. I-VI-V6-I (Ex. 9). By such devices
composers throughout Europe and the United States used orchestral music as the primary way of
expressing ideas about the nation.
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The association between the program and the avant-garde is most clearly seen in the compositions
of Liszt and Wagner, who created an almost absolute equation between musical phenomena and
extramusical states. In his preface to Album d'un voyageur (later reshaped as Annees de
pelerinage). Liszt articulates his fundamental attitude toward musical expression:
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As instrumental music progresses, develops, and frees itself from its first bonds, it tends
more and more to take on an ideal quality of the kind that is the perfection of the plastic
arts; it tends more and more to become not a simple combination of sounds but a poetic
language, more apt perhaps than poetry itself to express all that which transcends within
us our customary horizons, all that which escapes analysis, all that which relates to the
inaccessible depths of imperishable desires and longings for the infinite.
With the creation of the genre of the symphonic poem Liszt capitulated to the romantic tendency to
ascribe eternal significance to almost everything connected with the creative process and to espouse

an approach to the program often based on a tenuous connection between it and the work itself.
Though it has become increasingly clear that Liszt is one of the critically important musicians of
the nineteenth century, it was Richard Wagner who more than any other figure was responsible for
changing contemporary attitudes toward music and the way it was perceived. As such, no matter
what one might think of the quality of his works, Wagner may be the only artist in Western history
whose influence is impossible to overestimate. Though not known as a composer of independent
orchestral works, he forged the most potent and enduring link between abstract musical ideas and
the literary image; and in this process the orchestra was his main ally.
In Wagner's writings and works we see outsized examples of all the tendencies and views
previously mentioned. For example, we have seen the obvious connection between changing
attitudes toward music and the philosophy of romanticism. Wagner seized on the most notable
characteristics of romanticism, enlarging and synthesizing them. The romantic fascination with
longing and death becomes, in Tristan und Isolde, a virtual monument to them; the tendency to
dwell on the mysterious and faraway leads to Venusberg, Nibelheim, and Klingsor's enchanted
Earlier in the century composers made the first tentative efforts toward self-conscious
communication with their mass patron. Wagner communicated with the audience on a grand scale,
not only through his massive music dramas, employing an enormous orchestra, but also through the
thousands of pages of articles, notes, and commentary that accompanied them. No artistnot even
George Bernard Shawwas more eager to articulate his reasons for every aesthetic choice. For
example, the assumption that the orchestra could communicate ideas by itself is outlined in an
almost axiomatic manner in this manifesto from The Artwork of the Future: "The orchestra
indisputably possesses a faculty of speech, and the creations of modern instrumental music have
disclosed it to us."
Other composers may have used extramusical ideas to mask an intentional break with the past.
Wagner goes one step further in this romantically tinged disclaimer from A Communication to My
It thus could no more occur to me to rack with willful outward canons the musical form
that sprang self-bidden from the very nature of these scenes, to break its natural mold by
violent grafting in of conventional slips of operatic song. Thus I by no means set out with
the fixed purpose of a deliberate iconoclast to destroy . . . the prevailing operatic forms
of aria, duet, and so on; but the omission of these forms followed from the very nature of
the stuff, (pp. 267-268)
Hence, Wagner's break with the past was to be seen not as a willful assault on accepted tradition
but as a carefully argued necessity, arising out of obvious historical developments:
Although Wagner's impact was clearly international, he was also one of the preeminent
nationalistic composers of the century. Wagner fulfills all the interests and characteristics of the so-

called nationalist composer: the use of national historical events and legends, the veneration of
national song, the preoccupation with the nation's future, the creation of a kind of eternal present,
and ultimately the primacy of the nation-state. All of these are gathered together in his declaration of
German art in "German Art and German Policy":
Universal as the mission of the German folk is seen to have been, since its entrance into
history, equally universal are the German spirit's aptitudes for art; the rebirth of the
German spirit, which happened in the second half of the preceding century, has shown us
an example of the activation of this universality in the weightiest domains of art; the
example of that rebirth's evaluation to the end of ennobling the public spiritual life of the
German folk, as also to the end of founding a new and truly German civilization, (p. 443)
Wagner's philosophy may be considered the epitome of an extremely self-conscious (and selfaggrandizing) attitude toward musical meaning. On the one hand, he outlined a quasi-political
artistic program (the unification of the arts, the glorification of Germany, the artwork of the future,
universal drama), and on the other hand, he provided a series of musical symbols and motives,
which he manipulated to produce an immediate effect or linked with long-range harmonic movement
to create quasi-narrative musical metaphors, notably in Tristan und Isolde. Indeed, it has become a
commonplace to assert that Tristan und Isolde may be considered as much a large programmatic
orchestral work with obbligato singing as it is an opera.
Not content to master the present, Wagner attempted to re-create the past through the power and
magnetism of his writings. His discussions of Haydn and Mozart and his revisionist description of
Beethoven's 'artistic development turned the history of music into a series of incidents paving the
way for himself. Not content to actually visit with Beethoven in a fictional essay and lay claim to
the dawning of the romantic age, he reached back all the way to ancient Greece in order to reveal
parallels with his own efforts.
In a sense, Wagner reached into the future as well, for our entire society thinks about the
relationship between musical and extramusical phenomena in a basically Wagnerian manner.
Certainly the way we have been conditioned to respond to music in film, television, and such new
media as music videos would tend to support such a conclusion. The equation between discrete
musical figures and events, stares of mind, and characters has become a virtual truism.


In 1840, Josef Danhauser painted a "Reminiscence of Liszt" set in a Paris salon. Liszt is seen in
youthful profile improvising at the piano; Countess Marie d'Agoult sits huddled at his feet. Behind
him, in neat composition, are Victor Hugo, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas pere, Rossini, and
Paganini. On the far end of the piano, near an open window, stands a ridiculously oversized bust of
Beethoven, dominating a third of the painting. The seven mortals are almost shrouded, while the
head of Beethoven seems to exude a celestial glow. This work is one of the most telling pieces of
nineteenth-century iconography, for it documents the composer's change in status from artisan to

artist, from mortal to god. There is no doubt that the value

ascribed to musical works increased markedly in the first decades of the century. Since, it was
argued, music represented "eternal" things, it acquired a new kind of significance. The more
significant a thing is, the more it is thought to be worth preserving. But because one cannot easily
preserve an ephemeral substance, one must transform it into a thing, something concrete. Thus,
Beethoven's head is not only enormous, a tribute to the value of the composer's music; it is also
fixed in stone as an object of awe and worship.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the compositions of Beethoven and of those who followed
were considered not functional but, rather, almost aggressively nonfunctional; their "function" was
to be works of art. Paradoxically, as the actual purpose of musical compositions became less and
less clear, their identities seemed to become ever more concrete in the minds of critics and
audiences. During this period the substances known earlier as music or musical compositions
became canonized as works of art, while the creators of such works became canonized busts on
countless mantels and pianos, fulfilling the role of icons in a society obsessed with the loss of
religion and the significance of art.
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