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Romantic Guitar
The gentle echo of restless centuries.

In 1856 a European of high rank passed away in Vienna. Joseph Baron of Hammer-Purgstall had been a diplomat in Constantinople, and later, an Imperial interpreter at the Viennese State Chancellery and the first president of the Academy of Sciences. As a renowned orientalist, he even influenced Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to take up work on the West-östlicher Diwan. Born in 1774, Hammer-Purgstall also experienced the first half of a century that was as if created to leave a permanent impression on the stage of world history. As a ”Prelude on the Stage”, Napoleon Bonaparte decked his head with the Imperial crown in France, whereupon Austria’s Franz II had himself coronated as Emperor Franz I.
Only two years later, the victorious French army marched into Vienna, and after three more years, the debacle was complete and Austria was altogether defeated. Napoleon resided in Schönbrunn for 158 days, and when he married the Imperial daughter Marie Louise in the Hall of Mirrors, he did not even find it necessary to be there. Grand Duke Karl, the victor of Aspern of all people, had to playact on behalf of the groom. The monarchs too, at the Congress of Vienna, dined in the Hall of Mirrors and afterwards digested the rich feast in the palace theatre while watching the opera Cinderella.

Radical change, a new departure, and the beginning of the end.
Yet newly ordered Europe did not settle down. Liberal movements and authoritarian powers bumped into each other with increasing friction. At the same time, this suspenseful Vormärz period (i.e. the period from 1815 to ”pre-March” 1848) seemed almost made for oppression and paternalism to be overcome, or at least sublimated, through intellectual and artistic achievements of the highest order.
The good old feudal order was no longer any good, yet it was not in the least prepared to admit it. ”Ja, are they allowed to do that?” Kaiser Ferdinand is alleged to have asked when faced with the revolution of 1848. Soon afterwards, he abdicated and left it to Franz Joseph to pedantically and dutifully carry the monarchy to its grave.
Yet the Emperor, the House of Habsburg, still remained a mythical source of identification, despite national conflicts. But among the general population, the conviction had long become common that not all that glittered was gold in the Imperial court. The Congress of Vienna already offered plenty of opportunity for a not-all-too-subservient view of things. One leaflet grated: “He loves for all: Alexander of Russia. He thinks for all: Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia. He speaks for all: Friedrich of Denmark. He drinks for all: Maximilian of Bavaria. He feeds for all: Friedrich of Württemberg. He pays for all: Emperor Franz.” The oh-so-noble salon society of days of yore had lost much of its reputation. The malicious Viennese characterised its women’s world as ”la haute volaille de Vienne”, divided into ”intelligeese” and ”elegeese”. Not even omnipotent Prince Metternich was safe from this cheap scent. When his police attempted to check the identity of the Russian Princess Bagration and the Kurlandian Duchess of Sagen – suspected of espionage – the two ladies pertly referred to one love-affair each with the chancellor.

Nothing more is as it was.
When Leopold Kuppelwieser painted The Three Kings in 1825, they still pursued a star of hope. When in 1843 Lumpazivagabundus, the comet song was sung, a dark foreboding of the imminent end of the world was sounded with it.
Neither did the fussing artistic world of Biedermeier prove immune to the unstoppable transformation of society. The world of engineers and factories seemed the only truly credible model for the future. Confidence in the unlimited possibilities of technology enabled, to name but two examples, a Tyrolean master tailor by the name of Josef Madersperger to become today’s highly-celebrated inventor of the sewing machine; and the ”Imperial and Royal” forest warden Josef Ressl to become the father of the ship’s propeller. It also allowed technical imagination to express itself with seemingly Romantic exuberance. How else shall one characterise the development of the velocipede-flying-machine, a shower-bicycle or the butter-producing rocking chair? Even musicians were not immune to these unrestrained innovations: in 1817 in Vienna, Josef Mälzl built a ”panharmonicum”, a beastly accumulation of wind bellows, barrels, 150 flutes, 150 bassoons, fifty oboes, eighteen trumpets, three large drums and two cymbals. Archduke Karl couldn’t resist and promptly purchased the resounding monstrosity.
Apart from friendly curiosities, the new world of technology also carried with it something thoroughly threatening, and the city, with its all-powerful factories, became more and more uncomfortable for its inhabitants. The present offered nothing in the way of reliable orientation, the future even less so. Hence, only the past remained. Brooding backwards, a grey pre-history was pondered, which was easy to impute things to, as one knew little about it. The sunken world of the ancient pagans and their gods was everywhere newly discovered; in many cases, where there was nothing to discover. Mysticism and metaphysics provided the space for a spiritual idyll that tolerated neither political nastiness, nor stinking smokestacks.
A transfiguring view of inherited forefather-identities added, mostly beyond any reason, further fuel to the fire of nationalism. Differences and lines of separation were required, and the resulting conflicts were to be heroically fought out.

Forest and fields and the Blue Flower of Romanticism.
There still remained the comparatively harmless, passionate turn to nature. Previously experienced as strange and threatening, she henceforth became a living, breathing magic garden, in which humankind could once again become one with itself and the world. Philosophers like Schelling built an imposing thought-structure to house this dream; painters framed it in heart-rending perspective; poets expressed it in words and rhymes, especially Novalis, who also provided the Romantic zeitgeist with a nice trademark – the blue flower; and composers could not and would not close their ears and hearts to Romantic sentiments. Yet for many artists this escape to an idyll made up only one aspect, often in contradiction to the rest of their work. And certainly everyone foresaw that cold hard reality would very soon catch up with them. Yet for the time being, it was still possible to dream collectively.
Just as artistic Romanticism was threatened from the very beginning, the cosmopolitan noblesse of European nobility increasingly appeared as one which was doomed to a – still distant – decline and fall. The harsher the wind of history whistled past their nostrils, the more those of the better circles endeavoured to create their own world. The Petersburger Franz Moritz Graf Lacy was such a person, as was his countryman Nikolai Makaroff, of whom we shall hear more later. In 1765, Lacy acquired the property of Neuwaldegg and converted the palace park into an amazing garden, in which of course, for the purpose of idyllic eternal peace, a Romantic grave had to have its place: the ”Rousseau grave”. To go with it, on the way back to nature, he created a still worldly, serene scenic square that received the French name for a small village: Hameau. On the pasture he set up seventeen wooden huts with thatched roofs of straw or reed, connected to each other by pergolas. In the Dutch manner, a tree was planted in front of each building. In this way, the French-inspired town got its Dutch identity.

Take up the guitar, Ms. History...
Already having arrived in Petersburg and Vienna, the way leads back to the initially-mentioned year of 1856. In Vienna, Franz Liszt conducted the festival concerts in commemoration of the one-hundredth birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the construction of the Arsenal, begun on occasion of the revolution of 1848, was completed. Thank God, the plan to raze the Karlskirche church had been dropped – its purpose would have been an open range of gunfire on the city in case of emergency. In Brussels, on the other hand, it was of precious little concern to the St. Petersburger aristocrat Nikolai Makaroff that Russia had had to give in quietly in the Crimean war. He had other worries. In his memoirs he notes sadly: ”However, in spite of my profound interest in the guitar, I could not help feeling that the guitar as an instrument had come to the end of its life-cycle. The realisation was very hard to take. I was aware that the pianoforte was constantly being improved and developed, as was also being done with instruments of lesser importance. No one seemed interested enough to improve the guitar. Perhaps this lack of mechanical development was one of the reasons why it was so little in use, or rather, why it had fallen so low”
The worries of this noble guitar enthusiast were not unfounded. Already in the fifties of the nineteenth century, the era of famous guitar virtuosos had almost faded away.
In fact, the guitar would have been superbly suitable to interpret the spirits of Biedermeier and Romanticism convincingly and touchingly, as these were about expressive virtuosity and spiritual transparency of the music, connected to a sensitive tonal language, rich in colour. But a serious competitor was gaining ever more importance. The piano became the favourite instrument of the nineteenth century. And there was a trend towards a more lush richness of tone that led to an increase in the size of orchestras. So guitars also grew, and featured seven, eight or even ten strings, although these attempts to gain tonal richness didn’t really fit to this intimate instrument.

St. Petersburg, Paris, Vienna, Brussels.
Makaroff had attentively followed the development of guitar-building and the composers and interpreters of the previous few decades. He met with Napoleon Coste, one of the most important French guitar composers, who was of essential importance to the shaping of the classic Romantic style. Makaroff on Coste, with whom he also used to play duets: ”I met a student of the famous Sor, Napoléon Coste, who was also Sor’s publisher. We became good friends. He was a clever and friendly Frenchman, modest and a passionate guitar enthusiast. He often visited me and we were in the habit of playing various Sor duets. He played with great clarity, tenderness and a clean tone, but for some reason his playing was incapable of holding the listener’s attention”
In Vienna, the Russian aristocrat not only had magnificent guitars built for him by the masters Stauffer and Schertzer and meals served to him by the Viennese, like those with nine courses, champagne, red wine, coffee and ice cream, which to his pleasant surprise were to be had for only one rouble and fifty kopecks per person. Makaroff also became acquainted with the famous Kaspar Joseph Mertz and noted, obviously impressed: ”In contrast, the music played by Mertz, to which I listened with ever-growing rapture, contained everything – rich composition, great musical knowledge, excellent development of an idea, unity, novelty, grandeur of style, absence of trivial expression and a multiplicity of harmonic effects. At the same time, there was the clear basic melody, which kept surging above the surface of arpeggios and chords. The effects were brilliant and daring. Basic to all this, he had a deep understanding of the instrument with all its possibilities and hidden secrets.” But also as an interpreter, Mertz received the highest recognition in the ears of the noble guitar enthusiast, if not without very discreet reservations: ”As a performer, Mertz was without a doubt the best of the German guitarists I had heard. His playing was marked by power, energy, feeling, clarity and expression. However, he had the defects of the German school – the buzzing of bass strings, the smothering of very rapid passages at times. ”

Against the current of time.
When Mertz and Coste achieved their first successes in 1830, so-called ”guitaromania”, set off in Vienna by Mauro Giuliani and in Paris by Fernando Sor, was already fading. More than twenty years later Makaroff could make out hardly any new talent and resolved to do a noble deed. He announced a competition to award the two best composers for guitar and two of the highest achievements in guitar-building. Of the sixty-four compositions that were submitted, only forty were found to be worthy of further consideration, and those of Coste and Mertz were among the undisputed favourites. As the final decision drew nearer, Mertz had already died of a long illness. To Makaroff, this was no hindrance: the widow would be pleased to receive the prize all the same. Of course intrigue then entered the game, it’s only unclear from which side. It is reported that Makaroff would have liked to have Coste receive second place, as the latter had once had the gall to accuse him of playing out of time in a duo. Makaroff, on the other hand, speaks of an hostile committee member who, out of sheer malice, prevented Mertz from winning. In any case, as initiator and financial backer, Makaroff had to be right and tells of Coste’s selfless enthusiasm: ”Coste came immediately, his face shining with joy. He began to kiss and embrace me, saying that he considered it the greatest honour to receive the second prize after Mertz, the greatest guitar composer of the time.”

The past has a future.
In the remembrance of two great musicians of their time, petty disputes may be done without. In their compositions for guitar, Coste and Mertz continue to live on: in etudes, fantasias, rhapsodies, dances, variations, character pieces, song transcriptions and opera paraphrases. In Coste’s compositions the guitar becomes a polyphonic instrument with consistent voice-leading. He further develops classical genres such as sonatas and variations into free fantasias. This makes him, in such works as ”Grande Sérénade”, one of the most inventive and carefree vagrants in the kingdom of harmony. Today, Mertz especially captivates listeners with his miniatures and the Romantic character pieces of the Bardenklänge. In his melodies, the songs and opera motifs of his time also reverberate. His harmonies, the exquisite changes of keys, tone colours and expression refer to Schubert and Bellini.
When the prize winning compositions of the two composers were heard in Brussels in 1856, Nikolai Makaroff could be content with his worthy victors. But at the same time, he had to note that his generously-endowed competition had brought no decisive impulses. The time for restrained tones and soft yearning was over, at least for the moment. In 1890, when Makaroff died and Coste had been dead for seven years, the first major workers’ demonstrations were held in Vienna, Karl Lueger self-confidently ascended to power against the will of the Emperor, and in the previous year, the tragedy of Mayerling had shaken the Imperial household. Last days and modern times, Ringstrassen-theatrics and Jugendstil, classical and modern – the transition to the twentieth century left no stone unturned in the old and exhausted Danube monarchy.
Amazing actually, how Romantic guitar music has remained so fresh and unscathed after travelling through the din of our times. Perhaps it’s also due to the fact that Europe and the world are experiencing a period of transition, faster and more radical than ever before. A fussy Biedermeier flight into an idyll remains closed to us – it is no longer so easy to dream away from, hear away from, or look away from reality. Yet a journey back to the past must still be permitted, to the world of sound of the time when Romanticism was not only sentimental, but even still a bit revolutionary; to listen to music that not only impresses and touches, but that opens the inner gates.

©2000 by Alfred Komarek
(Translation: Travis Lehtonen)

Born 1945, Bad Aussee (Austria), Matura. First literary work finances study of law, two state examinations. Later, writing becomes primary: essays, feuilletons, stories, non-fiction, children's book, crime, TV scripts.
Alfred Komarek lives and works as a freelance writer in Vienna..