What was the War of the Romantics?

How two prominent 19th century German composers were at loggerheads when it came to the philosophy of music

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Classical music was something of a battleground in 19th-century Germany, with composers fierce about protecting their own particular aesthetic and approach.

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During the period now known as the War of the Romantics Brahms was seen to be at the head of the ‘absolute music’ camp, which revered musical forms and tonal structures, building on a tradition from Haydn to Schumann. Liszt dubbed Brahms and his followers ‘the posthumous party’ – so there’s a bit of a clue as to his views.

Liszt was at the forefront of the opposing ‘Music of the Future’. This cluster of artists felt that music should be programmatic, interact with art, poetry, literature, push the boundaries of tonality and form. Wagner and his Gesamtkunstwerk was the epitome of this school.

The touchpaper was lit in 1860, when Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim penned a manifesto against the ‘evil influence’ of the New German school. They suggested that these composers ‘regard everything great and sacred which the musical talent of our people has created up to now as mere fertiliser for the rank, miserable weeds growing from Liszt-like fantasias’.

Their words were leaked, published – and mocked. Brahms didn’t make any more public proclamations, although the critic Eduard Hanslick carried on the fight for the so-called conservative school.

Brahms went on to write four symphonies – pinnacles of the ‘pure’ music philosophy. The futurists flourished too: think of the tone poems of Richard Strauss and of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

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Still, the tussle rumbled on. As late as 1947, Schoenberg penned an essay arguing that Brahms ‘the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive’.