Music History 101.5 Early Romantics
Just a few words before we launch into the heart of Romantic music. There were generally two trends of composing during the 19th century: that of staying within a Classical structure while exploring new sounds and lush harmonies, and with a minimum of rocking the boat. In this category you can include the Schumanns, the Mendelssohns, Brahms and Dvorak.
The other category (loosely labeled the New German School)was more revolutionary, featuring bolder harmonies and freer forms of rhythm, in addition to dropping the structure of 1st movement, 2nd…etc.In this second group we can include Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. Both groups, of course, revered Beethoven and what he had achieved in shifting the dynamic of composing. And both groups have one key attribute of Beethoven’s style, never standing still. So it was only natural that we have a split at this time in music history. And what hath Ludwig wrought! To begin…
Guiseppi Verdi (1813-1901), the great composer of opera who also was elected to Italy’s first parliament in 1861. He identified strongly with his country’s reunification movement. His tunes went straight to the heart and were bolstered by driven orchestration. Here is an example of this from Il Trovatore, an opera from his middle period (1854) and one which helped to cement his reputation.
In 1887 the 20 yr old Arturo Toscanini played cello in the premiere of Verdi’s Otello with the composer conducting. Already his star was rising as a conductor and Verdi was impressed at Toscanini’s ability to interpret his scores. Toscanini led 850 singers at Verdi’s funeral which was witnessed by 300,000 people. Here is Toscanini conducting Verdi! Start at beginning for the overture.
We cannot leave Verdi without hearing Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum from his Requiem. To sit in the middle of this is one of the most indescribable moments I’ve ever had in music.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896), wife of Robert and the premier piano soloist of her time. When her husband became too incapacitated as a provider for 7 children, Clara took to concertizing throughout Europe. This created a huge physical toll on her and put an end to her composing. Here is a Nocturne written at age 17. The piano is a period instrument.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883): opera composer, conductor, theater director, and polemicist who was exiled for 12 years to Switzerland because of his participation in the 1849 May Uprising in Dresden. He created the idea of Gesamptkunstwerk (total work of art) whereby the music was subsidiary to the drama onstage. As such the vocal lines (of which he wrote all the libretto) are more blended into the score, unlike Verdi whose arias were often stand alone showpieces. His orchestration is magnificently drawn out in its suspense and resolution as we hear in the prelude to Lohengrin Act l.
Cesar Franck (1822-1890), born in city of Liege (now in Belgium), later to spend his adult life in Paris where he became teacher and citizen.
An organist and pianist (his hand stretched over 10 keys), he was well known as an improviser and traveled throughout France to demonstrate the organs of the top maker of the 19th century, Aristide Cavaille-Coll. Here is his piano quintet, dedicated to Saint-Saens who performed from the piano at the premiere, and…afterwards rejected the dedication and left his score on the piano (more about these snubs later)! Start @ 26:10
Known as the greatest writer for the organ since Bach; here is the end of a chorale composed in the last year of his life. Start @ 38:35
Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Father of Czech music, he identified with the New German school of Liszt and Wagner much to the dismay
of the Prague musical community. The conflict caused undue stress on his health and eventually he resigned as principal conductor of the
Prague Provisional Theater. Sadly he had lost his hearing by then, and in early 1884 suffered a mental breakdown which led to incarceration and death. Here is perhaps his most famous work played at the beautiful Rudolphinum in Prague, built in 1886.
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), an organist and self taught composer from Austria, he did not seriously take on composing until age 37. He relied heavily on criticism of his works to the point of many changes in many works. Here, his debut composition,1861.
The orchestration in his symphonies alternated between two groups of instruments, similar to changing the manuals on the organ, his primary instrument. Here is the scherzo from Symph #4 – start @36:25
Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899): the Waltz King, composer of waltzes, polkas and operettas. He had his own orchestra which toured Austria, Germany and Poland. His father was Johann Strauss Sr., also a dance composer. Every New Years Day Strauss waltzes are performed in Vienna at the Muzikverein in a spectacularly festive setting. Here is Johann Jr’s Tritsch-Tratsch Polka.
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), Russian chemist and composer who left a number of works unfinished including his famous opera Prince Igor which was completed by Rimsky-Korsokov and Glazunov. He considered himself a scientist, only composing or playing cello in his spare time or when he was ill. As a chemist he was well known for his work with organic synthesis and was co-founderof the aldol reaction (you’ll have to look that one up).
Here is the tone poem ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’ with the composer’s notes. “In the silence of the monotonous steppes of Central Asia is heard the unfamiliar sound of a peaceful Russian song. From the distance we hear the approach of horses and camels and the bizarre and melancholy notes of an oriental melody. A caravan approaches, escorted by Russian soldiers, and continues safely on its way through the immense desert. It disappears slowly. The notes of the Russian and Asiatic melodies join in a common harmony, which dies away as the caravan disappears in the distance.”
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) – The relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann holds our interest to this day. I’d like to refer you to this excellent article on the subject by biographer Jan Swafford, and then listen to a song Brahms wrote in anticipation of Clara’s death in 1896.
Song – ‘Though I speak with the tongue of men and angels’ – from Corinthians. Start @12:52
And on a related topic, in this sextet movement the composer hid Agathe’s name in the 2nd theme (2:17) by spelling the notes a-g-a-h-e.
Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) – For one whose career spanned the lives of so many great composers, Saint-Saens never gravitated to influences and
trends of his time. His 14 yr old student Faure related how the man would play excerpts from contemporary composers such as Schumann, Wagner and Liszt after the lessons, works which were hot off the press and not readily accessible to the public.
Saint-Saens enjoyed hearing Wagner’s operas but said he would never join “that religion.” When the Romantic style verged toward impressionism/modernism, he firmly rejected Debussy and Milhaud and said that Stravinsky was insane. He even disliked the opera Penelope which Faure dedicated to him. Thus Camille’s style remained reactionary throughout his life. He stuck to his belief in the basic structures of the Classical form, yet one could say he had no real signature to his works even as they were well crafted. Here is one of his most popular and my personal favorite, from the Organ Symphony. Start @24:16
Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – Trained at the brand new St Petersburg Conservatory by western oriented teaching, Tchaikovsky struggled most of his life trying to balance the western style of composing with that of his native land and the nationalism being promoted by his contemporaries. It’s not that he was trying to please both sides (criticism was fierce), he was instead determined to strike a balance that included both worlds.
If your favorite composer was Mozart, it’s not going to be easy to reconcile this with the folk tunes of the motherland! But he did. As his reputation strengthened abroad, so it did at home when Dostoyevsky called for “universal unity” with the west. And Pyotr did go west; here is his Coronation March (written for Tsar Alexander lll) which he conducted at the Carnegie Hall inaugural concert in 1891.
A gorgeous lullaby:
and more fireworks. No, not the 1812 Overture which he considered “noise!”
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), Czech composer whose reputation soared after being promoted by Brahms in 1874. He traveled extensively, nine times to Britain, and in 1892 to NY as director of the National Conservatory for 3 years. During this time, as well as time spent in Spillville, Iowa, he became fascinated with Native American and African American music. He met Henry Burleigh, a black student and later composer, who sang for him spirituals. Dvorak was “convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called negro melodies…These beautiful and varied themes are a product of the soil.” He chose the English horn for the opening solo of the 2nd mvt of his New World Symphony because he wanted it to sound like Burleigh’s voice. Here it is, 1st two minutes.
He was also quoted: “I found that the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical”, and that “the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland.” — “I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.” The scherzo of the New World Symphony was “suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance.” Here it is.
We cannot leave Dvorak without sampling his chamber music, in which there is an abundance of pure Bohemian joy and heartfelt Slavic lament.From his string quintet which he wrote while in the States.
And with that, let’s go back to the Rudolphinum in Prague, where this time we see the hall in all its glory. And, yes, Dvorak was here!
Next week: onto another wave of composers! Faure, Mahler, Puccini, Debussy, Ravel and more…all born between 1845-1875.
Hope you enjoyed and stay safe as always!
This is one in a series of online guided listening programs that replaced our in-person “Musical Salons” hosted by Moby Pearson. This one was created on 5/5/2020.
Explore the list of online Salons.