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Romantic Music: Style and Historical Perspective

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Todd Stalter

on 24 October 2016

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Transcript of Romantic Music: Style and Historical Perspective

The Romantic Period:
c. 1800 - c. 1910
Historical Perspective
The Romantic era is defined by three perspectives: Nationalism, Imperialism, and Industrialism.

In the 19th century, music becomes bourgeois by necessity, both economically and by public demand. While this free enterprise enables artistic freedom, it does not allow for much financial security.

Composers are on the search for originality, using Beethoven as their model, which breeds the following consequences:
Lower levels of productivity
Greater dependence on extra-musical inspiration
Greater emphasis on self-expression
Attraction to the other fine arts and nature (composers encounter leading figures in art, literature, philosophy and politics in the salons, and these exchanges provide inspiration)
As a composer, one tended to be either
conservative
, writing "Absolute Music" (symphonies, sonatas, concertos), or a
progressive
, writing "Program Music" (symphonic poems, program symphonies, character pieces). This divide between the two "camps" is at its worst during the lifetimes of Brahms and Wagner..."disciples" of each composer fueled the flames in public with articles in newspapers bashing each other's music, nasty essays, and interruptions of concerts.
Greater technical demands on performers and conductors now separate many composers from their audiences; they begin as performers, but stop performing to concentrate on composition once their reputations are established; thus begins the disconnect between the two that exists today.
Composers have far greater awareness than ever before of what is current and new in their art due to the high volume of newspapers and journals, concert tours, and public performances by established regional and civic orchestras and opera houses.
The piano becomes the dominant instrument of the period, due to technological advances such as the cast-iron frame, the sostenuto pedal, overstringing, and double-escapement action.
The Rise of the Conductor

Although composers had been conducting their own works in public for some time, as compositions began to be more and more complex, it was natural that orchestral musicians wanted someone on the podium who possessed the kind of technique, ear, and musical ability needed to bring these works together, and to give musically satisfying performances that went beyond "beating time."
As more regional and town orchestras sprang up throughout Europe, there was a need for leadership in a new job market.

By the early 19th century, it became the norm for orchestras to have a dedicated conductor. Louis Spohr and Felix Mendelssohn (both initally composers) were great early conductors. Mendelssohn was the first to use a wooden baton to indicate pulse. Hans von Bulow is considered to be the first professional musician whose principal career was as a conductor.
Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner were great conductors who wrote treatises on conducting; Wagner was the first who believed that the conductor should impart his view of the music on the performance, rather than just keeping things in order.
The conductor must be aware of all musical elements happening at each instant in time, and be able to show visually all musical elements required as they should be performed (dynamics, articulation, attack, release, entrances, balance), including building melodic phrases and harmonic tension to aurally present the formal structure of the work (whew!!).
This requires advance study of the score...most modern conductors conduct entire concerts from memory because of their thorough knowledge of the score, which allows them total freedom to communicate with their players.
Conductors, through repertoire selection and championing music they love, have had great influence: Mendelssohn almost singlehandedly is responsible for the Bach revival by performing his "St. Matthew Passion" in Berlin in 1829.

Conversely, they could/did have a negative influence...if they didn't like your music (or you), you were most likely not going to get it performed!
SOUND
An increasing preoccupation with color, both tone color (timbre) and harmonic color.
Expansion of the orchestra to include complete string, woodwind, and brass families (and much more percussion), provides almost limitless color combination possibilities.
The new and improved piano provides composers with a wider color palette.
MELODY
Melodies in Romantic music contain a broader scope of pitch and mood to serve a much wider scope of expression.
Emphasis on lyricism, and asymmetrical phrasing.
RHYTHM
Composers seek irregular qualities of motion from tempo changes, cross rhythms, and preference for RUBATO (literally, "borrowed time").
GROWTH
The best Romantic compositions range from the small-scale and intimate music of Chopin to the immensely large and dramatic symphonic structures of Mahler (symphony) and Wagner (opera).
Thematic Transformation: the use and variation of a recurring theme that may or may not be assigned to a particular character or idea, musically altered to match the changing mood and character of its subject (think STAR WARS).
PRINCIPAL ROMANTIC GENRES
Symphonic Poem: for orchestra, usually in one movement, based on a specific story, narrative, or psychological drama. First presented by Franz Liszt in 1854 (Les Preludes), culminating in the music of Richard Strauss.

Famous Symphonic Poems: Tchaikovsky's 'Romeo and Juliet,' Dukas' 'Sorcerer's Apprentice,' Scriabin's 'The Poem of Ecstasy,' and Strauss' oevure...Don Juan, Don Quixote, Death and Transfiguration, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Til Eulenspiegel.
Symphony

The four movement structure is preserved, but the Romantic approach to extended harmony and lyricism change its sound and structure.

The "Program Symphony" follows classical structure but uses literary or other story as construct (most famous example: 'Symphonie Fantastique,' Berlioz).

Important Symphonists: Schubert (8), Mendelssohn (5), Schumann (4), Bruckner (9), Brahms (4), Mahler (9 +), Tchaikovsky (6), Dvorak (9), Sibelius (7)
Concerto

Primarily serves as a vehicle for virtuosic titans to show off their technique, such as Paganini (violin) and Liszt (piano). The dominant role of the soloist breaks the classical approach of balance, but satisfies the public's love of virtuoso performance, which keeps it populr through the 19th century.

Important Concerto composers: Brahms (2 piano, 1 violin); Mendelssohn (2 piano, 1 violin); Rachmaninov (4 piano); Chopin (2 piano); Liszt (2 piano); Tchaikovsky (violin);
Piano Music (divided into three main areas):
Character Pieces: short, one movement, quasi-programmatic works, sometimes bundled into collections like "Nocturnes," "Preludes," etc.
Etudes: a piece that is a technical exercise or "tour de force" to achieve the ultimate technique, combining difficulty with high artistic quality.
Sonata: a holdover from the Classical era, usually in the standard three movements, but freely altered by progressive composers.
Important composers of piano music in the Romantic period: Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms.
The Art Song (Lieder)
A short solo song with piano accompaniment, set to texts by the flowering German lyric poets of the time. Capable of a wide range of expression, given the new Romantic approach to harmony, and emphasis on lyric melody.

Important Lied composers: Schubert (600), Schumann (250), Brahms (200), Mahler (50), Strauss (200).
Opera prospers commercially and artistically in the Romantic period. Librettists choose stories that parallel political and social events of the time, or grandiose epics, and spice them up with sex, murder, and religion. Comic opera is just as popular as serious fare.

Composers seek continuity by using cyclic themes, and the LEITMOTIV (a theme assigned to a specific character/concept in the work, changing to match the dramatic action).

In his operas, Wagner attempts to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a kind of "universal art work" that incorporates all elements of the fine arts (theater, dance, visual art, music) into one unified artistic statement.
Important Romantic Operas:

Wagner...(The Ring of the Nibelung, The Mastersingers of Nuremburg, The Flying Dutchman), Verdi...(Otello, La Traviata, Aida), Puccini...(Turandot, Madame Butterfly).

The End of the 19th Century: Nationalism on the Rise
Movements toward establishing a national "sound" and identity occur among composers in various regions of Europe, especially among countries that are not in the mainstream of the musical scene. To do this, there is a conscious and purposeful use of folk music as inspiration.
Important examples:

England (Vaughan Williams)
Russia (Rimsky-Korsakov)
Norway (Edvard Grieg)
Finland (Jean Sibelius)
Czechoslovakia (Antonin Dvorak)
Spain (Isaac Albeniz)

The End of the 19th Century: Impressionism, the reaction AGAINST German musical influence
In France throughout the mid to late 19th century, there was general distaste for modern German music on the grounds that it was needlessly complex, too thick textured, and much too serious.

French composers reacted by creating music that mirrored the approaches of the Impressionist painters: subtlety, grace, cloudy, mysterious, and sometimes whimsical. Musically, this meant a RADICAL change in vocabulary.

They ignored the traditional rules of harmony, and sometimes did the exact opposite of what the "rules" were.

They explored nuances of sound color with exotic instrument combinations.

They accepted sounds for their individual beauty, not just in context with other sounds.

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) was the most talented and influential representative of French musical impressionism.

Important works for piano (La Cathedrale engloutie, Arabesques, Claire de Lune, Preludes

Important works for orchestra (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer, Images)

Keeping the Tradition: Gustav Mahler and the German Symphony
Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911) was the greatest conductor of his generation, and arguably the best composer. Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the New York Philharmonic.

He viewed his role as successor to the long line of German symphonists, from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, then himself.

He subscribed to the Beethovenian ideal of the symphony as "The World," and each of his works is filled with the length and breadth of all emotion and experiences.

His music was not accepted well in his lifetime...he was well aware that he was writing music that would only be understood and fully appreciated in the future. Performances of his music rarely happened in his lifetime unless he conducted and organized them; now, all major orchestras around the world play his entire symphonic oeuvre on an almost yearly basis.
His knowledge and incredible ear as a conductor is evident through his inventive use of orchestral color, very specific performance directions, exploiting every instrument's fullest capabilities, and the use of non-traditional instruments such as the mandolin (Symphony No. 7), and the anvil (Symphony No. 6)
The Bridge to the 20th Century: Expressionism and the abandonment of Tonal harmony

German composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss were pushing the boundaries of tonal music in the early years of the 20th century. At times, there was no "harmony" or "key center," just endless melodic lines.

This produced evocative music, but music that was very difficult for the average person to connect with, both intellectually and emotionally.

Important atonal works: Schoenberg (Five Pieces for Orchestra, Pierrot Lunaire); Strauss (Elektra), Webern (Concerto for Nine Instruments)
Stravinsky's 1913 "Rite of Spring"
There is no turning back...

Commissioned as a ballet for Nijinsky's touring Russian ballet company.

Stravinsky's use of dissonance, wildly irregular rhythm, and virtually unrecognizable musical language, along with a radical departure from classical ballet choreography, caused a full blown riot at the premiere...audience members physically fought with one another while the orchestra and dancers tried to finish.

American composer Aaron Copland called it "the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century," as all serious composers from that point on had to confront its musical language. Composer/conductor Pierre Boulez once stated: "All music starts from the Rite; there is nothing before."
Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) is credited with "liberating" rhythm and giving it as much importance as melodic and harmonic concerns in composition. This piece, more than any other, turns its back on most every influence from previous eras, and closes the door on the Victorian age...France's la belle epoque, and ushers us into the 20th century.
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