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Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History:"First Viennese Modernism" and the Delayed Nineteenth Century

James Webster
19th-Century Music
Vol. 25, No. 2-3 (Fall/Spring 2001-02), pp. 108-126
DOI: 10.1525/ncm.2001.25.2-3.108
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncm.2001.25.2-3.108
Page Count: 19
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Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History:


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the traditional periodization of European music between 1700 and 1975—late Baroque; Classical; Romantic; modern—seems increasingly problematic. In place of the outmoded concept of "Classical Style" for Viennese music before and after 1800, I suggest "First Viennese Modernism." The argument comprises three stages: 1. A survey of music-historical periodizations of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, together with comments on the current status of periodistic thinking in musicology in general. It is argued that with respect to European music as a whole, the older sense of "Baroque" lasting until ca. 1750 is untenable; it is better to understand a distinct period ca. 1720-80, centering around the Enlightenment, the galant, the international "system" of Italian opera, and (toward the end) the cult of sensibility. The consequence is that the years before and after 1800 must be understood as a period in their own right. 2. An interpretation of Viennese music during those years as an "emphatic" modernism. Its continuities with later nineteenth-century music are stressed. Each term in the concept "First Viennese Modernism" is critical: "First," to distinguish it from the Schoenberg school; "Viennese," to distinguish its modest and local origins from its later dominance of the entire European continent; and "modernism," on four grounds: (a) its contemporary reception; (b) its status as the earliest repertory to have been cultivated unbroken from its own time to ours; (c) its status as the first autonomous (not primarily mimetic) instrumental music and as the earliest self-problematizing music; (d) its participation in the creation of modern (post-revolutionary) history, by means of what is (synecdochically) interpreted as Haydn's sublime, in the Kantian sense. 3. A brief account of the crucial role of the 1790s in these developments, focusing on the complementary achievements of Haydn and Beethoven. For Beethoven, Haydn's and Mozart's music was, precisely, modern. Together, he and Haydn dominated the Viennese scene, producing ever-more-imposing masterworks in every genre except opera. This explicitly modernist orientation was fostered, if not indeed in part created, by their patrons. After 1800 Beethoven maintained and further developed this same tradition. These years "between" Enlightenment and Romanticism were no mere transition; they constituted an equally weighty phase, on the same historical-structural "level," as those that preceded and followed it. Concomitantly, Romanticism as such did not become predominant in music until 1815, in Viennese music (except for the Lied) perhaps not even until 1828/30. For both reasons, it makes sense to regard the beginning of the music-historical nineteenth century as having been "delayed," until around 1815 or 1830.

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