The War of The Romantics: A Revisiting of Ancient Greek Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Europe

The War of the Romantics:

A Revisiting of Ancient Greek Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Europe


Tempting as it may be to place all music of the Romantic Era in the same aesthetic category, to do so would be to ignore one of the most defining ideological conflicts of the nineteenth century. In a time when radically progressive ideas such as Marxism and Liberalism were giving rise to multiple revolts against European monarchies, a philosophical discord amongst its contemporaneous artists was to be expected. The War of the Romantics, a term given specifically to the divide between composers and musicians of the time, was the musical manifestation of this significant paradigm shift. The dispute, originating in Germany and Central Europe, was fought out amongst two opposing parties: the conservatives, who upheld the ideal of absolute music, and the progressives who rejected it, some advocating programme music instead1. Although this aesthetic debate introduced a small number of new insights and perspectives, many of the arguments used by both parties were ideas stemming from Ancient Greek philosophy, and were simply reused for the purpose of engaging in polemics. In this essay, I will disclose the parallels between the arguments of both parties involved, as well as their resemblance to Ancient Greek aesthetics. By analysing and comparing these arguments, I will demonstrate that the War of the Romantics rested upon a false dichotomy, in that it was fought out amongst opponents that held little to no explicitly conflicting ideas.

That those sceptical of “absolute”, instrumental music saw themselves as aesthetic pioneers and revolutionists, reflects in the manner they portrayed both themselves and their opponents: In Liszt’s own words,

“the specifically musical composer, who attaches importance to the consumption of the material alone, is not capable of deriving new forms from it, of breathing into it new strength, for no intellectual necessity urges him – nor does any burning passion, demanding to be revealed, oblige him – to discover new means.”2

Liszt claims that the composer of the absolute or purely musical is limited; in contrast to the tone-poet, who can draw from many different sources of inspiration, the formalist composer can do nothing but use and occasionally rework the material that has preceded him. He is incapable of true innovation – stronger still; he “drives the music to the dead letter3 by seeking only skilfully constructed forms or mathematical patterns within music.

Similarly, Wagner – another progressive who himself coined the term absolute music in his Faust inspired interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony4 – placed the Gesammtkunstwerk, a liberated artwork in which all arts are unified in an act of Love, above the isolated and autonomous forms of art. In Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, Wagner explains how the art that exists merely for its own sake, is empty and restricted, since it cannot possibly reach its highest form if it does not sacrifice itself through its love for the common good.5

The ideas of both composers – Liszt’s tone-poet on the one hand and Wagner’s artwork of the future on the other – are by no means modern. The mousikē of Ancient Greece, often misleadingly translated to “music”, was in fact a combination of music, word and dance, a vast array of artistic practices that flowed together in one united art form that was believed to be gifted to the Greeks by the Muses6. Both Liszt and Wagner made no secret of their preoccupation with Ancient Greek culture; Liszt’s symphonic poems include works inspired by the mythological figures Prometheus and Orpheus, and Wagner repeatedly emphasizes the superiority of the Ancient Greek conception of art:

“Only in a finite measure of inner viewing of the essence of things, has the artistic impulse-to-impart, since the memory of man, been able to develop itself to the faculty of explicit portrayal to the senses: only from the Greek world-view, has the genuine Artwork of Drama been able as yet to blossom forth.”7

This glorification of Ancient Greek ideals was far from groundbreaking in nineteenth-century Europe, quite the contrary; it was an extremely popular sentiment that was not limited to the arts, but permeated science and technology as well8. It is, then, rather surprising that these composers and their following, despite acknowledging their nostalgia for Ancient Greek culture, deemed themselves revolutionary and innovative, and – more surprising still – that they are still now widely considered the “progressive” camp in the War of the Romantics.

Equally puzzling is the fact that both leaders of this “progressive” movement more often than not contradicted each other in their ideas. In line with the Hegelian school of thought, Liszt believed that, if instrumental music is to be the purest and most absolute form of music, it is so because it transforms our soul, freeing us of our physical restraints and expressing the deepest, most profound movements of the “Absoluter Geist”. Interestingly, Liszt selectively left out the “absolute” component of Hegel’s original term, perhaps to avoid association with the “conservatives” and their absolute music, and instead merely uses the word “Geist” to signify the soul.9

This Hegelian principle, too, is an interpretation of Ancient Greek philosophy. It is said in Iamblichus’ writings that the Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras used music to purify his disciples’ souls, and – in doing so – freed them from the “influxive and effluxive waves of a corporeal nature10.

Wagner, on the other hand, dismissed Hegel’s philosophy and instead adopted that of Feuerbach, to whom he even dedicated his extended essay Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft. It is believed that, during Wagner’s time in Zurich between 1849 and 1858, he consciously began using the term absolute music in the philosophical sense, with the absolute signifying the highest, truest and most abstract form of reality. This idea of the absolute was strongly represented in Hegel’s philosophy, and criticized by Feuerbach in his 1839 essay Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy, in which Feuerbach explains that the dwelling on the absolute and metaphysical led German idealists, such as Hegel, to deny or ignore the physical reality of life. Feuerbach called for a more humanistic approach to philosophy, in which human, empirical experience was to be placed above abstract thinking11. This philosophy definitely shines through in Wagner’s writings; in fact, a large chunk of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft deals with art’s relationship to – and responsibility towards – the People (Das Volk12).

Again, the aim of instrumentalising art (mousikē) for the benefit of the people or the state is to be found in Ancient Greek writings. In Plato’s Laws, for instance, mousikē is given a crucial role in the education of the citizens of the State. The reason for this stems from Plato’s idea that man is intrinsically and conflictingly influenced by both the thread of reason and the irrational impulses of the emotions13. This conflict between reason and passion could be counterbalanced by a proper education; if a citizen’s soul has received the right schooling, reason and passion would, as a consequence, pull in the same direction – and what better way to educate the soul than with mousikē?14

The “progressives” weren’t the only ones drawing from Ancient Greek philosophy; although slightly more difficult to trace, the advocates of absolute music relied on Pythagorean ideals to argument their cause as well. Eduard Hanslick, possibly the most referenced writer when it comes to the conservative side of the War of the Romantics, wrote the following paragraph to conclude Vom Musikalisch Schönen, which to this day remains the “single most important document in the history of the aesthetic construct broadly known as absolute music”15:

… such spiritual-intellectual meaning can be derived from the precise configuration of tones as a free creation of the spirit out of materials that lack concepts and yet are capable of being imbued with Geist. In the mind of the listener, furthermore, this intellectual-spiritual substance unites the beautiful in music with all other great and beautiful ideas. It is not merely and absolutely through its own intrinsic beauty that music affects the listener, but rather at the same time as a sounding image of the great motions of the cosmos. Through profound and secret connections to nature, the meaning of tones elevates itself high above the tones themselves, allowing us to feel at the same time the infinite in works of human talent. Just as the elements of music—sound, tone, rhythm, loudness, softness—are to be found throughout the entire universe, so does one find anew in music the entire universe.”16

Although this passage only fully appeared in the first edition of Vom Musikalisch Schönen17, it betrays Hanslick’s genuine thoughts on the matter. Hanslick’s reasoning is suspiciously reminiscent of that of Liszt; the Hegelian idea that music is a means of spiritual transcendence surfaces yet again. Furthermore, in comparing music to the “great motions of the cosmos”, Hanslick also follows the Pythagorean thought that music has some mysterious connection to the universe18. Yet this ending paragraph seems to collide with everything else that Hanslick had previously written in Vom Musikalisch Schönen. In the opening sentence of his book, Hanslick states that “the time of aesthetic systems in which the beautiful is considered only in regard to aroused “sensations” is past19. This is a blatant attack on the then outdated principles of German Idealism. In writing this, Hanslick – like many academics of his time – rejects Hegelian philosophy and leans towards a more human-based, “objective” philosophy. Throughout his memoirs, Aus meinem Leben, Hanslick praises the philosopher Franz Serafin Exner, who – in the same way as Feuerbach – proposed a more evidence based, scientific approach to philosophy20. Instead of drawing the same political conclusions as Wagner did from this philosophy, Hanslick found in it the inspiration for a new way of analysing music: contrary to the idealist thought that we only know things through the mind’s representation of them, Hanslick believed that we could know and understand the essence of things by studying their nature. According to Hanslick, the beauty in music is an absolute quality, completely detached from and uninfluenced by our perception of it. Music, therefore, is unable to express anything outside of music itself21. This belief strongly resonates with Plato’s Theory of Forms, in which Forms –perfect, non-physical concepts – hold the highest and most absolute reality.

Wagner would later adopt this Platonic principle; though still rejecting those who occupied themselves with absolute music, he mentions in his open letter Über Franz Liszt’s Symfonische Dichtungen that “nothing is more absolute than music”, however, although he acknowledges that music in its essence is indeed absolute, Wagner claims that we must place it into a context of human experience, if we wish to access it. Music in its true, absolute form cannot be perceived by us, therefore all music we know of is not absolute.22

To think of the War of the Romantics as a binary divide between progressives and conservatives, is to assume that the War itself was fought out amongst two opposing parties. Through the analysis of these various arguments and opinions, it becomes clear that this was not the case; Hanslick’s belief that music cannot express anything outside of itself does not directly contradict Wagner’s plan of uniting the arts, nor does it contradict the role it may play in society.
Furthermore, to deem Hanslick the conservative authority in the War of the Romantics, is to ignore the fact that he based his beliefs almost entirely upon “progressive” philosophies such as those of Exner and Feuerbach23. The fact that most – if not all – arguments used by both parties are to be traced back to Ancient Greek philosophy, also re-establishes the dominance this age-old world view exerts over the evolution of Western culture, with nineteenth-century aesthetics being no exception. Though many critics and composers of the time resorted to polemics and personal attacks on the “opposing party”, the War of the Romantics was no rigid dichotomy; it was a passionate discussion and reinterpretation of aesthetics established more than two thousand years ago.



  1. For the purpose of this essay, I will first assume the popular notion of a divide between progressives and conservatives during the War of the Romantics. I will also adopt the understanding of absolute music as a synonym of autonomous, instrumental music. See for example Dahlhaus, C., Die Idee der Absoluten Musik, Kassel, Bärenreiter, 1978; Walker, A., Franz Liszt, Vol. 2: The Weimar Years (second edition), New York, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. 338-367; Bonds, M. E., Absolute Music, the history of an idea, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  2. Liszt, F., ‘Berlioz und seine Haroldsymohonie’, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, vol. 43, 1855, p. 51. Translation by Richard Pohl.
  3. Liszt, Berlioz und seine Haroldsymphonie, 1855, p. 50.
  4. Wagner, R., ‘Program zur 9. Symphonie Beethovens’ (1846), Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, vol. II, Leipzig, 1911, pp. 56-64.
  5. Wagner, R., ‘The Artwork of the Future’ (1849), Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, vol. I, translated by William Ashton Ellis, London, Kegen, Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1895, pp. 149-50.
  6. Murray, P., & Wilson, P., Music and the Muses, The Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 1.
  7. Wagner, R., ‘Opera and Drama’ (1852), Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, vol. II, translated by William Ashton Ellis, London, Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1900, p. 153.
  8. See for instance Hamilton, P., The Oxford Handbook of European Romanticism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016.
  9. Liszt, Berlioz und seine Haroldsymphonie, 1855, p. 50.
  10. Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras or Pythagoric Life, translated by Thomas Taylor, London, J. M. Watkins, 1818, p. 32.
  11. Feuerbach, L., ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s philosophy’ (1939), The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, translated by Zawar Hanfi, Anchor Books, 1972, pp. 53-97.
  12. Wagner, R., The Artwork of the Future (1849), 1895, pp. 69-82.
  13. Laws 1, 644cl-645c8.
  14. See Woerther, F., ‘Music and the Education of the Soul in Plato and Aristotle: Homeopathy and the Formation of Character’, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 58, no. 1, 2008, pp. 95-97.
  15. Bonds, M. E., ‘Aesthetic Amputations: Absolute Music and the Deleted Endings of Hanslick’s Vom Musikalisch Schönen’, 19th Century Music, Vol. 36, no. 1, 2012, p. 3.
  16. Hanslick, E., Vom Musikalisch Schönen, Leipzig, Rudolph Weigel, 1954, p. 104.
  17. The last two sentences were excluded from the second edition onward (1858). The second sentence was deleted from the third edition onward (1865). See Bonds, Aesthetic Amputations, 2012, p. 4.
  18. “Pythagoras, however, did not procure for himself a thing of this kind through instruments or the voice, but employing a certain ineffable divinity, and which it is difficult to apprehend, he extended his ears, and fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres, and the stars that are moved through them, and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than any thing effected by mortal sounds.” Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras or Pythagoric Life, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1818, pp.32-33.
  19. Hanslick, Vom Musikalisch Schönen, 1954, p.1.
  20. Hanslick, E., Aus meinem Leben, Berlin, Allgemeiner Verein für Deutsche Litteratur, 1894, pp. 18-20.
  21. Hanslick, Vom Musikalisch Schönen, 1954. See also Bonds, Aesthetic Amputations, 2012, p. 9.
  22. Wagner, R., ‘Ein Brief von Richard Wagner über Franz Liszt’, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, vol. 46, 1857, pp. 157-63.
  23. One could make the case that Liszt was in many ways much more conservative than Hanslick in his aesthetic contemplations, since his arguments were based entirely on Hegelian philosophy.