Sturm und Drang

It sometimes happens that I give the same title to two different postings. The last time was in January 2017 when I discussed Christian eschatology. Indeed as we approach Advent I find a number of Catholic and Orthodox bishops discussing this theme in relation to our dependency on electronics, internet, mobile phones and an increasingly technocratic world. That is not my theme today.

In its historical meaning, Sturm und Drang, meaning more or less “storm and drive” was a pre-Romantic movement in German literature and music in the latter half of the eighteenth century. It represents a movement of emotion in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, an emotional turbulence and individuality against  ideals like rationalism, empiricism, and universalism. The mood turned to emotional extremes and subjectivity. The two hallmarks of this movement were an aspiration to freedom from despotism and a love of nature.

Music is certainly the most effective means of expressing subjective human emotion. Little describes anger, fear and terror more than Mozart’s Dies irae and Haydn’s Insanae et vanae curae.

This time, I link to the Kings College Cambridge version to make a change from the St John’s College version. It would seem that Haydn was not self-consciously Sturm und Drang, but the influence is there. Here is his Symphony no. 39 (Tempesta di mare), and the final movement is especially angry whilst being restrained by the composer’s rationality.

His 45th is in F# minor which is a dark flavoured key.

The harmony is intense and stretched to the limit. The dissonances are within the classical rules of preparation, suspension and resolution, but they represent emotions rarely found in late baroque and rococo or so-called “classical” music. The themes contain huge leaps and unpredictability. Tempos and dynamics change rapidly and unpredictably to reflect strong changes of emotion. The music drives and races forward, too angry and strong for its constraints.

Here is Mozart’s 25th Symphony in G minor, immortalised by the film Amadeus, which emphasised the Sturm und Drang theme.

Here is Gluck’s Dance of The Furies from Orphée et Euridice (Paris 1774)

It is exciting to listen to, and stimulates our own emotions. Sturm und Drang as a fashion waned quite quickly, but its central emotions continued into the Romantic movement beginning with Göthe and men like Novalis. It would seem not to be appropriate to identify Sturm und Drang with a notion of early Romanticism, at least not in terms of strict musical style. However, the mood was changing and would develop into something new. A good question is to ask whether Beethoven was a classicist or an early Romantic. Personally, I am wary of this strict classification, since I see Romanticism long before and after the Romantic era, and we are all a mixture of different philosophies of life and expressions. How could the Eroica Symphony be anything but Romantic?

Yes, the harmony and form are classical, but there is a whole feeling in this work that escapes the Enlightenment.

What is clear is that Sturm und Drang continued into the Romantic era, whether through music, art, literature or philosophy. It is very difficult to define as is Romanticism, because clear thought depends on a philosophical system. Authors of this tendency shared a feeling of alienation from this world, the wild seeking to escape what is false, artificial, intellectual, rationalised. I have often felt personally more at ease with wild plants and animal life than with potted or cut plants and animals in cages or domesticated.

I took my dog for a walk along a country lane near my village on this overcast day with clouds of iron and steel. The Atlantic wind was blowing quite strongly but there was no rain. It was shortly before dark as the colours of nature began to become less and less distinct. I felt an extraordinary sense of well being in this early evening gloom. It is what made me decide to write this posting. I remembered the storm in Portugal in August 1971 when I faced the darkening clouds and the wind coming from the ocean. My mother was concerned for my safety and I had to leave that source of strength and wildness. My feelings are the same as those of men born two centuries before I was. I was a Romantic before I ever heard the word at school.

We humans are formed by the modern social world. Even without becoming completely alienated, we can be inspired by the natural world or the mountains, the forests and the sea. We must not judge mental health in the narrow context of society. We have to see and understand the relationship of humans with other species, environments and ecosystems. In my own life, it is not without accident that I spent as much time outdoors as possible as a child, building dens in trees and watching birds and insects. Sturm und Drang is a powerful milestone and archetype in the human psyche.

Here is one of the most moving passages from the 1984 film Greystoke: Legend of Tarzan, which illustrates my point.

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