Romanticism and Organicism

The University of St Andrews was lucky enough to have Jeremy Thurlow — a Cambridge based composer, who, incidentally, has been very supportive of the competition — visit last week.  His work was performed at two concerts by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, and he delivered a small talk, followed by an opportunity for questions.

Dr Thurlow’s talk focused on Romanticism in music.  My research is mainly concerned with Romanticism — not in music, but rather in philosophy — so I was very interested to hear what he had to say on the matter.  One theme that emerged during his talk was Organicism.  Organicism might broadly be described to be the view that music ought properly to be modelled on the paradigm of the living entity.  A musical work should seem to grow, rather than seem to have been constructed.  It should contain the seeds of its own development, and progress according to its own internal makeup, rather than seeming to be built from the outside.

These ideas will be familiar to most, and they recur throughout the romantic period.  During the nineteenth century, theories of metaphysics, literature, and the life sciences all share a commitment to Organicism in some form.  But I’ve always had difficulty with whether this position is really meaningful when applied to music.  If Organicism is to be a substantive position that captures something interesting about Romantic music, it must amount to more than merely claim that music ought to be ‘natural’.  ‘Natural’, after all, is already a normativised term, and applied to good music far beyond the Romantic period.  I worry that there is no other way to spell out ‘Organic’, however.  Unlike in non-musical domains, we don’t have ‘Mechanistic’ to contrast it to (at least, we don’t have an idea of ‘Mechanistic’ music that predates Romanticism).  Does a Bach fugue, or a Mozart symphony, progress according to its own internal rules, and develop in an organic and natural way?  It seems so — but obviously this music isn’t ‘Romantic’.  If identifying Romantic works turns on whether the music is ‘natural’, we have a problem.

And moreover, Organicism seems to be in tension with the Romantic image of the author or composer.  For the Romantics, we are told, the creative individual is central.  “It is how I, the artist, see life; how I, the poet, feel about the death of my friend”, as Bernstein once said.  But if their music should grow ‘from the inside’ — in essence, that music ideally writes itself — this seems to trivialise the composer’s role and the craft.  Composer’s often report that, when going well, it feels as if the music is flowing naturally, and almost writing itself.  I take it, though, that this is in reality a fairly rare occurrence.  More often than not, it’s extremely hard work.  Work that we hope you’re enjoying, nevertheless.

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