Unlike the 18th century, the 19th century did not witness the invention of a large number of new musical instruments, but rather the development and technical perfection of those that already existed. The piano in 1820 was still a fairly close cousin to the older harpsichord, but by 1870 it was essentially the brilliant, powerful instrument that we still use today. The violin, perfected in the early 18th century, underwent final adjustments under the influence of its ultimate virtuoso, Paganini.
Whereas the Classical era was an age of transformation and redefinition of the orchestra from the Baroque model, the Romantic era was the age of its expansion and refinement. Certain instruments, notably the horn, trumpet, and harp, underwent such important technological advances as to become practicalIy new instruments. Of new instruments created in this period, among others the saxophone, the Wagner tuba, and the bass tuba (now called simply "tuba"), only the last became a staple of the Romantic orchestra--the saxophone would come to prominence a century later in entirely different circumstances.
The Frenchman Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was an important composer in the development of the Romantic orchestra. He had a highly original and audacious creative mind that was considered little short of lunatic in his own time. In certain respects he remained aloof from the Romantic movement, but in many ways, especially his frequent use of literature as a means both to organize and to make his musical material more dramatic and gripping--Damnation of Faust, Romeo and Juliet, Harold in Italy (based on Byron)--he was a key precursor of Liszt and Wagner. His orchestral works (listen to his Roman Carnival Overture) were among the most advanced works of their time; indeed, Berlioz authored one of the great treatises of instrumental orchestration; his Grand Traité dInstrumentation et dOrchestration Modernes was first published in 1843-44 and issued again in 1855, many of the ideas of which are still in use today. Is is a landmark in the history of the symphony orchestra.
The man who perhaps more than any other united the various aspects of Romanticism in one volcanic personality was also the most successful and famous musician of the 19th century, Franz Liszt. Liszt was the epitome of the Romantic virtuoso. His appearance in the Europe of the 1830s was like the arrival of a streaking meteor out of the sky. Never before had anyone made such an impression as a pianist. Liszt's antecedent as a spectacular virtuoso was the Italian violinist, Niccolo Paganini. His arrival on the musical scene some 30 years before had provoked unprecedented enthusiasm and awe.
Music history, of course, had already known many great virtuosi--Bach on the organ, Corelli on the violin, and Mozart on the piano were, in their own ways, equally brilliant, and their music--we must remember that all of these men performed essentially only their own music--was far superior in quality. What had changed was the intention of the virtuoso and the audience for whom he/she was performing. Paganini, Liszt and the Romantic virtuosi that followed them intentionally and systematically sought ways to dazzle and amaze their audiences. The audiences of Bach, CoreIli, or Mozart consisted mainly of aristocrats who were either too indifferent or too haughty to be very impressed by anything a mere musician could do, and of connoisseurs and fellow musicians who were more interested in the content of the music than in the acrobatic display of the performance.
The 19th-century audiences, the nouveaus riches, the salon bourgeoisie, were far more impressionable. They were seeking thrills and novelties, the exotic and the spectacular. Niccola Paganini was commonly thought to have sold his soul to the devil to play like he did--or some said he was a devil, and his dress and manner carefully played to the public's fantasies. Liszt, a greater musician than Paganini, was even better at "whipping" his audiences into a frenzy. He cultivated each element of his public appearance as a part of his "act". He also cultivated new and ever-growing audiences by the use of clever public relations (duels with other pianists, highly visible charity appearances, attaching his name to popular causes, et al). Liszt was the first artist to use the word "recital" for a solo concert, the first to have open public ticket sales; in many ways, he invented the modern idea of the concert. Indeed, his concerts, in some ways, were similar to modern "rock" concerts.
As was the custom of the time, most of what Liszt played at such concerts consisted primarily of his own compositions. Liszt understood that whereas in past times more sophisticated audiences had generally expected a constant supply of new material with occasional smatterings of older works, his audience of the 1830s and 40s craved familiar music in novel guises. He satisfied this craving with a steady stream of Transcriptions, Paraphrases, and Fantasies on famous themes from the most popular music of his day, opera. In these works the audience had the satisfaction of recognizing their current favorite operatic hits in fantastically brilliant and original pianistic guise.
Transcriptions of familiar works for piano or piano duet were an important feature of the 19th century. Most of them served to give access to the body of familiar repertory to the ever-growing Middle Class by means of a widely-available medium, the piano. (We must remember that this is long before the invention of records, tapes and CDs, and most people seldom had the chance to hear a symphony orchestra or opera company.) Other transcriptions--far more difficult and spectacular--were the primary vehicles of Liszt and the other 19th century virtuosi.
Franz Liszt, however, was by no means a legendary piano virtuoso only, he had many other, more serious facets to his artistic personality. In spite of his infamous reputation as "a ladies' man", Liszt was, throughout his long life, a deeply religious, mystically inclined Roman Catholic; indeed, he later became an AbbÈ of the Church and spent many years in semi-retirement as the guest of the Cardinal at the famous Villa d'Este outside of Rome and wrote a large quantity of music based upon religious themes and inspirations. He was extraordinarily generous with colleagues and students and championed indefatigably many of his contemporary composers, among them Chopin, Schumann, and Wagner.
While his famous compositions for the public at large were often superficial and even vulgar, in his serious works Liszt was one of the greatest innovators in music history. He developed a harmonic language whose unusual and unexpected modulations and daring use of extensive dissonance helped create a highly emotional and volatile "Romantic" sound. In this respect Liszt had a particularly strong influence an Wagner, whose works, in turn, influenced the older Liszt. (Such cross-fertilization is quite common in the history of the Arts.)
Liszt was not a composer of opera, yet like so many composers of his era, he sought ways to imbue his music with a literary quality which would serve at the same time as a dramatic formal structure to replace the discarded models of the Classical age. To this end, Liszt developed the Symphonic Poem (orchestral works roughly organized around a story line or a dramatic situation). This also proved highly influential to later composers.
Liszt expressed the Romantic longing for faraway places, dramatic natural phenomena and travel as a source of spiritual growth in his Annees de Pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), three extensive volumes of piano works written throughout his life, dedicated to Switzerland and Italy, countries to which Liszt was particularly attracted. Liszt, a Hungarian by birth, even though he never learned to speak the language fluently, was also affected by Nationalism. Early in his career, he wrote the famous Hungarian Rhapsodies, based upon traditional Gypsy or Gypsy-like melodies. These works satisfied his public's desire for attractive exotica and his own pianistic virtuosity. They were not written to proclaim his own personal Hungarian Nationalistic sentiment. Much later in his life, however, Liszt wrote many works based on bona fide Hungarian materials. Among these were the Hungarian Historical Portraits which were dedicated to national heroes, same of whom had been killed by the Austrians in the revolution of 1848.
Liszt is one of the most complex and contradictory figures in music history. He was the perfect Romantic hero--part magician, part acrobat, part guru, part mystic. He catered to the lowest tastes of his public--he indeed helped develop such tastes--and yet he was one of the most daring and original innovators. While never quite one of the greatest of composers, he was nevertheless the most characteristic composer and musical personality of his century.
The most influential composer of the Romantic era and one of the crucial personalities in the entire history of Western culture was Liszt's son-in-law, Richard Wagner. Wagner grew up in a theatrical family in Dresden, Germany and was impregnated from an early age by the world of drama (especially the drama of the ancient Greeks and the drama of Shakespeare), the legacy of Beethoven (especially the Ninth Symphony), and by contemporary German opera.
Germany in the early 19th century had a far less well-established operatic tradition than did France or Italy and therefore was more susceptible to influences from the Romantic trends of the times, especially the appeal of Nature and the link to the fantasy- and emotion-filled German literature currently popular. The most important early Romantic German composer of opera was Carl Maria van Weber, whose Der Freisch¸tz (The Free Shot), full of suggestive scenes of wild, natural beauty, hearty, folksy spirit, eerie satanic worship, and black magic, is often considered to be the archetype of all Romanticism.
The young Wagner was also irresistibly drawn to opera but sought to create a type of work wherein the music and the drama would be entirely interrelated, wherein the many operatic conventions, which he increasingly viewed as artificial barriers to free and honest expression and superficial ways to please a vulgar public, would be eliminated in favor of a more direct musical style wherein the singers would be dramatic characters, not ridiculously strutting prima donnas, and where the orchestra would express the inner drama and give the whole work a structural unity.
To the end of achieving unity between music and text, Wagner wrote his own librettos &endash; a necessary decision from his standpoint, but nonetheless a controversial one, because he was incomparably a lesser poet than composer. He drew his texts mostly from adaptations of ancient mythology. He felt that in the world of myth he could create a timeless appeal and bring to life dramatic situations which would touch any audience at any time, anywhere. Wagner was, indeed, the most idealistic and most pretentious composer of all time. He took the appeal to universal freedom of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as a point of departure for his own work. His "Artwork of the Future" (a name from one of his many essays in which he described his intentions) would unite all the arts into lasting monuments for the enjoyment and, especially, for the reverential adoration by all humanity.
With such high ideals, it is hardly surprising that not even so great and tenacious a genius as Wagner was completely successful. In fact, even when, after a long series of failures, he achieved a degree of success with the establishment of a festival dedicated to the performance of his works in the little German town of Bayreuth, Wagner never was close to being satisfied. Nevertheless, his accomplishments--almost entirely musical ones--were extraordinary.
Wagner developed a technique usually called the Leitmotive. By giving primary elements in the drama (characters, key situations, objects, et al) easily identifiable musical themes or motives, he created a concrete link in the minds of the audience between the drama and the music. In his earlier works these motives are more or less labels that remain constant throughout the work, and the Leitmotive, in this primitive form, was widely imitated by later composers. In his more mature compositions (which he called "Music Dramas" in place of the traditional "opera") however, especially Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Nibelung's Ring consisting of a tetralogy of operas) and Tristan und Isolde, the Leitmotive technique became enormously more complex and all-embracing. Wagner was seeking to resolve one of the basic problems of all Romantic composers &endash; to find a large-scale musical structure to replace the forms of the Classical era. In these dramas the interactions of constantly-changing, dramatically-associated motives and their limitlessly growing field of interrelationships form the basis of the organic structure of the whole.
Wagner also had a great influence on the development of the orchestra. Unlike most composers of his time, he played no instrument well, on the other hand, he became the first professional orchestral conductor in the modern sense--not only beating time as previous conductors had done, but impressing through words and gestures a unified interpretation upon the entire orchestra. He was noteworthy as well in that he was known as a conductor of music of other composers, specifically the music of Beethoven.
This practical experience with the orchestra as well as a great imagination and sensitivity to tonal colors gave Wagner the possibility to explore new uses of and combinations of instruments and to discover whole new worlds of sound. Wagner was a life-long friend of Liszt and his second wife was Liszt's daughter. Many of Liszt's innovations in chromatic harmony and modulation were adopted and greatly expanded by Wagner. The characteristic Wagner "sound," especially in his sensual masterpiece Tristan und Isolde, is, to a large extent, the result of a sense of a seamless outpouring of sound (the so-called "endless melody") which arises from the continuous displacement and disguising of cadences and the sense of a constant buiId-up of tension to nearly unbearable heights which grows out of the extreme chromaticism and the systematic delay in resolving dissonance until the last possible minute. These innovations led eventually to the break-up of traditional harmony and tonality. Tristan und Isolde, for this reason, is often considered the musical father of 20th-century music.
Wagner was strongly influenced by Romantic philosophy, especially the writings of Schopenhauer, which stressed the separation of the artist from society and the role of arts as a release--a transcendence of the bondage of daily living. The anti-Rationalistic, Orientalist overtones of this message appealed to Wagner, who also dabbled in Buddhist philosophy and religion. Wagner, unfortunately, was a highly unpleasant man personally, especially in dealings with his benefactors (and their wives) whom he exploited shamelessly and in his pseudo-philosophical writings, which are often loathsomely full of German Nationalism of the most militaristic type (though he personally had little taste for either Germany or most Germans) and replete with disgusting anti-Semitic doctrine (though his household was constantly full of Jewish friends and allies). Nevertheless, Wagner was one of those gigantic figures like Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Beethoven, after whom the world could never be the same. His influence on artists of all types, not just musicians but novelists, poets, painters, and philosophers, was enormous. He fulfilled the Romantic ideal of the artist as a quasi-religious figure who could bring a sense of transcendence and redemption through the sheer intoxicating power of his works.
It would be a slight exaggeration only to state that Romanticism after Wagner could be divided into groups of (1) those composers who were directly and openly influenced by Wagner and (2) those composers who were influenced only indirectly and unconsciously. Even composers who felt little sympathy with his goals and style, such as Verdi, were nevertheless touched by his innovations in orchestration and use of chromaticism.
In general the second half of the 19th century witnessed the steady growth of large-scale orchestral music and the decline of the smaller, more intimate forms for solo instruments that had dominated the early decades of Romanticism. This was in no small part due to the success of Wagner's use of the orchestra, but there were other factors as well. One was a social element. The salons of the 1830s were slowly giving way to the larger, less personal, world of the modern concert hall. Liszt's attempts to increase his audience base had succeeded. By the 1860s more and more of the growing Middle Class were attending concerts, partly from genuine enthusiasm, partly from a sense of social "duty."
The virtuosi of the later 19th century needed larger-scaled vehicles to suit the larger arena and, instead of the shorter solo works of past years, they turned increasingly to the revitalized concerto for soloist with orchestra. This flexible form, already in existence for centuries, took on a new, popular and highly exhibitionistic quality in the Romantic period, and composers of extremely differing styles and temperaments--Brahms, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, et al--each gave their own touch to this genre.
Another key factor in the success of orchestral forms in the later 19th century was the revitalization of the Symphony form and other forms associated with the Classical era. The composer most responsible for this was Johannes Brahms. Although he was affected by many of the currents of Romanticism (especially evident in his Lieder and his shorter piano pieces), he felt a strong personal attraction to the more abstract, rigorously constructed forms of Beethoven and Classical Vienna. To Brahms it was virtually a point of honor to avoid the excessive freedom and spectacular emotional atmosphere of works such as Liszt's Symphonic Poems or Wagner's Music Dramas. Because he was a great and original composer, he was able to absorb the trends of his time into his will to return to an earlier aesthetic and the result was the creation of a long list of influential masterpieces in "Romanticized" Classical forms.
Nationalism became a stronger and stronger force in the second half of the 19th century, and its passions inspired composers in growing or incipient nations where previously little organized musical activity other than folk music had taken place. These composers often used folk or other characteristic local elements to imbue their music with an unmistakably Nationalistic flair. Chief among these were Smetana and Dvorak in Czechoslovakia; Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia, Grieg in Norway, and slightly later, Granados and Albeniz in Spain and Sibelius in Finland.
Naturally, different composers expressed their Nationalism in different ways. Dvorak, for example, was strongly influenced by Brahms and worked extensively in Classical forms. Grieg was more of an intimist by nature and specialized in smaller forms. Moussorgsky was especially important in the development of opera as a nationalistic expression (i. e., his masterpiece Boris Godunov). Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, represented a synthesis of the volatile emotions of typical Romanticism with a desire to work in large-scale forms. His talents were ideally suited to the colorful world of ballet where he was especially successful (Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, et al).
Opera, in the late 19th century, was almost universally marked by the influence of Wagner. On the other hand, few composers followed his example in writing music dramas on mythic subjects constructed around the Leitmotive technique and these few (Richard Strauss was the most important) found it difficult to remain long under the direct domination of such a strong example. In most cases, the infIuences were general rather than specific: (1) relaxation of "operatic" conventions, (2) a more naturalistic approach to drama and dramatic singing, and (3) increased importance of the orchestra. Other than specific technical differences, the main contrast was often in the refusal of composers to attribute to their works the almost superhuman seriousness which was a feature of Wagner. Most composers were unwilling to forego the temptations of opera as more or less pleasant entertainment. It was, after all, still the most popular musical form of the day. In France, in particular, the influence of "diluted" Wagnerianism pulled French opera out of the pompous doldrums of grand opera with composers such as Georges Bizet (Carmen), Charles Gounod (Faust), Camille Saint-Saëns and Jules Massenet.
In Italy, the synthesis of Wagnerian ideas with local traditions inspired a new school of composition called verismo. It featured a highly melodramatic, almost soap-opera, atmosphere in subjects dealing with normal people in everyday situations. Their works achieved great success (LeoncavalIo's Pagliacci [Clowns], Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana [Rustic Chivalry]). The greatest Italian composer of the era, Giacomo Puccini, however, managed to avoid the excesses of "pure" verismo works while retaining its essential elements combined with a highly refined use of the orchestra (Tosca, La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, et al).
The end of the 19th century witnessed a resurgence of the Symphony, partly as a result of Brahms' success in revitalizing the form. In addition, many composers under Wagner's "spell" felt temperamentally unable to write operas--or unable to liberate themselves from their adoration of Wagner and achieve the independence essential for all valid artistic creation. In an expanded symphony, they found the possibility to recreate the huge emotional canvas of the Music Drama.
The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote enormous symphonies which retain the basic outlines of the Classical form:. The "effect" of these works is rather that of a monumental cathedral where various sections exist without interacting. Indeed, Bruckner was an organist and his music retained both the sense of awe common to Church music as well as something of the block-like sound of the organ. Bruckner's use of Austrian folk music and especially his sense of inspiration from the Alpine landscape are both typically Romantic characteristics. Other composers, such as the Franco/Belgian composer Cesar Franck (also an organist) made use of Liszt's cyclic construction &endash; a device whereby themes from earlier parts of a work return at the end to create a quasi-Leitmotivic effect without the dramatic association.
Many late Romantic large-scale symphonic works are in effect extended Symphonic Poems without the program (story line). This is also often the case with chamber music of the era (e .g., Faure Piano Quartets, Franck Piano Quintet). Others, especially Richard Strauss, kept closer to the ideal of the Symphonic Poem with its freer form linked directly to dramatic, programmatic elements (Don Juan, Till Eugenspiegel, Also Sprach Zarathustra) with brilliant and imaginative orchestral effects.
The last of the great Romantic composers of symphonies, and, perhaps, the composer who best summed up the end of one era and prepared the way for a new one, was Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). In many ways he was typically Romantic in outlook and inspiration. In each of his gigantic and varied symphonies he sought to create (in his own musical language) "a whole universe" of intensely personal emotions. Listen to the last movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, the "Resurrection" Symphony. Read more about Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor here.
A conductor by profession--the greatest of his era--Mahler was a master of the Romantic orchestra, utilizing every possible resource for its dramatic and coloristic potential. Both in his Lieder and in his symphonies, many of which contain sections with voice and/or chorus, he betrayed the Romantic fascination with music's possibilities of illustrating and enhancing literature. All of his symphonies have a highly dramatic quality, even if only the first ones retain detailed programs. He drew inspiration from both local folk sources and Nature in the honored Romantic tradition. With Mahler, however, we see a subtle but significant change. Whereas composers had traditionally drawn on picturesque, pleasant, "gentile" elements of folk life, Mahler also used more vulgar, more unpleasant sources, such as the military band music that he often heard as a child. Composers had formerly been inspired by Nature at its most awesome or beautiful or charming. Mahler also was greatly drawn to the Alps and Austria's magnificent landscape. However, he represented Nature in non-traditional, and often in "un-pretty" ways such as his use of real cowbells played in and as a part of the percussion section of the orchestra.
An essential element of Romanticism, as we have seen, was the sense of the Artist as a force outside of Society, indeed, antagonistic to it, even while expressing Society's deepest--but hidden--vision of reality. This separation from Society was, however, usually theoretical rather than real. Most Romantic artists lived in a society of their own which lionized and adored them.
In Mahler, on the other hand, the isolation was all too real and the sense of alienation all too pervasive. Mahler referred to himself as "a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian in Germany, and a Jew in the whole world" &endash; that is, an outsider. His intense love of Nature was no longer the idealization of Rousseau, but rather the longing and nostalgia of the modern city-dweller for a sense of peace and tranquility that had been irretrievably lost. Even as a composer, he was an outsider. As a manically busy, professional conductor, he had time to compose only in the summer or while on vacation.
In his sense of alienation, Mahler was a man of the 20th century--indeed, he once had a therapy session with Freud, another crucial figure of the new century--who nevertheless had his roots and his inspiration firmly planted in the 19th century. The sense of farewell to a world that was disappearing, combined with a personal farewell to life when Mahler lived in the shadow of impending death at an early age, gave his later works a unique, nostalgic poignancy, especially Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a symphony based on traditional Chinese poems. The gigantic Eighth Symphony (called the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the huge size of its orchestra, choruses, and solo singers), based on an ancient Latin poem extolling creativity and the final scene of Goethe's Faust (for German Romantics the ultimate source of greatness) was, on the other hand, a tremendous shout of joy, a counterpart at the and of the Romantic era to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the work that symbolically had begun the era.
The reasons behind the demise of the Romantic period were as complex and numerous as those that produced it. In some cases, it was the same cause, whose further developments brought dawn the world it had originally helped create. The growth of the Middle Class, for example, had brought on the salon culture basic to early Romanticism. By 1900, however, the further rise and growth of the industrial working class (Marx's proletariat class) now threatened to destroy the comfortable bourgeois world. The fascination with Nature had given rise to a new aesthetic position, where Nature was not so much a symbolic, emotional source of inspiration, but rather the source of sensory phenomena themselves--Impressionism. This distinction might be expressed as the difference between the Romantic, who felt Nature with his/her intuition and emotions, and the Impressionist, who experienced Nature with her/his senses.
In any event, the growing tendency to analyze all aspects of the human experience undermined the Romantic reliance on instinct and generalized emotion. More than anything else, however, the view and role of the Artist was changing. Never before in history were composers taken so seriously, so revered and honored as a combination of religious figure, magician, athlete, and philosopher as in the Romantic age and never before had composers taken themselves and their works so seriously. The slaughter that took place as a part of World War I, the annihilation of the semblance of a peaceful , stable, reasonable European worId in the mud of the trenches, made such an attitude impossible.
The Romantic era is the most influential in the history of Western music. The organization of concert life around the world nearly 100 years later still follows the general pattern set down in the Romantic era. Much, if not most, of the music heard in concert halls is Romantic music. Romantic music still has an enormous influence on nearly all forms of modern (late 20th-century) popular music, especially film and TV music and so-called "easy listening music," which is often a watered-down imitation of Romantic cliches without either the inspiring philosophy or the depth of material. More importantly, Romantic music is the music which has made the strongest mark on hybrid musical styles currently produced the around the world. The age of Chopin and Liszt, Wagner and Mahler, is a far cry from music culture in the America of the 199Os, yet our lives are touched every day in some way by the creative forces originating during this powerful and fascinating era.