The Biedermeier Period
The Biedermeier period spanned between 1815 and 1848. It was a term originally used to describe a specific style of furniture that was popular in 19th century Vienna. Waltraud Heindl tells us in Schuberts Vienna, Biedermeier furniture was characterized by simple, graceful, curving lines as opposed to, on the one hand, the straight-line neoclassicism and antique motifs of Empire furniture and, on the other, the baroque or gothic elements found in the historicist style. In time, Biedermeier developed into a description of art, architecture, and eventually, a social phenomenon centered on the family and private life (as Gerbert Frodl maintained it was, an attitude toward life a lifestyle rather than an artistic style like classicism or baroque.). It is interesting to note the term Biedermeier originally carried with it negative connotations.
The Cause of the Biedermeier Period
The onset of the Biedermeier period in Vienna was almost exclusively determined by external circumstances. In an effort to avoid a repeat of the French revolution, the now re-established monarchies of Europe reigned with steel-fisted precision and secret intelligence agencies. The counterrevolutionary practices of Emperor Francis and his minister of state, Matternich, reached legendary proportions. Lodges, clubs, and societies were shut down; members were imprisoned. This effectively forced people from the coffee houses and meeting halls into the privacy of their homes. Heindl tells us, The world outside was politically dangerous, so private life, home, and social contacts were restricted to a circle of true and reliable friends.
It was this distinction of focus that separated Biedermeier from High Romanticism. In the Romantic, individuals were concerned with themselves and their own experience. The Biedermeier brought a shift of focus to relationships. Deep and meaningful friendships took on a significant importance that had hitherto been neglected. It is these satisfying friendships we see Schubert engage in over the course of his short lifetime.
The defensive roots of Biedermeier were also visible in architecture; houses were drawn back from the street, signifying a far more private existence than had existed decades before. Art was severely affected as Metternich acted as the president of the Vienna Academy of Fine Art. Only works that were positive to the Viennese culture and society were allowed, causing an abundance of family portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes to come about by default [they were the only things permitted!]. Among artists, men such as Peter Fendi, a master of watercolors, rose to prominence.
The Social Class of the Biedermeier Period
The Biedermeier culture was primarily a middle-class phenomenon. Unlike the French, the German aristocracy and administrative / middle classes did not mix. This goes a great deal in explaining how Beethoven and Schubert managed to live and work in Vienna at the same time without ever running into one another.
Much of the Biedermeier was the middle class attempting to emulate the nobility. The emphasis on family life was an emulation of the royal family of Austria. The newly designed furniture style previously mentioned, allowed an up and coming administrator or professional to feel as if they were really making it. Salons were opened by the middle class women, who demonstrated their education and social talents. Friends, family and other middle-class music lovers were invited into intimate social gatherings where lieder and art songs were performed by amateurs in the home.