Article body

Angela Esterhammer’s Romanticism and Improvisation, 1750-1850 contributes to an emerging trend in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cultural studies that focuses on the reception of a particular artistic genre in order to recast its importance for understanding the history of the period. Some landmarks of this incisive approach are James Johnson’s Listening in Paris (University of California 1996) as well as Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever’s edited volume, The Literary Channel: The Inter-National Invention of the Novel (Princeton 2001). While the former locates changes in opera-going and listening to music from which to map French political and cultural history from the Ancien régime to bourgeois society, the latter takes up the question of print culture in nineteenth-century Europe to reveal the vivacity of transnational communities that were created through the practice of reading novels. In a similarly expansive vein, Esterhammer studies the reception, re-interpretation, and literary representation of the Italian improvvisatori and improvvisatrici in England, Germany, France, and Russia to argue that the figure of the spontaneous oral poet illuminates a constellation of issues germane to Romantic ideology and identity politics from 1750-1850.

Setting her analysis against the cultural backdrop of pan-European print culture, Esterhammer proposes to examine the improviser as a site of exploration for a wide swath of concepts: genius, embodied and interactive performance art, authenticity, literary history, celebrity, national character, gender, and class. Like other scholars studying the mid- to late-nineteenth-century flâneur and prostitute, Esterhammer reads the improviser as a kind of nexus: an iconic figure whose ubiquity and metamorphoses in the literature and culture of Romanticism make it the ultimate Zeitgeist to be decoded. The work of unpacking so many tightly layered levels of meaning across several different national traditions would seem infinite. Yet Esterhammer’s compact, cosmopolitan approach demonstrates masterfully that improvisation is at the conceptual center of so many identity questions precisely because the improviser is ultimately a liminal figure.

Improvisation blossomed into an important and popular form of performance art in Italy in the eighteenth century. A creative feat entailing both scholarly erudition and the ability to produce coherent, even titillating verse spontaneously before an audience, improvisation is a glittering ballroom dance between thought and verbal poetic expression that inspired much amazement and some skepticism among those observing it. Esterhammer opens her book by drawing readers into the bodily liveliness and affective energy of what it was like to attend an improvisation in Italy around the turn of the century. We are to imagine a theater in Rome in which a “slim, elegantly dressed Italian gentleman” appears on stage with a violinist and a young girl who draws three topics from an urn (1). The improviser begins composing ottava rima stanzas one after the other on the aurora borealis, the glory of ancient Rome, and the death of Hector until finally, exhausted “and “trembling,” he collapses into a chair while the mostly entranced crowd has erupted into giddy applause (2).

It is against the backdrop of this most singular and spectacular event between an extemporaneous performer and his international crowd that Esterhammer sets the scene for an intriguing paradox: improvisation is “entirely the product of a literate society” and gained cultural traction in countries like England and France amidst “the ubiquity of print.” The rise of this oral performance genre thus coincided with European cultures “whose perspective and disposition [were] thoroughly shaped by reading and writing.” While scholars in the Romantic era disdained the “primitive” nature of a poetic form that was not written, Esterhammer suggests that the vogue of improvisation reflects collective nostalgia for a “more authentic, pre-literate past” (68).

This tension between the written and the oral is woven into the historical debate that dominates chapter four of Romanticism and Improvisation: Was Homer an improvvisatore? At the root of the Homeric debate was a desire to classify the merits of extemporaneous art with respect to ancient rhapsody. Romantic improvisers brought together large crowds of people to participate in an ecstatic experience that Hegel went so far as to describe as blitzähnlich—the “lightning flash” that jolts through listeners as the internal spark of the composer is externalized through language and gesture and simultaneously felt communally (5). Because improvisation was therefore both a collectively profound and profoundly collective experience shared largely among foreigners traveling in Italy, writers in England, Germany, and France sought to determine whether it was a noble art form descended from folklore and epic poetry, or if it was rather mere trickery, a dazzling display of mostly empty verbal fireworks.

Esterhammer meticulously documents the extent of this debate in a variety of English and German sources from the early nineteenth century, ranging from literary magazines, to travel writing, novels, and classical scholarship. While many of these considerations of improvisation attribute a generally positive (Homeric) role to the art, such as those of Joseph Forsyth in Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters during an Excursion in Italy, in the Years 1802 and 1803, the improviser becomes an increasingly complex and fraught figure as the nineteenth century unfolds. Northern Europeans had tended to conceptualize the worthiness of improvisation through the discourse of national identity; the wit and conviviality of improvisation was native to the Italian character and language. Yet with the upsurge in continental travel after the Napoleonic wars, improvvisatori began to travel north to work professionally in the theaters of major European cities, especially London. The northward migration reached its apotheosis in the early 1820s, and improvisation consequently became less about foreignness as it was integrated into the Romantic ideology of genius and the popular cult of celebrity: a brilliant star is born.

The harbinger of this celebrity figure is located, of course, in Germaine de Staël’s immensely popular novel of 1807, Corinne ou l’Italie. Corinne appears at the vanishing point of Romanticism and Improvisation, and as the fifth chapter unfolds it is somewhat paradoxical to see how neatly Corinne is vaporized in order to spotlight English poetic interpretations of the original inspired poetess. Esterhammer quickly evokes Corinne’s “cosmopolitan synthesis of improvisational styles” and her conversational “sociability” (91) to put them in contrast with the social alienation of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s “Erinna.” The English reception and reinterpretation of Corinne essentially diagnoses the female performer with an addiction to fame (102). The metamorphosis Esterhammer is documenting from the sociable-genius improviser to the psychologically disturbed performer then sets the stage for the last section of the book that treats the increasingly sinister portrayal of improvisation in nineteenth-century fiction.

Esterhammer uses broad strokes to depict the ultimate downfall of the improviser into a literary figure who disturbs the bourgeois-capitalist order. She offers us a pan-European panorama of the improviser as what she calls a “social agent”—a person on the margins of society (the transient, the cross-dresser, the crook who charms listeners for profit, etc.)—whose presence evokes anxieties about gender and class identity, genuineness, and the commercialization of art. This “extremely synoptic” approach, as Esterhammer calls it, is convincing, though it sacrifices opportunities for analytic rigor in favor of coverage (220). Chapters eight and nine read much like bibliographic catalogues of improvisers in literature, and the successive recounting of improviser story plots is fatiguing and not especially compelling as an argumentative strategy. Esterhammer hangs this story of downfall (what she calls “the improvisational turn”) on the theoretical apparatus of improvisation as a practice of everyday life in the social anthropology of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau. In drawing a parallel between the improvisational social tactics of the nineteenth-century social agent and those of the postmodern bricoleur, Esterhammer infers that there must be “an on-going concern with the extent to which a healthy social order can tolerate, and the extent to which it requires unpredictability and spontaneous response” (171). This seems to be a very conservative conclusion to a most interesting and provocative comparison; if the late-Romantic literary depiction of the transgressive improviser indeed “foreshadow[s]” postmodern theory of everyday social practices, what can we deduce about the similar constructions of subjectivity in these two extremely different moments in time?

In Romanticism and Improvisation, 1750-1850, Angela Esterhammer writes an important history that demonstrates elegantly the extent to which the reception of improvisers in Northern Europe tells a story about the evolution of Romantic ideology. In today’s world, art is imported, exported, and copied so frequently and often so grossly that the traffic of culture between countries seems evacuated of any social meaning besides the business of making money. Esterhammer’s thoughtful and comprehensive study keys into something special and unique about a time in the past when one culture profoundly responded to and defined itself in relation with the art of a foreign country.