The Edge of Words

14 November 2014

Dr Robert Samuels, Senior Lecturer, Open University

Realist symphonies and symphonic novels: Music at the edge of words


The first half of the nineteenth century sees a significant shift in the aesthetic articulation of human understanding of the world. In literary history, this is usually described as a move away from romanticism towards a concentration on the depiction of social relationships, often labelled with the (contested) term, ‘realism’. In music history, rather confusingly, the same period is usually labelled a shift towards musical romanticism and away from the ‘classical style’. Inspection of the aesthetic history of either genre, however, swiftly reveals great change, involving the re-evaluation of formal types. Two of these types which rose to a prominence not previously held were the novel, in literature, and the symphony, in music. Just at the moment that these two forms became regarded as the most promising means within their respective genres of articulating the mid-century world view, they also came to resemble each other in various structural regards. It is also particularly noticeable that musicians of the time (both composers and critics) persistently explicate symphonies via narrative description, showing very little differentiation between literature and music as modes of expression.

This paper examines some of the confluences between symphonic composition and novelistic narrative in this period. A crucial term in use in this period is that of “poetry”, which is used to denote the quality of a novel or a symphony which both guarantees its quality and yet lies outside - or “at the edge” of its mode of expression. The two theorists considered in particular are the novelist Jean Paul, who writes of the “poetry of the novel”, and the composer Robert Schumann, who describes himself as a “poet in notes”.