The Beloved Vision: A History of Nineteenth-Century Music, by Stephen Walsh

The Beloved Vision: A History of Nineteenth-Century Music 
By Stephen Walsh
Reviewed by Bethany Tillerson

In the introduction to The Beloved Vision: A History of Nineteenth Century Music, author Stephen Walsh refers to the book as a “conspectus of how [Romanticism] all came about, why it took the form it did, and indeed what it actually amounts to.” To truly understand the development and societal impact of Romanticism in the nineteenth century, Walsh claims, we must focus on the historical background of the movement.

The Beloved Vision is a straightforward recounting of events following multiple composers, organized chronologically with some focus on thematic material. Though most chapters follow a timeline, others pause to look more closely at one subject or person. One chapter, for instance, hones in on opera and its relationship with Europe’s growing nationalist movements, as operas by Verdi and Berlioz were, intentionally or not, seen as pro-revolution (and, in one case, started a four-day demonstration in Belgium).

The Beloved Vision defines Romanticism as a movement that originated as a response to the Age of Enlightenment in literature, music, and art. The development of Romanticism in music is meticulously traced from the late 18th century to the mid-20th. Walsh draws on primary sources, pulling from essays, diary entries, and music scores. The book is an analytical, traditional narrative history. “The artist’s motives may interest us,” Walsh states, “but they have, or should have, no bearing on our judgment of the art.”

In keeping with the author’s focus on historical background, context for society and the larger Romantic movement is given throughout the book. Discussions of literature, artistic movements like Symbolism and Impressionism, and music of all genres (from Bach’s cantatas to Charles Ives’ compositions) abound. There are occasionally moments where details about politics or society never explicitly relate back to Romanticism, their impact on the movement lost in a rush to move on to the next composer. However, for the most part, everything is understandably linked.

The main qualities of Romantic music are defined and exemplified in analyses of composers like Beethoven, Wagner, Dvořák, and Schumann. People like Schumann who fell somewhere between traditionalism and Romanticism provide examples of composers who never tipped over into the full depths of Romanticism, while others, like Schubert and Wagner, are used to analyze those who revolutionized it. Despite Walsh’s aversion to emotion in historical analysis, he is fascinated by the changes in composers’ mindsets: Wagner’s political opinions and the way they influenced his (and subsequent) art are discussed at length.

“Characters” like Franz Lizst, Richard Wagner, and Franz Schubert reappear in multiple chapters, creating a thru-line that keeps the reader grounded in the story Walsh is creating. Berlioz’s life is examined in parallel to Liszt, and writers E.T.A Hoffman and Eduard Hanslick keep up a running commentary regarding the current music heroes. The end result is a deeper understanding of the relationships and influences of musicians–how Verdi influenced Wagner, how Romantic poets influenced Romantic musicians, and how, even earlier, Bach’s cantatas and Mozart’s opera scores influenced later, more heavily Romantic composers.

Stephen Walsh’s writing style is informative and thorough without being overwhelming. Occasionally one feels that he mentions one-too-many details while only briefly touching on notable composers. There are also brief moments where the time period is unclear (is the reader reading about the late 1840s or early 1850s?). Overall, however, Walsh is comprehensive and straightforward, retaining a sense of dry irony and humor, which make the book even more engaging and rarely a simple recitation of dates and names.

The Beloved Vision provides a thorough overview of the development of Romanticism in music. Many different composers and the progression of their thoughts on music are featured. This is a perfect book for anyone willing to read in-depth about a century’s worth of music analysis, as well as gain a new understanding of what famous composers thought of their own music.