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Music History

Sturm und Drang

September 29, 2017
"The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli, 1781

250 years ago, the Sturm und Drang movement captured the imagination of the German-speaking world. Composers used every technique at their disposal to express obsession, longing, terror, shock, and other intense emotions. They pushed the boundary of the art to darker and more dramatic places. As artistic movements go, Sturm und Drang was short—two decades at most—but in music it was a small dose of lively experimentation between two major stylistic periods: the Baroque and Classical.

Post-Baroque Confusion

It began in the 1760s. Music was at a crossroads: Bach and Handel died in the previous decade and with them the Baroque period ended. The old-fashioned style of thick, learned contrapuntal music lived on in academia and the church, but elsewhere composers were searching for change. The galant style emerged as the opposite—thin accompaniments and virtuosic melodies—and it flourished at the end of the Baroque but it was too limited both musically and expressively. The galant was more popular in Italy and France, where they tended toward beauty and virtuosity but not necessarily the same soul searching quality that Germans preferred. A sort-of backlash began toward dark, emotional themes and shocking musical effects.

Anti-Enlightenment Werther

At roughly the same time, a new movement began in literature that challenged the order and rationality of the Enlightenment, the prevailing philosophy at the time. It celebrated subjectivity and, like in the music world, tended toward the macabre. The name came from the play Der Wirrwarr, oder Sturm und Drang (Confusion, or Storm and Stress) by Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger but Goethe was the most famous author. His book The Sorrows of Young Werther, about a young man who falls in love with a woman he can’t marry and then commits suicide, was wildly popular and defined a new type of passionately lovesick man.

Wie oft lull' ich mein empörtes Blut zur Ruhe, denn so ungleich, so unstet hast du nichts gesehn als dieses Herz. Lieber! Brauch' ich dir das zu sagen, der du so oft die Last getragen hast, mich vom Kummer zur Ausschweifung und von süßer Melancholie zur verderblichen Leidenschaft übergehen zu sehn? Auch halte ich mein Herzchen wie ein krankes Kind; jeder Wille wird ihm gestattet.“

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, Goethe

”Often do I strive to allay the burning fever of my blood; and you have never witnessed anything so unsteady, so uncertain, as my heart. But need I confess this to you, my dear friend, who have so often endured the anguish of witnessing my sudden transitions from sorrow to immoderate joy, and from sweet melancholy to violent passions? I treat my poor heart like a sick child, and gratify its every fancy.”

The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe

Men dressed like Werther, acted like him, and a string of copycat suicides may have even been inspired by the novel. Goethe had mixed feelings about the Werther phenomenon, but it defined the time. In the Sturm und Drang, the artist's emotional world, messy as it was, was just as important as the physical world.

"The Shipwreck" by Claude Joseph Vernet, 1772

Vernet, Claude-Joseph

There was no recognized Sturm und Drang period in visual art. The painters Fuseli and Vernet never thought of themselves as connected to it. However, a similar anti-Enlightenment attitude toward dark, dramatic themes like nightmares, shipwrecks, and storms prevailed through much of the second half of the 18th century.

Another Anti-Hero Shakes Things Up

In contrast, Sturm und Drang in music was a less defined movement than in literature but more so than in visual art. It was a time of change. Composers were trying on different techniques and finding influence in various places but nothing quite fit. As early as 1761, Gluck's Don Juan premiered in Vienna with a startling portrayal of the title character’s descent into hell. The terror in the music inspired and challenged composers for a generation—it was a real moment in music history. Mozart wrote a fair bit of Sturm und Drang inspired music for the theatre under Gluck's influence and the Don Juan finale was still in the popular imagination in 1787 when Mozart wrote Don Giovanni.

Sturm und Drang music was a natural fit for the theatre but its dramatic effects were soon showing up in instrumental music too. Haydn embraced the new style. The aesthetic showed up first in his symphonies of the late 1760s and then in the string quartets in the first years of the 1770s.

The String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5 from 1772 is one of the most famous of the 18 quartets Haydn wrote during that time and, being in a minor key, one of the most dramatic. It takes inspiration from many of the different trends that were percolating at that time, both old and new:

  • In the first three movements, the virtuosic first violin part has the melody throughout with some assistance from the second violin. The thin-textured accompaniment and occasional commentary from the other instruments are reminiscent of the galant style.
First three measures of Op. 20, No. 5, Mvt. 1
  • The finale is an elaborate double fugue in the Baroque style
First line of Op. 20, No. 5, Mvt. 4

Laura Keller

  • But the depth of feeling and theatrical effects are from the new Sturm und Drang.

"Haydn was as interested as anyone else in the disruptive and shocking effects of the music of the 1760s: he retained a taste for such effects to the end of his life, remaining a master of the surprise modulation, the dramatic silence, the asymmetrical phrase; and he added to this aptitude for the facetious that no other composer enjoyed."

The Classical Style, Charles Rosen

Surprise Modulation

In the F minor Quartet, for example, toward the end of the first movement, there’s a particularly distant modulation that makes the race to the finish that follows all the more exciting.

[modulation is at 5:53]

Asymmetrical Phrases

The second movement, a minuet, starts out with an expected four-measure phrase before spinning out into an eight-measure phrase and then an unexpected, un-danceable six-measure phrase:

Arguably, Haydn’s most ambitious piano sonata from this period was the C minor (Hob. VXI: 20) from 1771. Not coincidentally, it’s also in a minor key. It has some of the same effects that Rosen mentions, like the dramatic silence, and some effects that are unique to the piano, like a remarkable cross-hands section.

Music's Sturm und Drang period was brief but hugely influential. It was the last period before the full Classical style and a last burst of dramatic experimentation. Just as Goethe moved on to Weimar Classicism in the 1780s, Haydn too moved into a Classical period—and he eventually brought most of European music with him.
This is the first of a series of articles on the Classical Style, the 2017-18 season theme at CMS.

Article by Laura Keller, Editorial Manager