Vaughan Williams’ Music History

Ralph Vaughan Williams in “The Romantic Movement and Its Results” (written in response to Brahms’ death) sketches music from 1750 to 1900 in terms of “classical” and “romantic”. These were not, for him, mutually exclusive in the chronological sense, only in the stylistic sense. In other words, he could easily make the case that Schubert was romantic and Beethoven was classical, although they were contemporaries or that Brahms was classical while Wagner was romantic, again, even though they were contemporaries.

Vaughan Williams defines his terms pretty neatly. “Beethoven was a classical composer—this does not mean that he was not imaginative, but it does mean that he was a musician and nothing else—that the emotional gem of his music was simply a musical pattern in his mind, which was translated into an analogous musical pattern on paper. With Beethoven, then, abstract form and emotional expression were inseparable, because they both sprang from the same source,” (Vaughan Williams on Music, 14).

So the Romantics and the Classicals both had potentially “powerful feeling”; it was the “spontaneous overflow” part that made Romantics unique. “Of emotions these pioneers [i.e. Schubert, Weber, Berlioz] had enough and to spare, but there was wanting the distinct decorative pattern on which to weave their emotions into an organized whole,” (14).

Vaughan Williams thus traces a logical connection between Romanticism and musical drama. “This is the history of the romantic school—first one art influenced by another; then one art illustrating another, and finally the first glimmerings of a new art which combines the dramatic and musical art in one,” (15).

But Vaughan Williams points out that, for music and drama to be on equal footing, Romantic music must be introduced to its natural dramatic home, and this is finally accomplished by Wagner, through opera, through the stage. “Wagner, then, is not a freak of nature standing outside the line of evolution, but he is the logical outcome of the romantic movement in music: in this way he dealt it its death blow, and out of the tentative gropings of Schumann evovlved a new art—a subtle blend of music and drama—the whole being entirely distinct from either of its component parts,” (15).

Interestingly, he concludes from this that “no progressive musician can go on writing romantic music; that is over and done for, and the way has been cleared for pure music to resume its sway,” (16). Here he speaks of the “next musical pioneer after Wagner”, and describes what he must be. He indicates that Brahms is the ideal after which to pattern this new kind of music.

“The romantic school has lived its life and done its work, and has died an honourable death; to honour it truly is to let it rest in peace,” (16).

Most interesting of all is that Schoenberg saw himself and was seen by his school as the great synthesis between Wagner and Brahms. What did Vaughan Williams have to say at Schoenberg’s death, 50 years later? “Schoenberg meant nothing to me—but as he apparently meant a lot to a lot of other people I daresay it is all my own fault,” (173).

(All quotations from Vaughan Williams on Music, ed. David Manning, Oxford University Press, 2008.)


  1. Nate A. · October 12, 2011

    Why did Shoeny think he was a Wagner-Brahms synthesizer? That doesn’t make much sense to me.

  2. John Richard Ahern · November 8, 2011

    As I understand it, he was taking Wagner’s romanticism/expressionism and Brahms’ formalism and coming up with a dramatic style that could support both, i.e. serialism.

  3. Pingback: Beethoven Begat Jacob and Esau « collegium novum
  4. Pingback: Classicism and Brahms | collegium novum

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