Sturm und Drang movement: what was it and when did it take place?

Richard Wigmore delves into the world of Sturm und Drang, in which 18th-century literary and musical emotions turned tempestuous

Sturm und Drang movement: what was it and when did it take place?

Sturm und Drang – ‘Storm and Stress’. For many music-lovers the label evokes the tempestuous minor-keyed symphonies Haydn composed  around 1770: the ‘Lamentatione’ (No. 26), incorporating Gregorian plainchant; the ‘Mourning’ (No. 44); ‘La passione’ (No. 49); and the ‘Farewell’ (No. 45), whose charming associated story belies its violent intensity. Other composers of the day mined a similar vein amid reams of the brighter, more amenable works in the major. 

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When did the  Sturm und Drang movement take place?

Yet Sturm und Drang is not a term Haydn or his contemporaries would have recognised. For one thing, the chronology is wrong. The Sturm und Drang literary movement took its name from a 1776 play by Maximilian Klinger set against the background of the American Revolution. By then Haydn’s turbulent Sturm und Drang phase was already over. And whereas in music Sturm und Drang was a largely Austrian phenomenon, the writers were mainly North Germans: a group of angry young men who rejected rococo decorum and Frenchified aristocratic culture in favour of unbridled emotion and the promptings of what Goethe, the movement’s unofficial leader, called the ‘heilig, glühend Herz’ – the ‘sacred, glowing heart’. The familiar English rendering of Sturm und Drang, while neatly alliterative, is misleading. No problem with ‘Sturm’. But ‘Drang’ means ‘urge’, ‘drive’ or ‘inner compulsion’ rather than ‘stress’. It can even have sexual connotations.

‘Drang’ summed up the young Goethe. Ever eager to seize and intensify the moment, he was seen by contemporaries as ‘a man possessed’, ‘carried away by a torrent’. He set out his theatrical stall, aged 24, in 1773 with Götz von Berlichingen, in which he elevates the marauding 16th-century Franconian warrior to a chivalrous maverick whose idealism is finally broken by implacable social forces.

Inspired by the teeming historical dramas of Shakespeare, Götz von Berlichingen was the opening salvo in a series of Sturm und Drang dramas that set spontaneous feeling against rigid social convention and political injustice. Some, like Goethe’s own Egmont (for which Beethoven wrote his incidental music in 1809/10) pitting an idealistic hero against Realpolitik in the Spanish-ruled Netherlands, and Schiller’s Die Räuber (‘The Robbers’, the source of Verdi’s I masnadieri), where the robber-baron hero Karl Moor becomes a Bohemian Robin Hood, have a historical setting. Others are bitter critiques of corrupt contemporary society: Jakob Lenz’s Der Hofmeister (‘The Tutor’) and Die Soldaten, on the ruin of a jeweller’s daughter, and Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (‘Intrigue and Love’, the source of another Verdi opera, Luisa Miller), where the love between the bourgeois Luise and the aristocratic Ferdinand falls foul of the vicious ducal court.

In 1774, a year after Götz von Berlichingen, Goethe completed the quintessential Sturm und Drang poem Prometheus (whose words were later set by composers including Schubert, Wolf and others) in which the fire-stealing Titan becomes a heroic embodiment of individualism and defiance of theocratic tyranny. That same year he created an international sensation with the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’), in which the morbidly introspective hero, in love with a married woman, follows the impulses of his ‘sacred, glowing heart’. Suicide, as those familiar with Massenet’s 1887 opera will know well, is his only way out.

On his last meeting with his beloved Charlotte, Werther soulfully recites verses from Ossian. Ostensibly an ancient Gaelic minstrel, ‘Ossian’ was in fact the creation of James MacPherson, in a literary fraud that initially fooled half of Europe, Napoleon included. No matter: these doleful poems set amid the mists and mountains of Scotland – the epitome of ‘natural’, unadorned art – were cherished by Sturm und Drang writers, as was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse, where the hero finds solace for his aching heart in the wild beauties of nature.

In the 1760s, a decade before the literary Sturm und Drang, the Ossian phenomenon and the ‘back-to-nature’ philosophy of Rousseau were part of a wider European reaction to rococo refinement and the stifling etiquette of contemporary class-ridden culture. In Britain this fashion for the primitive and the anti-rational was embodied in Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry and Horace Walpole’s Gothic fantasy The Castle of Otranto: manifestations of what Edmund Burke termed ‘the sublime’, inspired by natural phenomena such as graveyards, oceans and wild mountains calculated ‘to excite the ideas of pain and danger’ – the antithesis of ‘the beautiful’, which Burke associated with clarity, reason and classical proportion.

In painting, the German Sturm und Drang is paralleled in the Gothic dungeons of Piranesi (1720-78) and the phantasmagoric visions of Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). And music? The inconvenient truth is that the wave of impassioned minor-keyed works from c1766-1773 by Haydn and his Austrian contemporaries, including the teenaged Mozart, had all but subsided by the time Goethe premiered Götz von Berlichingen. No 18th-century writer drew a connection between the musical and literary Sturm und Drang. Indeed, it was not until 1909, the centenary of Haydn’s death, that the French musicologist Théodore de Wyzewa used the term to describe the outbreak of minor-keyed angst in his music.

While the searing opening Allegro assai of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony and the remorseless finales of Nos 44 and 52 may parallel the fevered emotions of Götz and Die Räuber, the influences on Haydn’s Sturm und Drang works were not literary but musical. A key figure was JS Bach’s second son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose symphonies and concertos – say the D minor Harpsichord Concerto, Wq 23, or the E minor Symphony, Wq 177 – already have the nervous instability characteristic of Sturm und Drang. Crucial, too, was the so-called Empfindsamkeit (‘heightened sensibility’) of CPE’s keyboard sonatas and fantasias, eagerly devoured by Haydn in the 1760s. CPE at his most broodingly introspective would make the perfect soundtrack to a Werther movie. Sturm und Drang turbulence and soulful Empfindsamkeit mingle in Haydn’s C minor Sonata of 1771, the first in a series of Classical C minor masterpieces that culminated in Beethoven’s Op. 111 Piano Sonata.

Anticipating the Sturm und Drang writers, from around 1760 opera composers such as Jommelli, Traetta and Gluck rejected rococo fripperies and vocal virtuosity for unflinching emotional truth. Gluck’s Orfeo, produced by Haydn at the Eszterháza opera theatre, was the most famous example of this new aesthetic. Hugely influential, too, was Gluck’s revolutionary 1761 ballet Don Juan, where the Don is dragged to hell in a torrential D minor dance later recycled as the ‘Air de Furies’ in
the French Orphée. Setting out to evoke fear and terror, this music epitomises Edmund Burke’s ‘sublime’. As in CPE Bach’s symphonies and concertos, many of the typical Sturm und Drang ingredients are already in full spate: precipitately tumbling scales, syncopations, pounding bass lines, harmonic shocks and, not least, violent dynamic contrasts.

The opening Allegro assai of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’, in the outré key of F sharp minor, has all these destabilising features, and more. It constantly defies expectations, right down to the out-of-the-blue appearance of a wispy, floating theme in the central development – a dream interlude whose significance is only revealed at the symphony’s ‘farewell’ close. In No. 44, passionate agitation is both disciplined and heightened by Haydn’s use of Baroque contrapuntal techniques. In the fretful, fanatically concentrated first movement of his earliest out-and-out Sturm und Drang symphony, No. 39 in G minor, the listener is further disorientated by bizarre silences, à la CPE Bach.

Where Haydn led, the teenaged Mozart followed. His first Sturm und Drang essay was the fiery D minor overture to his 1771 oratorio La Betulia liberata. Two years later, with a nod to Haydn’s No. 39, his G minor Symphony, K183 combines dramatic urgency with an echt-Mozartian pathos. Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies of the later 1760s almost certainly influenced the dozen-or-so impassioned minor-keyed symphonies by the underrated Bohemian composer Johann Baptist Vanhal. In London, even the urbane Johann Christian Bach tapped into the Zeitgeist with a vehement G minor Symphony that contrasts starkly with his usual suave galanterie.

In 1782 the French philosopher Diderot pronounced music ‘le plus violent de tous les beaux-arts’. A decade and more earlier, Gluck and Haydn had made his point. Although Haydn wrote only half-a-dozen Sturm und Drang symphonies in the minor key, their fierce intensity colours several of his contemporary symphonies in the major, above all the troubled and eccentric No. 46, in the ‘extreme’ key of B major. Common to all Haydn’s symphonies, sonatas and string quartets of the period, major and minor, is a formidable musical logic and power of development unmatched by any of his contemporaries.

Mozart’s K183 and Haydn’s C minor, No. 52, were probably the last out-and-out Sturm und Drang symphonies. After 1773 Mozart and Haydn intermittently evoked the Sturm und Drang style: say, in Mozart’s superb incidental music to König Thamos or, with an added breadth and chromatic subtlety, the storm choruses in Idomeneo and Haydn’s oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia. In Mozart’s late G minor Symphony, No. 40, Sturm und Drang turbulence is tempered by yearning, even luxuriant, lyricism.

After the emotional extremes of the early 1770s, Haydn tended to present an amiable, sometimes jocular, face to the world, refining and deepening the language of the comedy of manners. In his rare post-1773 symphonies in the minor key – No. 80, or ‘La poule’, No. 83 – minor invariably resolves into major: less a question of Haydn’s legendary ‘cheerfulness’ than an acknowledgement of the Classical ideal of reconciliation.

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As to the literary Stürmer und Dränger, in 1779 Goethe, now a courtier and administrator in Weimar, put the turmoils of Götz and Werther behind him with the serene Classicism of Iphigenie auf Tauris. Schiller wrote his last true Sturm und Drang play, Kabale und Liebe, in 1784. By then Lenz was suffering from mental illness, while Klinger, whose drama had coined the term, had ironically forged a successful career as an officer in the Russian army. The anger and the passion of youth had faded. But in the next century, the unabashed emotionalism of Sturm und Drang would leave its mark on the German Romantic imagination, both in music and in literature.