Introduction | Late Romantic | Classical

The 1860s saw a number of major reorganizations in European politics. Italy became a united country under the king of (former) Piedmont-Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II, in 1861 and its new national government tried to retain the kingdom’s liberal ideals, such as removing instances of operatic and intellectual censorship.

However, Italy’s liberalism was not aspired to by other European countries. The Austrian Empire, for example, never truly coped with middle-class and intellectual desires for political representation and reform. The celebrated Viennese street plan, the Ring­strasse, was in part intended as a boulevard sufficiently broad to prevent insurrectionary barricades and to allow cavalry ease of access to suppress street violence.

One of the most symbolic measures of illiberalism throughout Europe was the growth of anti-semitism. The increasing number of prominent Jewish intellectuals, writers and musicians led to ever-more hostile resentment, in many cases spawned by the rising tide of nationalism. In Russia, the promotion of the Slavonic identity led to an intolerance of all racial minorities and manifested itself in anti-Jewish pogroms.

The reign of Alexander II (1855–81) came closest to liberal tolerance, but the Tsar adamantly refused any national rep­resentational government. Consequently, his empire became the focus of increasingly radical revolutionary ideas and actions. Drastic anti-reform measures followed his assassination in 1881. The revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were the consequence of this repression of political reforms and the intellectual freedoms sought in this period.

Britain and North America

Liberal reforms were most evident in Great Britain where, more than in other countries, the government controlled the power of the monarchy and the aristocracy. Though the enormous growth in material prosperity led to urban poverty, the conditions of those in work were improved by the admission of workers’ organizations and the founding of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1868. Much of Britain’s wealth depended on its worldwide empire, which was much envied by Germany, France and Italy.

The founding and amalgamation of states in North America, especially after the end of the Civil War (1861–65), led to considerable economic growth, but artistically the new country was still strongly dependent on its mostly immigrant population’s desire to emulate European models. Only later in this period were moves made to establish a distinctly American culture.

Intellectual Background

In the early part of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel promulgated a profoundly influential, all-embracing theory of the inevitable progress of civilization and its synthesis with human self-fulfilment. For Hegel this historical ‘progress’ was demonstrated by the forward journey of a metaphysical ‘spirit’ (Geist) traceable in all human activities, not least the arts – primarily music – and philosophy. Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809–47) innovatory sense of music’s history, and his concept of what constituted musical excellence, were shaped by Hegel’s ideas.

Hegel’s concept of ‘historical progress’ strongly influenced Karl Marx, and found parallels in Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), which attributed the evolution of man to ‘the survival of the fittest’. These...

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