Although the first part of its title hints at something that’s never quite identified, this wide-ranging survey of musical Romanticism is wonderfully satisfying. Stephen Walsh, who is both a music critic and an academic (the author of, among other studies, a prodigious two-volume biography of Stravinsky), can draw on vast listening experience, and his new book feels like the distillation of a lifetime’s engagement with music. While music in the Romantic age has rarely been treated so thoroughly, wisely and accessibly, Walsh also has a way of stepping back from the subject that allows him to turn the history of one musical period into a history of music altogether.
The narrative sweep stretches from the aftermath of the Baroque and the transitional figure of C P E Bach through the Viennese classicism of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to the advent of modernism and even (by way of a farewell dismissive gesture) the rise in the 1970s of a rather watery neo-romanticism. To the non-specialist, it may seem that all the essentials are here, that this is the whole story. Walsh, who designates his book as an ‘armchair read’ – it was written during the pandemic when libraries were out of reach – has triggered a school-time memory of my first encounter with the great composers in Percy Scholes’s The Oxford Companion to Music, a book you did not seem to have to go beyond. Walsh’s has comparable vividness and completeness.
Walsh’s handling of the ‘materialist’ side of musical history – the political backgrounds (frequently turbulent), the development of concert halls, musical societies and instruments – is always accomplished, but his aesthetic appraisals are the most valuable component of the book. Value judgements, so often avoided by academics, are at