Sup yo – welcome to part II of classical music 101. In this installment, I will give you an overview of the Romantic and Post-Romantic eras. As before, I am at work and am writing this entirely off the top of my head, so I’ll try to remember everything.
THE ROMANTIC ERA (1800-1860)
The composer that virtually single-handedly ended the classical period and ushered in the romantic was Ludwig Von Beethoven. His early years were heavily influenced by Mozart, and by his aging teacher, Haydn. Beethoven’s music took a turn around 1800 towards a more passionate and newly harmonic direction. It was dark, intense, sublime. Beethoven became the measuring stick to which all other composers for nearly a century were measured. Beethoven also expanded the symphony orchestra as well as the repertoire for the piano. These two instruments (the orchestra and the piano) became all important in the 19th century.
Shortly after Beethoven’s death, a young French composer once again up’d the ante for orchestral composition. The composer was Hector Berlioz and the piece was his “Symphonie Fantastique”. The work featured many new “extended” techniques for the orchestra never before heard. They were to depict the fantastic, supernatural, and grotesque images of the story line that was associated with the work.
Also during this time, smaller pieces that were suited for small concerts in homes and salons began to become popular. These pieces ranged from songs for solo voice and piano, to chamber pieces such as the string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello), piano trio (piano, violin, cello), etc. It became fasionable to high society, especially in Paris, to host small private concerts, and new music was being written for this purpose.
One of the major composers writing songs at this time was Franz Schubert. His many song cycles were perfectly suited for the salon concerts, and after a while he began to host his “Schubertiades”, where he would invite his “influencial” friends and play his music for them.
Another composer whose music suited these smaller, intimate settings was the Polish composer Frederik Chopin. Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano, and his distinctive style, laced with folk melodies and fresh new chromaticism, captured the hearts of fans, performers, and composers alike.
Following Schubert and Chopin was the enigmatic Robert Schumann. Schumann also was a great composer of chamber music, with scores of songs and piano solos to his credit. He was also one of the first great music critics (the first GOM?). He wrote for a Vienna periodical and championed the music of such composers as Chopin, Liszt, and the then young Brahms. He wrote his reviews under his various “personas” that he liked to use. Florestan – the extrovert .. Eusabius – the introvert . Master Raro – the learned gentlemen.
Another pianist was really pushing the boundaries of music at this time. This was the Hungarian pianist/composer Franz Liszt. Liszt was probably one of the greatest virtuosos of the piano in history. His compositions for solo piano are of the most difficult in the repertoire. His tone poems for orchestra pushed at tonality, taking it to worlds previously unexplored, almost reaching into atonal cacophony. Liszt was only the beginning of a divergence that was taking hold, and would dominate musical debate in the post-romantic period.
RECOMMENDED COMPOSERS: Ludwig Von Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Franz Schubert, Frederik Chopin, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt
THE POST-ROMANTIC ERA (1860-1900)
The post-romantic era represented new ideals in music, and a widening gap of styles, both personal and nationalistic. It sparked debate all over Europe as to who was writing good music and who was wasting their time. People chose sides, and the arguments were heated and personal.
The biggest rivalry that sparked during this period was the Brahms vs. Wagner debate. You were either on one side or the other. One was a hack and the other was a genius, no in between.
Johannes Brahms was a classicist at heart, and sought a return to classical forms and language, inspired by his obsession with Beethoven. Brahms developed a lush, personal language that was clear in intent and form. The operative word in his music is clarity, above all else. But Brahms’ music is also filled with passion, sadness, and longing. He wrote in virtually every style of the day, and excelled at all. His symphonies, chamber music, and choral music represent some of the finest compositions ever put to paper.
On the other side of the fence was the firey, and intensely nationalistic composer Richard Wagner (That’s Vagner you heathen!). Wagner’s music was new – radically new. His intense chromaticism and powerful drama came under attack by many, and was embraced by many. Wagner sought to unify the arts in what he called “gesamtkustwerk”, or “total art”. This meant that he would create works that would unite music, literature, poetry, and drama. Wagner created some of the most important and massive operas ever written, writing the music as well as the librettos. He even had a new opera hall constructed (Bayreuth) because existing halls were not adequate to stage his works.
Another phenomenon in music started to happen towards the end on the 19th century in France. By this time, Wagner’s dominance was well established in Europe, and everyone and his brother were rushing to imitate. Claude Debussy grew tired of the overblown, and overly chromatic Wagnerian tradition, and he began to look to impressionist painters for musical inspiration. This was the birth of impressionism in music. It’s characterized by a soft, delicate use of color, and avoidance of traditional, functional harmony (V-I cadences, etc). Soon to follow was Maurice Ravel, one of the greatest orchestrators of all time. Both Debussy and Ravel produced masterpieces of impressionistic music in virtually every genre of composition.
In Russia, new sounds were emerging from Aleksander Scriabin, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky (whose famous “Pictures at an Exhibition” was orchestrated by Ravel). These composers would have a profound influence on Stravinsky in the next century.
RECOMMENDED COMPOSERS: Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Aleksander Scriabin, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky
LOOK FOR PART THREE – THE 20th CENTURY! COMING SOON!