The Romantic Era

Expression was everything to the Romantics-expression through art, music, poetry, drama, literature, and philosophy. Like one of the intellectual fathers of the era, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Romantics yearned to reclaim freedom. Rousseau wrote, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” The Romantic period was a time of political revolution and new ways of looking at the world, based on emotion, adventure, and imagination. Instead of working for wealthy bosses, composers were for the first time able to work for themselves. They composed music to express what they were thinking and feeling unlike during earlier days, when they were only allowed to compose exactly what their employers wanted. A newfound appreciation of the artist as an individual emerged during the Romantic Era.

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. Franz Liszt developed its offshoot, the symphonic poem. This era gave birth to the concert overture, examples of which were composed by Felix Mendelssohn and almost 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 Richard Wagner established the idea of the German music drama. For inspiration, many Romantic composers turned to the visual arts, poetry, drama, literature, and nature. 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 forms. Later composers of the nineteenth century further built upon the forms and ideas developed by the Romantic composers.

Many individual styles of Romantic music existed and were often dependent on where the composers called their home. Composers wrote music that represented their countries- including the history, politics, and challenges of those countries. This music is called “Nationalistic,” and sometimes included folk song melodies and historical references of the country. The continued growth of the orchestra was also a trademark of the Romantic period. New instruments, or ones that had been modified in some way, allowed composers to write music for entirely new sounds and for new instrument combinations.

The nineteenth century saw the development of many different musical styles, but certain musical styles stand out. The dynamic range was wider, and there was a larger range of sound. A greater variety of instruments were used, including improved or newly invented wind instruments. Melodies were longer, more dramatic, and emotional. Tempos were more extreme, and tempo rubato was often called for. Harmonies were fuller and often more dissonant. Formal structures were expanded and often determined by the programmatic content of the piece.

Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany on February 3, 1809. Felix Mendelssohn was something of a prodigy. He wrote his first piece at the age of eleven, beginning a prolific period in which the youth created pieces in virtually every genre from sonatas to concertos and even a Singspiel. Having shown exceptional musical talent at an early age, Mendelssohn’s family encouraged him to study music and make a career for himself. Mendelssohn first appeared in public as a pianist at the age of nine and performed his first original compositions when he was eleven years old. At the age of seventeen, Mendelssohn composed an overture based on Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was so successful that he later 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 style of this composer. Mendelssohn connected with nature, as did most composers of the period. One piece of his that was influenced by nature is the Fingal’s Cave Overture, also known as The Hebrides, which depicts the rocky, wind-swept coast and ancient caverns of Scotland. Mendelssohn’s numerous 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 heard while traveling.

Mendelssohn’s teachers included the Bohemian pianist-composer Ignaz Moscheles and the German composer Carl Zelter. A revival of public interest in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach was directly attributable to Mendelssohn, who in 1829 conducted the first performance since Bach’s death of his St. Matthew Passion. At about the same time, Felix began to travel widely; the next few years took him to England, Scotland and Italy. Besides spreading his reputation, these journeys were important for the pieces that they yielded. Some, such as his “Italian” symphony and the Hebrides overture, documented his musical impressions of these voyages. Mendelssohn suffered a physical collapse at the death of his favorite sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and passed away a few months later in Leipzig on November 4, 1847.

In 1833, Mendelssohn took a conducting post in Düsseldorf. Two years later he took his most important position, as director of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. He remained in Leipzig for another ten years, maintaining a busy schedule of performances, conducting works of contemporaries as well as the old masters. He also founded and directed the Leipzig conservatory. His abilities as a conductor and as an organizer of festivals created a great demand for his services. Because of his schedule, most of his compositional work was restricted to the summer months.

Mendelssohn’s music is the most classically oriented of all his generation. This is partly due to his intense study of Bach, Handel, and Mozart, and the influence is best seen in his large choral works such as the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah. At the same time, his clarity of form and the effortless outpouring of his melody bring to mind the same qualities in Mozart. Yet he was a true Romantic, cultivating smaller forms, such as the Lied, and brief character pieces for the piano. He also showed the Romantic penchant for imbuing his pieces with extra musical associations, and he had the deep love of literature that marked this generation, a quality that is often an important aspect of his music.

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt was born in Raiding on October 22, 1811. Franz Liszt embodied all of the great ambitions of the Romantic era, and many of its contradictions. His life spanned three generations of Romantic composers. In his early life, he was an extravagant virtuoso, the darling of the ladies, and a creator of new and adventurous music. In his old age, he turned to the church, becoming a priest, writing sacred music, and championing the music of a new generation. He began his career as the concert pianist of the century, who, along with the prodigious violinist Niccoló Paganini (1782-1840), created the sect of the modern instrumental virtuoso. Liszt first studied the piano with his father and later with the Austrian pianist Carl Czerny in Vienna, where he also studied theory with the Italian composer Antonio Salieri. In 1823, Liszt moved with his parents to Paris and took composition lessons from the Italian opera composer Fernando Paër and the Czech-French composer and theorist Anton Reicha.

To showcase his phenomenal and unprecedented technique, Liszt composed a vast amount of music designed specifically for this purpose, resulting in an immense library of piano literature filled with awing scales, trills, arpeggios, leaps, and other technical marvels. Liszt composed a series of rhapsodies on Hungarian gypsy melodies, the best-known being the familiar Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2. This kind of music differs in several aspects from the generally more introspective, poetic music of pianist-composer Frédéric Chopin. In 1833, Liszt met the French countess Marie d’Agoult, known as a writer under the pseudonym Daniel Stern. They formed a liaison that endured until 1844 and had three children, one of whom, Cosima, became the wife of the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow and later of the German composer Richard Wagner. Liszt studied composition and made his living as a performer and teacher. In his performances he followed the model of such virtuosos as the violinist Paganini, making his personality and physical presence as much a part of the performance as his dazzling technique and musicianship. His affect on the audience, especially women, is preserved and sometimes satirized in numerous drawings and paintings. Both turbulent scenes and periods of great creativity marked Liszt’s long-lasting relationships with two married women-the Countess Marie d’Agoult, by whom he had three children, and the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. In 1848, Liszt abandoned his concert career to concentrate more on his composing. He took the post of court conductor to the Duke of Weimar, and it was here that he wrote or revised many of his most well known pieces. Late in life he moved to Rome, taking minor orders there in 1865. Much of the rest of his life was taken up with composing religious music, although he kept up his career as a teacher and performer, dividing his time between Rome, Weimar and Budapest. Liszt died in Bayreuth on July 31, 1886.

Many of Liszt’s symphonic works abandoned the four-movement structure of the symphony, such as Dante Symphony. Instead, these symphonic poems were huge single-movement works that relied on extra musical programs and the progressive transformation of a musical theme for their structural coherence. In these works, the themes are modified by changes in harmony, rhythm, or even melodic outline. These transformations are used to create a sense of narrative or psychological progression. Liszt also used the technique of thematic transformation in his non-programmatic works, such as his concertos. As a virtuoso pianist, Liszt filled his piano music with fantastic technical demands, and many represent the ultimate in nineteenth century virtuosity. He also expanded the repertory and possibilities of the piano with his many transcriptions and arrangements of symphonic and operatic works.

Liszt is often credited with the creation of the symphonic poem: extended, single-movement works for orchestras, inspired by paintings, plays, poems or other literary or visual works, and attempting to convey the ideas expressed in those media through music. An example of such a work is Les Préludes, which is based on a poem in which life is expressed as a series of struggles, passions, and mysteries. The Romantic genre of the symphonic poem, as well as its cousin, the concert overture, became highly attractive to many later composers, including Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. Liszt said, “Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought, as it is forced in most arts and especially in the art of words. If music has one advantage over the other media through which a person can represent the impressions of the soul, it owes this to its supreme capacity to make each inner impulse audible without the assistance of reason… Music presents at once the intensity and the expression of feeling. It is the embodied and intelligible essence of feeling, capable of being apprehended by our senses. It permeates them like a dart, like a ray, like a mist, like a spirit, and fills our soul.”

In 1789, William Lisle Bowles (1762-1850) wrote an influential sonnet sequence, Fourteen Sonnets, a sign of brighter times ahead for the form. As rational, witty, neoclassical seventeenth century poems written in heroic couplets gave way to major works in more open forms, the sonnet was somehow adapted to accommodate the literary values of this period. In many of these works one can sense the new worth placed on intuition and spontaneity. Second, perhaps, only to Shakespeare, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is generally considered one of the greatest sonneteers. Writing over five hundred sonnets (mostly the early ones are still read), he ushered the form back into widespread use and also revived the sonnet sequence. Wordsworth continued the work of Milton in freeing the sonnet’s subject matter from the conventional and treated the sonnet as a subjective “verse essay” in which to explore his emotions (White & Rosen). Among the well-known poets of the Romantic period, John Keats (1795-1821) and Percy Shelley (1792-1822) wrote the sonnets most commonly anthologized–“Bright Star” and “Ozymandius,” respectively. Other notable poets, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Lord Byron (1788-1824), wrote a few sonnets but did their best work in other forms.

Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and the Transcendentalists represent the first great literary generation produced in the United States. In the case of the novelists, the Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the “Romance,” a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings. Instead of carefully defining realistic characters through a wealth of detail, as most English or continental novelists did, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe shaped heroic figures larger than life, burning with mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe’s tales are lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit.

One reason for this fictional exploration into the hidden recesses of the soul is the absence of settled, traditional community life in America. English novelists-Jane Austen, Charles Dickens (the great favorite), Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, William Thackeray-lived in a complex, well-articulated, traditional society and shared with their readers attitudes that informed their realistic fiction. American novelists were faced with a history of strife and revolution, a geography of vast wilderness, and a fluid and relatively classless democratic society. American novels frequently reveal a revolutionary absence of tradition. Many English novels show a poor main character rising on the economic and social ladder, perhaps because of a good marriage or the discovery of a hidden aristocratic past. But this buried plot does not challenge the aristocratic social structure of England. On the contrary, it confirms it. The rise of the main character satisfies the wish fulfillment of the mainly middle-class readers.

In contrast, the American novelist had to depend on his or her own devices. America was, in part, an undefined, constantly moving frontier populated by immigrants speaking foreign languages and following strange and crude ways of life. Thus the main character in American literature might find himself alone among cannibal tribes, as in Melville’s Typee, or exploring a wilderness like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, or witnessing lonely visions from the grave, like Poe’s solitary individuals, or meeting the devil walking in the forest, like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Virtually all the great American protagonists have been “loners.” The democratic American individual had, as it were, to invent himself. The serious American novelist had to invent new forms as well hence the sprawling, idiosyncratic shape of Melville’s novel Moby-Dick and Poe’s dreamlike, wandering Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Few American novels achieve formal perfection, even today. Instead of borrowing tested literary methods, Americans tend to invent new creative techniques. In America, it is not enough to be a traditional and definable social unit, for the old and traditional gets left behind; the new, innovative force is the center of attention.

In the wake of the Romantic revolution in literature came a similar revolution in music. About 1820, Beethoven began to write passionate compositions, which often threatened to burst asunder the classical forms in which he worked. His 1824 Symphony No. 9 is notable not only for its length and complexity, but for the fact that he introduced vocal soloists and a chorus into the final movement, as if the purely instrumental form of the classical symphony could not express all that he felt. After this radical departure from tradition, many composers felt free to experiment. Beethoven is also significant in the history of music for being the first composer to earn his living directly from his own work without being subsidized by a church or aristocrat. He benefited from the emergence of the new bourgeois audience, which could not afford to retain a composer on salary as Prince Esterhazy retained Haydn, but who eagerly bought tickets for Beethoven’s concerts. With the money he received from lessons, from the sale of his compositions, and from his public performances, Beethoven was able to survive if not to prosper. This was a crucial factor in allowing him to express his extreme individualism, rejecting the role of artistic servant within which even giants like Haydn and Mozart had been confined. He could write as he pleased and challenge the public to follow him.

As seen in discussing the Romantic Movement generally, the rise of the new middle classes created a new audience seeking fresh sensations. It was also an audience, which was powerfully drawn to emotion in the arts, and music more than any of the other arts has the capacity to elicit powerful emotions. Although forms like the sonata continued to be used by Romantic composers, the new, wider audiences were less to appreciate the details of the development of themes than to be swept along on waves of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

The fashion of the Romantic Era was characterized by beret sleeves, coal scuttle bonnet styles, and pelerine collars. The most popular women’s hair fad was the Apollo Knot, a striking style tending to lean towards one side. Another lesser style was the Madonna coiffure with the center parted up and built up with ringlets at crown and sides.

Historical themes of the Romantic Era included the increasing role of science in defining a worldview, the rise of European nationalism, and a growing autonomy for the arts. The skepticism resulting from by a clearer understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it changed the way people thought of themselves and society. Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) The Origin of the Species is one example of the new attitude. Many areas of Europe, especially Italy and Central Europe, desperately sought freedom from foreign control. At the same time, Germany, which was never a completely unified country, struggled to create a separate national identity.

In conclusion, the Romantic Era encased the elements of an increased interest in nature and the supernatural, the rise of program music, nationalism and exoticism, and the changing status of musicians. Romantic artists saw nature in a less idealized way than the artists of the Classical period had. The natural world was considered less a model of perfection and more a source of mysterious powers. Romantic composers gravitated toward supernatural texts and stories. Schubert’s Erlking and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique are two good examples. Music began to be used to tell stories, or to imply meaning beyond the purely musical. Composers found ways to make their musical ideas represent people, things, and dramatic situations as well as emotional states and even philosophical ideas. Composers used music as a tool for highlighting national identity. Instrumental composers such as Bedrich Smetana made reference to folk music and national images (as in The Moldau), while operatic composers such as Giuseppe Verdi set stories with strong patriotic undercurrents. Composers took an interest in the music of various ethnic groups and incorporated it into their own music. Composers also wrote works based on stories of exotic lands and people. A composer was no longer dependent for income on the steady employment by nobility but relied instead on the support of the public and the patronage of individuals. Music was seen less as an occupation and more as a calling. Specialized training institutions, or conservatories, replaced the apprentice system of the church and the court. Women found more opportunities for musical expression, especially as performers, but social and cultural barriers still limited their participation as composers.


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