Masculine Geek and Classical Music, Part 5: Periods and Key Figures. The Romantic Period (1820-1910)

In my previous posts on both the Baroque and Classical periods, I didn’t spend that much time on them and the content might seem thin in parts.  Part of that is because, in my opinion, there’s not that much to say, at first face, about either period.  Oh, sure . . . in no way, shape, or form am I advocating that one not indulge in either of those periods.  Indeed, as I mentioned in my posts, both periods gave birth to the common-practice, which set the foundation for “classical music” in the following centuries, and the forms that we still see today: e.g., symphony, sonata, chamber ensemble, etc.  On those notes, one should listen to as much Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Haydn as one can, both to absorb the forms and the style.  There’s so much glorious music to take in with each period, and venturing outside of the standard repertory pieces rewards one with a cornucopia of aural bliss — at least in my opinion.  YMMV.

One beneficial thing about both periods is that, though there is diversity (isn’t there, anywhere?), there’s a lot of consistency, too.  Listen to enough Mozart symphonies and Haydn sonatas, and you get the gist.  And, once you get the gist, you can explore more, if you care to.

However, now it’s time for me to cover the Romantic period, and I have a lot more content to share.  Why this period?  Because there’s a lot more diversity here, a lot more innovation.  Romantic composers took the Classical forms and either worked within those constraints (e.g., Brahms) or moved past them and created new forms in the process (e.g., Liszt).  Some of these composers, as they moved into the early 20th century, also paved the way for “modern” composers to further experiment.  That is where you see some really striking creations.  But, they’re not for everybody, as you’ll see in my next post on 20th century music.

And, with that, let me first lay some groundwork.

“Romantic” here doesn’t refer to “lovey-dovey,” or anything like that (though it could).  Rather, the term refers to how the artist taps into feeling and such emotions as apprehension, terror, and awe (the term sublime fits in here nicely), without being confined to classical forms, which are themselves a partial product of the Enlightenment.  Also, romanticism, speaking more generally and not just about music, took an active interest in folk art and music, coinciding with a rise in nationalism and the emergence of new nation-states, particularly after the Napoleonic Wars and the European revolutions of 1848.  Finally, romanticism reacted against the increasing scientific rationalization of nature and the Industrial Revolution.  All of this one clearly sees in the visual and plastic arts.

With music, there definitely is a stress on breaking free of the Classical mold and incorporating folk music.  Franz Liszt, for example, tapped into the folk music of his native Hungary, as did Ralph Vaughan Williams with English folk music.  However, calling music “romantic” didn’t happen until later in the 19th century, as the field of musicology blossomed.  Put another way, applying “romantic” to music is a bit slippery, but, for all intents and purposes, those composers active in the 19th century and the very early 20th century were exploring new forms, with the Germans leading the way.

Next, absolute vs. program music.  Absolute is music for its own sake, whereas program music tells a story.  The distinction already was present as far back as the Baroque, but the 19th century saw a new take on program music with the rise of, for example, the “symphonic poem.”  As I just noted, 19th century composers already had a solid body of music forms on which to draw and so they continued writing absolute music in these forms, with some alterations.  With program music, 19th century composers dipped into literature and theater for inspiration

During the Romantic period, one sees more mention of opus numbers.  The term opus means “work,” and usually refers to a published work.  The practice started in the 18th century, but was sporadic until the 19th century with the rise of music publishing houses.  A composer could either group a series of works under one opus number, or assign a number to a single work.  Some of a composer’s work might not have opus numbers, for various reasons, or have a posthumous (i.e., after death) number.  Finally, the opus number only designates the date of publication, not the date of composition.  More than a few composers published works that they had written some years before, so the opus number isn’t a tell-all for when the work came into being.

Finally, there were many forces at work during the Romantic period fostering creativity and the spread of music.  One of these was the rise of conservatories, or music schools.  Though in existence since around the early 16th century, conservatories and the support networks around them really came into their own in the 19th century.  Many composers, who, in earlier centuries, might have received their education/training at the hands of relatives or private tutors, began to enroll in conservatories for more formal training.  The training that students received were in the standard musical forms from centuries prior.  (Of course, if you learn the “classics” then you’ve learned the bases on which you can innovate.)  In some cases, this benefited the composer, especially with competitions (e.g., piano) that the conservatory put on.  In other cases, the composer’s experience at the conservatory was lackluster or downright awful, so that the composer wound up rebelling against his training and set off in a new direction.

A second force at work was the rise of the middle and upper middle classes with time, talent, and disposable income.  Amateurs, of course, had been making music for centuries prior, but in the 19th century with music publishing houses, more and more sheet music, esepcially for piano, was printed for their private consumption.  This his how more music got out there into the hands, and ears, of the general public, which then spurred attendance at concerts.

So, with that prefatory material out the way, let’s get to the people . . .

Franz Schubert.  Born in Vienna and spent most of his life there.  Like Beethoven, he was born in the late 18th century and so was influenced by the Classical forms, using them in his earlier works.  Unlike Beethoven, Schubert is more properly situated within the Romantic idiom because of the style of his compositions (though some might disagree and stand firm on situating him in the Classical period).  He was a talented pianist and wrote much for the instrument, but he wasn’t a virtuoso and so, therefore, his music is better fitted for the salon.  He is best known for his 900 odd-some art songs (German, Lieder) based on the important poets of the time, like Goethe and Schiller.  Tragically, he died in poverty at the tender age of 31, but not without having composed an astonishing amount of music across many genres, such as piano, Lieder, symphonies, chamber music, and masses.

Representative works:

Carl Maria von Weber.  Born in Germany, Weber is best known as the first composer of Romantic opera, from which one notes the introduction of the leitmotif (i.e., a musical phrase referring to a person, place, or idea) and his lifelong interest in non-Western music.  He also wrote symphonies, chamber music, and piano music.

Representative works:

Frederic Chopin.  Born in Poland, but spent much of his career in France, to the extent that one can mistake him for being French.  A child prodigy and eventual virtuoso pianist, Chopin disdained the stage and gave just a handful of concerts during his life, preferring instead the intimate setting of the salon, which is also reflected in many of his piano works.  Chopin is unmistakably supreme in Romantic piano literature and a staple of both professional and amateur pianists alike.  Most of his works were for the piano, but he did foray into some chamber music (still with the piano being the main instrument), songs, and even music for a ballet.  A shy and reserved man, he nonetheless was involved in a turbulent relationship with the French novelist George Sand (real name: Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), which added to his fame and minor notoriety.  Despite his output, Chopin was sickly for most of his life and eventually died at the early age of 39 from complications from tuberculosis.

Representative works:

Georges Bizet.  An early French composer known mainly for his opera Carmen, itself part of the standard repertoire, though he is also known for some orchestral music and music in other forms.

Gioachino Rossini.  An Italian best known for his operas, many of which are part of the standard repertoire.  His operas aren’t heavy like Wagner’s, but they’re no less brilliant on account of catchy tunes and the bel canto (“beautiful singing”) style.  Snatches of Rossini’s operas, and overtures, are staples in movies, TV, and even cartoons.

Representative works:

Johannes Brahms.  Born in Hamburg, but spent the bulk of his career in Vienna.  Brahms composed for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, and voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works.  Though his music sits between a traditional idiom (viz., the Classical) and an innovative style, Brahms nevertheless is often grouped with Bach and Beethoven as one of the “three B’s” – giants of classical music.  The focus on the traditional idiom gives Brahms’s music a sense of heaviness and depth because he is working within very tight strictures, yet is unlike Beethoven in that he wasn’t that much of a maverick, straddling two periods.  Brahms had a close relationship with Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara.  A lifelong bachelor, Brahms nevertheless had a strong platonic relationship with Clara, helping her in her time of need when Robert descended into disability, and his eventual confinement to an asylum, because of his bipolar disorder.

Representative works:

Johann Strauss, Jr.  Born in Vienna and active there, Strauss is part of an important musical family that also counts Josef Strauss and Johann Sr.  All of the Strausses are best known for their waltzes and polkas, two forms that were on the rise in Vienna at the time.  However, Johann Jr. also was a respectable opera composer in his own right, a master of the opera buffa (“comic opera”).

Gaetano Donizetti.  Born in Italy, Donizetti, along with Rossini and Bellini, wrote many operas in the bel canto (“beautiful singing”) style, some of which are on English themes related to the Tudor period.  He is mainly known for these operas, both in Italian and French, of which there are 75 in total.  Yet, he did find the time to write symphonies and other orchestra music.

Hector Berlioz.  Born in France in the early 19th century, Berlioz occupies a place in musical history that some have described as “decorative” rather than “architectural.”  That is, rather than invent and develop new forms, Berlioz leaned more to the fanciful and expressive, often on the grand scale.  He wrote operas, a few of which are known.  Ditto for a few symphonies, which retained the four-movement structure, yet differed greatly from work to work.  Lastly, he also wrote extensively in prose, much of it being music criticism.

Representative works:

Felix Mendelssohn.  Born in Germany and connected with that style, he however made ten visits to England during his life and was a favorite of Albert and Victoria.  Like Brahms, Mendelssohn was conservative in his outlook and idiom, to the extent that some of his contemporaries dismissed him as not that interesting, and even despite his output in the form of piano music (he was a talented pianist), symphonies, chamber music, and incidental music, which he began composing at a very early age.  Mendelssohn was also very conversant in art, languages, and literature.  In short, he was as well-read as he was well-trained in music.  Most importantly, Mendelssohn is the key figure in reintroducing J. S. Bach’s music to the musical public, after having fell into relative obscurity after Bach’s death in 1750.  Sadly, Mendelssohn didn’t live long, dying at 38.

Representative works:

Robert Schumann.  Born in eastern Germany, Schumann wore two hats during his life.  First, he was a composer, and a career that he more or less was forced to adopt when he injured his right hand, cutting short his promising career as a piano virtuoso.  His second hat was that of a music critic, theorist, and publisher.  He did much to champion the works of other Romantic-era composers like Chopin.  Lastly, Schumann is best known for the relationship with his wife, Clara Wieck, who herself was a talented pianist and one of the few women of the age who successfully was on the stage.  Schumann was also connected with Johannes Brahms, through his wife, which itself is a story of intense platonic love.  Schumann died in his 40s, not long after he tried to drown himself in the Rhine River on account of his undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  In some respects, he was the epitome of the passionate, yet troubled, artist.

Representatve works:

Piotr Tchaikovsky.  Born in Russia, Tchaikovsky is the best-known Russian in the standard repertory, and, in effect, put Russian music on the map internationally during his day.  He wrote symphonies, piano music, piano concertos, chamber music, ballet music, and self-contained orchestral music.  Like Schubert, he had a copious gift of melody, which sometimes served him well and sometimes didn’t.  With the latter, especially since many Romantic-era compositions were self-contained and didn’t fit into the strict forms of the Classical period.  After years of wandering outside his native Russia, Tchaikovsky became the first full-time Russian composer through the years-long patronage of a wealthy Russian businesswoman, whom he never met in person.

Representative works:

Franz Liszt.  The only Hungarian in the list, Liszt was born in the then Austrian Empire and grew up speaking German and French, and Germany being the one country where he spent much of his life.  Immensely talented, Liszt received his first piano lessons at the hands of Carl Czerny, who also was a student of Beethoven.  He began performing and composing soon after, but it wasn’t until he heard Niccolo Paganini, the famed Italian virtuoso, that Liszt resolved to become as accomplished on the piano as Paganini was on the violin.  Liszt then became the best-known of the traveling and concertizing virtuoso, functionally equivalent to the latter-day rock star.  Not surprisingly, much of Liszt’s output is for the piano, often of great technical and harmonic demands that is out of reach of middling amateurs.  However, Liszt is also known for three of things.  First, his taking up of the form of the “symphonic poem,” which is an orchestral depiction of a literary or landscape setting, among other things.  Second, he championed other composers’ work through piano transcriptions, to include Mozart, Beethoven (all nine symphonies), Schubert, and his contemporaries.  And, third, his relationship with Richard Wagner through his daughter’s marriage to that composer.  Later in his life, Liszt took minor holy orders in the Catholic Church ad concentrated more on religious-themed music, as well as experimental, atonal stuff, which in turn helped pave the way of the innovations in the 20th century.

Representative works:

Richard Wagner. Born in Germany, Wagner is the poster child for an outsized, megalomaniacal shit-disturber personality among Romantic composers.  Though he also composed in other forms, Wagner’s main output are his operas, grand in scale.  He was the pioneer of what he called the Gesamtkunstwerk (i.e., “total art work”), which incorporated music, story (Wagner wrote his own librettos, rather than relying on someone else), and the stage.  Wagner’s sources for his operas mainly came from the Nibelungen, a collection of ancient Norse myths, as well as medieval Christian legends.  His operas display complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and extensive use of the leitmotif.  He also advanced music to the start of modern, early 20th century music.  Under his direction, the Festspielhaus was built in Bayreuth, Germany to perform his operas.  It still stands to this day.

Sergei Rachmaninoff.  The last Russian on this list, Rachmaninoff, like Beethoven, occupies a place between the 19th and the 20th century.  Though “romantic,” Rachmaninoff’s music sometimes can be heavy, yet bedecked with rich colors, expressive qualities, and song-like melodic structures and bell-like harmonies.  He was a virtuoso pianist and much of his music is for the piano, but he is also known for his symphonies, chamber music, liturgical music, and operas.

Alexander Scriabin.  Another Russian, Scriabin started off greatly influenced by Chopin (Scriabin himself was a virtuoso pianist) and the standard romantic idiom, but then later in his life moved more towards atonalism and dissonance, which was part of his mystical tendencies, and which in turn were influenced by Nietzsche’s notion of the Ubermensch and by theosophy.  A solid eccentric, Scriabin tried to compose music influenced by color and his own brand of metaphysics.  Like Rachmaninoff, though to a different degree, Scriabin’s music influenced early 20th century innovators like Stravinsky and Prokofiev.  However, after his death, Scriabin’s music precipitously declined in popularity to the point of even being condemned as “evil” by some.  It took several decades for his reputation to be rehabilitated.

Giuseppe Verdi.  Born in then French-occupied northern Italy, Verdi is best-known as one of the giants of 19th century opera.  Verdi’s style was heavily influenced, early on, by the operas of Rossini and Bellini, but he then matured into his own style, significantly moving beyond the constraints of those previous composers, with special emphasis on choruses.  Verdi also lived during the Italian Risorgimento, and scholars to this day are debating to what extent his operas were politically motivated.  Living to a ripe old age, with his wealth he established a retirement home for opera singers, which still exists to this day.

Representative works:

Gustav Mahler.  Born in Bohemia (a predecessor of the modern-day Czech Republic) to a Jewish family of humble origins, Mahler grew up speaking German and was active in Vienna for much of his professional life, where he worked as a conductor and composed part time.  Though clearly situated within the Romantic idiom, his music also served to bridge between that idiom and the budding modernist idiom of the earliest 20th century.  Not only was Mahler influenced by Franz Schubert and Richard Wagner (of whose works he became a leading interpreter), but also by Arthur Schopenhauer and Freidrich Nietzsche.  Mahler, as a result, was greatly preoccupied with large-scale music, often from a programmatic standpoint, and philosophical problems.  One can credibly call Mahler’s music “heavy” because of its scope.  Mahler’s symphonies, for example, are large, complex, and frequently call for choruses and operatic soloists.  His music wound up influencing the Second Viennese School of the early 20th century.

Representative works:

Antonin Dvořák.  Born near Prague, Dvořák, like his predecessor Smetana, brought Czech folk melodies to the fore, and then to the world stage.  He was championed by Brahms.  Dvorak made several trips to England during his life, and spent three years in the United States after he started to become famous.  During this time, he composed his 9th symphony, dubbed “From the New World,” using the American idiom.  He wrote symphonies, concertos, songs, chamber music, and a few operas, but only one of those operas is regularly performed today.

Representative works:

Arthur Sullivan.  With William Gilbert, his lyricist and collaborator, Sullivan wrote many of the well-known English “light” operas of the 19th century.  They are still performed today

Edvard Grieg.  The only Norwegian in the list, Grieg helped to cement Scandinavian nationalism in the 19th century, partially through his use of Norwegian folk tunes.  Himself a talented pianist, he gave concerts early in his life and one of his famous compositions is a piano concerto.  He also wrote in other forms, but his output is small compared to other Romantic composers.  Still, some of his works are part of the standard repertoire.

Edward Elgar.  The first Englishman on this list, Elgar was born in humble circumstances to a Roman Catholic family.  Both of these facts contributed to his struggles earlier in life, but he did make a splash with his Enigma Variations in his 40s, which set him up for further success in his later years.  Though considered a quintessential “English” composer, Elgar was most influenced by Continental European music, particularly of the Germans.  He is best known for his orchestral music, to include two symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams.  The second Englishman on this list, Vaughan Williams is among the best-known British symphonists.  His music occupies a wide range of moods, and the hallmark of his works is a sense of the sometimes stormy, the sometimes tranquil, and the sometimes quite mysterious.  He was influenced greatly by English folk music, seen in his works, as well as the time spent with Maurice Ravel as his student.  In is early 40s, he volunteered to work driving ambulances during World War I, and that war affected him deeply.  He continued to compose well into his 80s.

Giacomo Puccini.  Born in Italy, Puccini shares the stage with Verdi as one of the most important opera composers of the 19th century.  However, as some scholars have noted, Puccini and others of the time came onto the scene as Verdi’s career was coming to an end, so his style took a different turn over the course of his career.  Puccini is definitely late Romantic, but he changed his style to something more “modern” as he moved into the 20th century, without adopting a fully modern style.  He also helped to innovate opera, moving it away from a collection of set pieces to the “through-composed” (i.e., constant music throughout the opera and no stops for soloist and recitative, or spoken dialogue) style.  All of his operas have the one standout set piece for a singer, which is a highlight.  Several of his operas are part of the standard repertoire, and are often cited as the most popular for opera-goers.

Claude Debussy.  Born in Paris and active there, Debussy is one of the so-called “impressionist” composers on account of his dreamy and complex harmonies, stretching over several musical forms.  Best known for his piano music and tone poems, but he also wrote a couple of operas.

Maurice Ravel.  The second of the so-called “impressionist” composers.  Like Debussy, Ravel’s music has dreamy and complex harmonies, yet he was more influenced by the budding jazz idiom than was Debussy.

Jean Sibelius.  The only Finnish composer in the list, Sibelius’s idiom is unique to the late 19th century and heavy with nationalist overtones.

Erik Satie.  Born in Normandy, France and moving to Paris when he was four years old, Satie spent the rest of his life there, active in the salons and paving the way of the minimalistic and repetitive style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He earned his living as a pianist and is best known for his music for that instrument.  Satie’s style is unique – intimate, not bombastic, and festooned with odd titles.  He didn’t reject Romanticism outright, but only certain aspects such as musical development and melodrama.  In many respects, Satie came to represent one example of the idea of a musical eccentric and of the flâneur, which is someone who strolls through a city to pass the time, yet who also learns a lot about his surroundings while being on foot.

Scott Joplin.  The only American on this list, and the only black composer.  Born in Texarkana, Texas to a former slave father and a freeborn mother, Joplin displayed talent from an early age and was diligent in his study and practice.  However, as to be expected, there were precious few opportunities for black pianists in the American South at the time, so Joplin took up as a traveling musician until he settled in Sedalia, Missouri, arriving in 1894.  During his time there, he became the chief composer in the “ragtime” idiom, which was a precursor to jazz.  Joplin wrote many “rags” for solo piano, which became popular among amateur pianists.  In 1907, however, Joplin moved to New York City to find a producer for an opera he was writing, in the ragtime style.  He unfortunately went bankrupt trying to financially produce the opera himself.  His mistake, as scholars noted later, was that he was trying to break into art music, which was closed to blacks at the time, instead of sticking to commercial music, of which “rags” were a part.  Joplin died in New York, impoverished, at an asylum from syphilis at age 48.  It wasn’t until the release of the movie The Sting in 1973 and its winning of Best Picture that Joplin’s place in musical history was cemented.

Mind you, this isn’t an exhaustive list and there are many other composers of the Romantic period that I can mention here — testament to the widening palette of musical colors on display during the period.  This palette would be further widened in the next century, the 20th, as those same forms were pushed to their limits.

But, that will have to wait until the next post.

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