Music History 102

Music History 102:

The Romantic Era

After Beethoven, composers turned their attention to the expression of intense feelings in their music. This expression of emotion was the focus of all the arts of the self-described “Romantic” movement. Whether in the nature imagery or passionate violence found in the paintings of Friederich, Delacroix, and Goya, the strange and fanciful literature of Edgar Allan Poe, or the adventure and myths of the great collections of fairy tales and folk poetry, the depiction in art of the beautiful, the strange, the sublime, and the morbid was the ruling credo of the period.

Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich

In music, the nineteenth century saw the creation and evolution of new genres such as the program symphony, pioneered by Beethoven and now developed by Hector Berlioz; its offshoot, the symphonic poem, was developed by Franz Liszt; the concert overture, examples of which were composed by Felix Mendelssohn and virtually every composer thereafter; and short, expressive piano pieces written for the bourgeois salons of Europe by Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin. Italian operas were composed in the Bel canto traditions, and these led directly to the masterworks of Giuseppe Verdi, while the idea of the German music drama was established by Richard Wagner. For inspiration, many Romantic era music composers turned to the visual arts – to poetry, drama, and literature – and to nature itself. Using the classical forms of sonata and symphony as a starting point, composers began focusing more on new melodic styles, richer harmonies, and ever more dissonance, in the pursuit of moving their audiences, rather than concerning themselves with the structural discipline of Classical period music forms. Later composers of the nineteenth century would further build on the forms and ideas developed by the Romantic era music composers.

Italian Bel Canto Opera

portrait of Gioacchino Rossini

Gioacchino Rossini

Born: Pesaro, February 29, 1792
Died: Paris, November 13, 1868

Producing his first opera at the age of eighteen, Rossini composed dozens, many of which are still in the repertoire today, while others are being once again explored. Rossini excelled in the opera buffa, or comic opera of the day — indeed, the music he wrote for these comic works has been described as “the perfect distillation of comedy into music.” Whether in comic or serious opera, his vocal style reflected the highly embellished, virtuosic melodic line again in favor at the time. This style is apparent in the aria “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, widely regarded as Rossini’s masterpiece in the opera buffa genre.

The overtures to Rossini’s operas are extremely popular concert pieces and some, such as the William Tell Overture, have been put to various commercial uses in recent years. This opera, Rossini’s last, was written in 1829, and although he lived for almost another forty years, Rossini never composed another opera.

portrait of Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti

Born: Bergamo, November 29, 1797
Died: Bergamo, April 8, 1848

Inheriting the bel canto tradition from Rossini, Donizetti’s operas are today mostly admired for their many attractive melodies and fine ensembles. Although he composed over seventy operas, only a handful have remained in the general repertory, but those are generally regarded as outstanding examples of the Italian Bel Canto period. Donizetti’s most famous opera is surely Lucia di Lammermoor, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott. The plot concerns a young girl who is tricked by her brother into thinking her lover has been unfaithful to her and forces her into a marriage of political convenience. During the wedding scene, Lucia’s lover makes an unexpected entrance, and all the protagonists give vent to their varied emotions in the celebrated Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. As was popular in Italian opera of the time, Lucia then goes mad, giving the prima donna an opportunity to display great acting and vocal skill in an extended scena.

The Italian operatic tradition was continued and taken to sublime heights later in the nineteenth century in the works of Giuseppe Verdi.

portrait of Carl Maria von Weber

Carl Maria von Weber

Born: Eutin, Oldenburg, November 18, 1786
Died: London, June 5, 1826

Weber figures prominently in history as the composer who established a German opera in his native land and successfully broke the chains of Italian traditions. He accomplished this in a variety of ways: the use of spoken dialogue in place of the Italian recitative; the use of German myths and folklore, with an emphasis on nature, for the subjects of his operas; and his remarkable use of the instruments of the orchestra, rather than just the voices, to tell the story. The overtures to Weber’s operas are dramatic renderings through music of the stories that are about to unfold, as in the overture to his most famous opera, Der Freischütz. The opera is about a hunter who, in order to marry the girl he loves, becomes a pawn in a bargain with the devil so that he may win a marksman’s shooting contest.

Taking Weber’s ideas and musical idioms, composer Richard Wagner later evolved his ideas of a German Music Drama into the art form that would forever change the course of music.

portrait of Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

Born: Hamburg, February 3, 1809
Died: Leipzig, November 4, 1847

Having shown exceptional musical talent at an early age, Mendelssohn was encouraged by his family to study music and to make it his career. At the age of seventeen, he composed an overture based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which was so successful that some years later he composed more music on the subject, resulting in a suite of pieces to be used in conjunction with productions of the play. Such a collection of pieces is known as incidental music, and the fleet and airy Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is typical of the seemingly effortless and beguiling style of this composer. Mendelssohn responded to nature as did most composers of the period. One of the results of nature’s influence was the Fingal’s Cave Overture, also known as The Hebrides, which depicts the rocky, wind-swept coast and ancient caverns of Scotland. Mendelssohn’s many travels also influenced two of his five symphonies, the third in A minor, known as the “Scotch” Symphony, and his popular Symphony no. 4 in A major, known as the “Italian” symphony, which incorporates melodies and dances that Mendelssohn came across while traveling in that country.

portrait of Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann

Born: Zwickau, June 8, 1810
Died: Endenich, near Bonn, July 29, 1856

A master of the more intimate forms of musical compositions, Schumann is unique in music history as being one of the great composers who concentrated on one musical genre at a time, with the bulk of his earliest compositions being for the piano. Schumann’s piano music (and later his songs) remain supreme examples of the Romantic style of the second quarter of the nineteenth-century. Immensely influenced by literature and poetry, it is the dreamy nature of his music which most affects the listener, as can be heard in the fifth movement from the piano suite entitled Carnaval. Aside from three piano sonatas, most of his work for the instrument is in the form of suites comprising short, poetic pieces, each expressing a different mood.
In 1840, Schumann was finally able to marry Clara Wieck, the daughter of his first music teacher – who had opposed their union. Schumann’s happiness found an outlet in the great number of Lieder he wrote during that year. The first number from his song cycle Dichterliebe, “Im wunderschönen Monat mai” (A Poet’s Love: “In the beautiful month of May”) is another example of the composer’s harmonic and melodic style.

In order to publicize his own music and to stimulate and improve the musical tastes of the burgeoning concert-going public, Schumann founded Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (The New Journal for Music) in 1834, and remained active as its editor for ten years. In the pages of this publication, Schumann considerably raised the standards of music criticism and did much to promote the careers of young composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Hector Berlioz, and especially Johannes Brahms, who was to become a very close friend of Schumann.

Throughout his life, Schumann felt himself divided by two contrasting natures: the gentle, poetic, Apollonian side, which he called “Eusebius”; and the more forthright, dramatic, and stormy side he named “Florestan.” Because of this rift in his personality, he feared insanity for much of his life, and eventually did spend his last years in an asylum.

Franz Liszt

Born: Raiding, near Ödenburg, October 22, 1811
Died: Bayreuth, July 31, 1886

portrait of Franz Liszt

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt began his career as the outstanding concert pianist of the century, who, along with the prodigious violinist Niccoló Paganini (1782-1840), created the cult of the modern instrumental virtuoso. To show off his phenomenal and unprecedented technique, Liszt composed a great deal of music designed specifically for this purpose, resulting in a vast amount of piano literature laden with dazzling scales, trills, arpeggios, leaps, and other technical marvels. In this vein, Liszt composed a series of virtuosic rhapsodies on Hungarian gypsy melodies, the best-known being the all too familiar Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2. This kind of music is worlds apart from the generally more introspective, poetic music of pianist-composer Frédéric Chopin.

Liszt is often credited with the creation of the symphonic poem – extended, single-movement works for orchestra inspired by paintings, plays, poems, or other literary or visual works – and attempting to convey the ideas expressed in those media through music. Such a work is Les Préludes, based on a poem in which life is expressed as a series of struggles, passions, and mysteries, all serving as a mere prelude to . . .what? The Romantic genre of the symphonic poem, as well as its cousin the concert overture, became very attractive to many later composers, including Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled, and created by

Robert Sherrane