It is common enough to assert that Mozart was a child of the Enlightenment or that Verdi was much involved with nationalist politics, but is it possible to illuminate such assertions in terms of their music? Or, more interesting, to illuminate their music in terms of their ideas?
Perhaps not. But Paul Robinson, a professor of intellectual history at Stanford, makes an enthusiastic effort, like one of those tycoons who suddenly indulge a suppressed yearning to step onstage and conduct Mahler or sing Puccini. Though some clinkers are almost inevitable, an onlooker can hardly help admiring the combination of chutzpah, high spirits and a willingness to gamble.
Robinson is quite arbitrary in picking six cherished operas as his text, and even more so in including Schubert's two greatest song cycles, on the theory that they are "distinctly operatic." His basic argument is that Mozart's Marriage of Figaro expresses the Enlightenment's belief in reason and reconciliation, that Rossini's Barber of Seville reflects the post-Napoleonic withdrawal from emotional involvement, and that Schubert's Winterreise and Schöne Müllerin represent the Romantics' concentration on the individual and his relationship to nature. Similarly, he asserts that Berlioz's Trojans dramatizes the 19th century's obsession with history, that Verdi's Don Carlo portrays the conflict between liberalism and realpolitik, that Wagner's Meistersinger illustrates the aesthetic movement's beliefs about art and society, and that Strauss's Rosenkavalier represents the dawning modern sense of psychological man.
A heavy argument indeed. But Robinson does not pursue it doggedly or even systematically (to have done so with such elusive material as music would have been painfully Procrustean). What he offers instead is an interesting potpourri of perceptions, suggestions and possibilities. He demonstrates, for example, the despair of the hero of Winterreise by noting that Schubert consistently describes reality in a minor key and changes into the major only when he is shifting into fantasy. This is a somewhat technical point, necessarily, for most writing about music is either technical or gush. In addition, Robinson has the wit to confess "that I occasionally make the music say more than it really wants to, that I have extracted unearned intellectual capital from a phrase, a passage, or a modulation whose true significance remains ineffable--i.e., purely musical."
That said, Robinson nonetheless achieves the true purpose of criticism: to impel his reader to return to the music itself, and to hear it anew. --By Otto Friedrich