I’ve been pondering recently the link between Emerson (and the Transcendentalists) and the broader Romantic movement of their time. It’s obvious that Emerson was influenced by Romantic literature, and this has been discussed in many places. (For example, a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, by Barbara L. Packer, looks at the links to literary Romanticism.)
But I’ve recently been looking at Romanticism as a very broad social, political, philosophical and cultural phenomenon, and I’ve been wondering just how much contact Emerson and the Transcendentalists had with other forms of Romanticism. Every discussion of Romanticism in relation to Emerson mentions Byron, Coleridge, de Staël, Wordsworth, and Carlyle, yet mentions little else from that movement. There is no mention of music, little mention of other French authors (French Romanticism was a very powerful literary movement, from Hugo to Balzac, by way of Stendhal and George Sand), and nothing about painting.
Transcendentalism was essentially a verbal movement: it was literary and philosophical, along with the related elements driving political and educational change. While Margaret Fuller did write an essay on Music in The Dial, in October 1841, this only discusses Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach and Beethoven. Only the latter can truly be considerer Romantic, and only in his later works. Where are the cornerstones of Romantic music: where is Schubert, whose music, notably his lieder, are the very personification of the Romantic ideal, based on the German Romantic poets? Where are Berlioz, Liszt or Chopin, who were the pillars of Romantic music in France?
I guess what I really wonder is this: did the Transcendentalists have a musical culture? The only name mentioned in the Oxford Handbook, aside from Fuller, is John Sullivan Dwight, who was a music critic. Music of the period, in Europe, was played often in people’s homes, in salons and musical gatherings. I don’t know enough about music in America at the time, but was this, simply, not a tradition, because of the Puritan roots of the people of New England? Granted, they could see performances in theaters in Boston, New York and other cities, and Walt Whitman notably wrote about the music he heard. But it seems that the Transcendentalists missed out on one of the most transcendental of art forms by not having music as part of their culture.
I can picture the look on Emerson’s face as he might sit in a room listening to someone performing Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, or Schubert’s final piano sonata, or even as he might hear someone singing Schubert’s Winterreise. I can see Emerson enraptured by the beauty and delicacy of the music, as well as by its transcendence. Yet it seems that Emerson had little chance to hear this music. Did he, and the Transcendentalists, miss out on one of the major forms of cultural expression of their times?