The ‘Romantische Opera’: A Mini Guide

By John Vandevert

Romantische Oper (or German romantic opera) was a style developed in the 19th century, inspired from the movement known as the Counter-Enlightenment begun in the late 18th century. Generally, this style meant the incorporation of emotion, existential themes, and varied levels of nationalism and nationalist themes into opera’s aesthetics and themes. 

Defining The Style

The style’s origins can be traced back to the early 18th century with the Sentimentalist movement, and most particularly the 19th-century movement of Romanticism. Part of Romanticism was the development of nationalism and the search for one’s national identity. Thus, an intrinsic element of the German Romantische oper is an appeal to the historical roots, folk culture, and more broadly the “national consciousness” (or spirit) of the German people. The attempt to reveal the true nature of German existence on earth and the fundamental soul of the German Volk in the hope of triggering a national awakening was one of the primary objectives of this style. The style was also inspired by the movement of Romantic nationalism, arguing that a country had to embrace its history and uniqueness in order to develop and mature.

One the best examples of German romanticism and its essential goal at concretely defining what makes one’s national culture inherently great (or even superior) without imperial influence was the composer Richard Wagner. His four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen demonstrates how Romanticism was exploited in the defining of the ideal image of the German. Giving a voice to the ostensibly disenfranchised, Wagner argued that Germany could become a great nation if its citizens would answer the call in the path to becoming Übermensch (the epitome of the ideal man). After the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Germany’s sense of self was deeply admonished. Thus, a major element fueling German Romanticism was the rediscovery and idealized articulation of Germany’s lost prestige and damaged heritage. 

The style of opera modeled on the frame of German Romanticism is said to have first appeared in the 1820s via three main operatic works, all by the composer Carl von Weber: Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon, although the latter two were seen as inferior to the first due to their much more comic sensibility. Moreover, the style of singspiel (think a musical) was still second to the more sophisticated genre of opera (all singing as opposed to spoken dialogue and singing). Paralleling the Romantische opera in German musical culture at the time was the lighter style of operetta which, following the Napoleonic War which had consumed Germany, provided easy and uncomplicated entertainment. Among the most popular of these humorous yet musically indulgent operas were Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss I and Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, although many kinds of works were created using this style.

Some Context

Romanticism as a cultural movement can be thought as a radicalization of the 18th century movement known as Sentimentalism (the heightened attention to human emotion, morality, and relationship to one’s environment) and the outgrowth of the growing interest in understanding the healing, restorative, powerful effect of love and passion. Musically, the late 18th-century musical movements of Empfindsamkeit (literally sensitive style, immortalizing emotional expressions in music, popularized by second-oldest son C. P. E Bach’s keyboard works) and Sturm und Drang (storm and stress, the to-and-froes of human existence encapsulated in musical sound, think Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), the latter famously popularized in the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and the older sons of J. S. Bach!

However, one of the defining elements of Romanticism was its radical opposition to the ideals and philosophy created during the so-called “Age of Enlightenment.” Beginning in the mid-17th century thanks to the writings and developments during the Scientific Revolution, concepts like personal agency, rational inquiry, tolerance for others, liberty, freedom, and the decoupling of church and state began transforming European culture. Political representation and the valuing of the people’s will was also a major development of this period.

After the French Revolution, however, people didn’t want to be told what to believe anymore. But as the mysteries of life and the idea of the unknowable were disintegrating, the idea that life had deeper meaning was also dissolving. Life was both hardship and magic, suffering without reason, and these thoughts would inspire the “romanticization” of life, of dreaming, and of metaphysical inquiry. 


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