Music Styles: Romantic


This is surely the era in music in which all of us feel completely at home. And no wonder. Not only are its names immensely familiar, but so too are its primary works. Even so, there remains much to discover and rediscover in this mighty time. If it opens with Beethoven, it closes with Stravinsky and his extraordinary ballets written for Diaghilev, with Mahler and Richard Strauss and their vast tonal canvases, and with Arnold Schoenberg, his Second Viennese School, and a conscious rewriting of the rules of composition.

The Romantic Century was prefigured by remarkable adventures in literature and architecture, in politics and science. It was a time in which contradictions were exposed and heightened, in which the individual and personally creative voice took second place to nothing, and from which the values of the French and American revolutions assumed primacy. In this period, there was an astounding rise in the independence of composers and performers, and in the national voices and identities of each. Concerts were promoted, music was widely published, great halls were built, commissions were offered, and music raced to catch up with the boldness of the other arts. Conservatories and orchestras were widely established, texts and treatises were widespread, and music became a profession. In mid-century Germany, the very idea of musicology took root. (Alas, so did the idea of being a music critic. For a quick look at this unhappy phenomenon, see "Bonkers, Edwin. Dancing With Werewolves. Berlin: Plattheit Press, 1997.")

Importantly, it was a time when even the wealthiest man on the planet could not afford a radio -- but by century's end every cultured home had a piano. Increasingly, music was the invention of individuals of stunning genius, and the community property of millions. What a change this was from its cloistered times in church and court.

Although the intimate values of chamber music and its often intellectually probing and deeply satisfying truths remained and flourished, the Romantic Century also established a time of sheer spectacle and power. The massive pageants of Wagner, the elephants of Aida, dazzling ballet in every house, the firewagons of Berlioz, and the near-unbelievable magic of Paganini and Liszt and the virtuosity they inspired -- all of this was but part of the time and its tumultuous energy.

When the size of halls, audiences, and orchestras exploded -- think of the numbers required by Richard Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner -- so too came the need for visible leadership, and thus the rise of the modern conductor. This alone symbolizes how personality-driven music came to be in the Romantic era. Combine all this with a rising middle class and attendant prosperity and one begins to see a kind of inevitability at play.

This century was one in which an almost tidal individualism (forgive the imagery) arose, first in literature and the visual arts, and thereafter in music. Idealists in this era believed in the illimitability of personal expression, original forms, and voice for its own sake. Realists in the same era saw a role for music that had narrative obligations (often derived from literature and poetry and epic), or that painted pictures, or limned character, and was often derived from folk and national sources. These Romantic realists and idealists coexisted reasonably well, and often within the same composer.

In this way, we observe the "paradox" of such Romantic composers as Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schubert invoking Classical and earlier structures, and such others as Beethoven, Berlioz, and Liszt proudly - defiantly - breaking new ground. These contradictions made the century only the richer.

Nationalism also played a role in this music. Dvorak and Smetana, Chopin and Grieg and Bizet, and perhaps above all the Mighty Five in Russia moved greatly to assert non-Italian and non-German forms and priorities.

In 1813, a coincidence as odd and useful as the year 1685 had been earlier (think Bach, Handel, Scarlatti) played out. In this unusual year were born both Wagner and Verdi. Although each would come to be identified almost exclusively with opera, in truth each had a vast influence in the sound of all music. These geniuses of drama attracted followers, supporters, and imitators by the legion. Those who wish to find foreshadow of the 20th century will want to study Tristan. In 1864 Wagner saw the way, in the context of tonality and ambiguity, to a period barely understood even 50 years later.

Across this century there are masterpieces of every description, and this essay will not attempt to list them all. Rather, in various specifics, let me hint at a few of the most illustrative immortals, and a few of the rarer swans as well.

The symphony is rightly represented by Beethoven, and any of his nine will do. Carlos Kleiber's video performance of the 7th has never gone out of print, and for the very good reason that it has never been excelled. However, consider as well the wonderful Symphony No. 1 of Bizet, or the astounding String Symphony No. 12 by a thirteen-year old Mendelssohn, or the unmatched beauty of Alexander Borodin's Second Symphony. You will marvel at all of them.

Consider also the hybrids of the symphonic tone poem: Liszt's 'Prometheus' is terrific fun, Strauss' 'Death and Transfiguration' is deeply moving, and the inspired American crackpot Anthony Philip Heinrich and his 'Ornithological Combat of Kings, or The Condor of the Andes and theEagle of the Cordilleras' can't be beat for sheer oddness.

More serious work was also done in the field of concerto, and among the worthy rarities shine Sibeliu's 'Swan of Tuonela', nearly a concerto for English horn; Wagner's 'Adagio for clarinet and strings'; Weber's bassoon concerto; Schumann's Concertst├╝ck for 4 horns; and, Rimsky-Korsakov's striking trombone concerto.

And so it went across these remarkable one hundred years.

And there remained Vienna. Almost uniquely, this city was a focus of innovation and achievement. Perhaps matched only by New York in our times, the capital was for two hundred years simultaneously the seat of innovation and judgment, the place where anyone of substance was required to succeed, and usually did. Although there were other important regional capitals of music (consider London, Paris, St Petersburg), only in Vienna did there exist a gravitational pull capable of attracting virtually every talent in the world. And there they met, heard and were influenced by one another's music, argued and competed and learned and taught, and music was much the greater for it.

But even such massive forces eventually fail to sustain themselves, and instead become the seat of their own rebellion. There were good reasons for Schoenberg to do his most critical thinking in Vienna, and for Stravinsky to remain in the French/Russian axis and avoid it altogether. But while the Romantic Century lasted, and Vienna prospered as its emblem and centerpiece, music shone. Its flame endures today.