Questions Regarding Emerson and Romanticism

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?

Posted in: Thoughts on February 13, 2011 | 8 Comments »
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  1. On February 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm Richard Geldard Said:


    The simple answer to your question about the Emerson Circle and the European Romantic movement is that the former was primarily a spiritual movement whereas the latter was a sensuous and artistic movement. Emerson himself was always wary of the sensuous, “holding his nose,” as he said when reading much of Whitman. As to music, Emerson had a tin ear, as he said, and felt ill equipped to write much about it. He did, however, have a good deal to say about painting and was a major influence on what came to be known as the Hudson River School and the luminists. Gay Allen tells us that Emerson’s son Edward published a poem entitled “Music” in a late edition of the poems and here is the stanza that ends the poem:
    “T is not in the high stars alone,
    Nor in the cup of budding flowers,
    Nor in the redbreast’s mellow tone,
    Nor in the bow that smiles in showers,
    But in the mud and scum of things
    There alway, alway something sings.”
    The penultimate line says it all, I think.

  2. On February 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm kirk Said:

    Well there is a certain level of sensual poetry among the Transcendentalists. They were very fond of Goethe, who was indeed a sensual poet.

    But was music not a common form of culture in early 19th century New England? Did people not play music in their homes?

  3. On February 13, 2011 at 7:17 pm Bob Richardson Said:

    It’s true that there is comparatively little on music and painting in Emerson’s writing, but it’s interesting to contrast this with Henry Thoreau, who talks about music frequently, and who paid a good deal of attention to painting, witness his use of Gilpin’s work, and his interest in Ruskin. Whitman, as noted, was deeply interested in music, especially opera. Emerson appears to be unusual even among the Transcendentalists, for his lack of enthusiasm for music and painting, but a walk through his Concord Home and a look at what he and Lidian hung on the walls will suggest that he was more interested in the pictorial arts than we generally recognize.

  4. On February 13, 2011 at 7:27 pm kirk Said:

    What was Thoreau’s experience with music? We know that he played the flute, but do we know what he played? Did he merely improvise on scales, or did he, indeed, have a concept of music as an art? Where would he have heard music as well? As I ask in my comment above, was there a musical culture in Concord homes? One might expect that music was played in Boston homes; was it perhaps like in Europe, where young ladies would learn to play the pianoforte?

    According to this Wikipedia article, “During the middle of the 19th century, Boston became the model to which many other cities across the United States included and shaped their public school music education programs.”

  5. On February 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm Richard Geldard Said:

    To support bob’s observation, here is an articulate note from the journals: 1820.

    When we see an exquisite specimen of painting—whence does the pleasure we experience arise? From the resemblance, it is immediately answered, to the works of nature. It is granted that this is in part the cause, but it can’t explain the whole pleasure we enjoy; for we see more perfect resemblances (as a stone apple or fruit) without this pleasure. No, it arises from the power which we immediately recollect to be necessary to the creation of the painting.

    Emerson was hard on himself in regard to the pleasures of life, including music. Here are lines from the journal, 1825

    I am not made to tune a lute,
    Nor amble in a soft saloon;
    Nor mine the grace of kind salute
    To mien of pride and heart of stone.
    My pulse is slow, my blood is cold,
    My stammering tongue is rudely turned.

  6. On February 13, 2011 at 7:59 pm kirk Said:

    Some journal excerpts (from the PDFs of the Edward Emerson version, which are easier to search in than the HUP edition:

    1839: The philosopher has a good deal of knowledge which cannot be abstractly imparted, which needs the combinations and complexity of social action to paint it out, as many emotions in the soul of Handel and Mozart are thousand-voiced and utterly incapable of being told in a simpler air on a lute, but must ride on the mingling whirlwinds and rivers and storms of sound of the great orchestra of organ, pipe, sackbut, dulcimer, and all kinds of music. As the musician avails himself of the concert, so the philosopher avails himself of the drama, the epic, the novel, and becomes a poet; for these complex forms allow of the utterance of his knowledge of life by indirections as well as in the didactic way, and can therefore express the fluxional quantities and values which the thesis or dissertation could never give. There is the courage of the cabinet as of the field. There is the courage of painting and of poetry as well as of siege and stake.

    1861: Because I have no ear for music, at the Concert of the Quintette Club [at the Lyceum], it looked to me as if the performers were crazy, and all the audience were making-believe crazy, in order to soothe the lunatics, and keep them amused.

    [Were there concerts then at Lyceums? I wasn’t aware of that.]

    1839: I heard with great pleasure lately the songs of Jane Tuckerman. The tone of her voice is not in the first hearing quite pure and agreeable. The tone of Abby Warren’s voice is much more pure and noble ; 2 but the wonderful talent of Miss Tuckerman, her perfect taste, the sweetness of all her tones, and the rich variety and the extreme tenuity with which she spins the thread of sound to a point as fine as a ray .of light, makes the ear listen to her with the most delicious confidence. Her songs were better with every repetition. I found my way about in the hollows and alleys of their music better each time. Yet still her music was a phenomenon to me. I admired it as a beautiful curiosity, as a piece of virtu. It does not marry itself to the mind and become a part of it. She composes me by the serenity of her manners.

    1840: I hear much that is ridiculous in music. You would laugh to know all that passes through my head in hearing a concert. Not having an ear for music, I speculate on the song and guess what it is saying to other people ; what it should say to me. It is Universal and seems to hint at communication more general than speech, more general than music also. What mystic obscurities in every breast do these lovesongs accost ?

    1864: The sensibility is all. Every one knows what are the ordinary effects of music, of putting people in gay or mournful or martial mood. But these are its effects on dull subjects, and only the hint of its power on a keener sensibility.

    1864: What omniscience has music! So absolutely impersonal, and yet every sufferer feels his secret sorrow soothed.

    1838: I think sometimes that my lack of musical ear is made good to me through my eyes. That which others hear, I see. All the soothing, plaintive, brisk or romantic moods which corresponding melodies waken in them, I find in the carpet of the wood, in the margin of the pond, in the shade of the hemlock grove, or in the infinite variety and rapid dance of the treetops as I hurry along.

    1845: With what astonishment and reverence would not men listen to music if it were rarely heard and a little at a time ! But when they stand by an organ and hear its voluminous voices all day, the natural reverence is abated.

  7. On March 6, 2011 at 9:06 pm Amy Belding Brown Said:

    The Emersons had a piano in their home and I believe at least Ellen played. There are records of evenings of music and dancing at the Alcotts. And the Thoreau family played piano and flute. I suspect Waldo may have felt inadequate when it came to music. As to what Henry played, there are two books of music (handwritten) that belonged to the the Thoreaus, that were found in the attic of Orchard House many years ago. At least one is among the holdings of the Concord Free Public Library. The music doesn’t appear to be original compositions, but a compilation of music the family enjoyed. Poignantly, there are a few botanical specimens pressed between the pages.
    There’s a CD (released in 1999) of flute music recorded from these music books, titled The Thoreau Family Flute Book by the Walden Duo. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours listening to it.
    (By the way, the Puritans did have musical instruments in their homes. They just didn’t approve of them in churches.)

  8. On April 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm Emersonreader Said:

    One of Emerson’s sermons describes Emerson’s early views on church music and poetry in a Unitarian context, “Sing Praises with Understanding” (1831-244- -The Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol 3)