Franz Schubert follows Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as the fourth Viennese master of the Classic-Romantic, and the only one of the four born and raised in Vienna. During his short life of 31 years, he composed 9 symphonies, 21 piano sonatas, 15 string quartets, various other chamber music, 7 Masses, and over 600 songs for solo voice and piano. The songs are sung in concert by a solo singer with piano accompaniment.
Schubert's songs, known as Lieder, are settings of German Romantic poetry. Unlike popular songwriters today, art song composers rarely wrote the lyrics, preferring to set existing poems to music. Many of Schubert's songs are musical settings of poems by famous poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest German writer in history.
Composer Synopsis: Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Frédéric Chopin is the most eloquent composer of music for the piano in music history. He began as a pianist and composer of piano music and, unlike his contemporaries Liszt and Robert Schumann, he remained a purely pianistic composer throughout his life. All of his compositions include the piano. Chopin's career spans the time period in which the modern piano forte was being established. New developments in piano technology, especially a new softer sound, fueled Chopin's brilliant musical imagination to create the most expressive and technically idiosyncratic piano music ever composed.
As a young boy Chopin was extraordinarily precocious. He grew up near Warsaw Poland and enjoyed a comprehensive general education. But, by the age of six it became clear that he possessed an unusual gift for the piano. In 1817 he was composing polonaises and marches and in 1818 he performed his first public concert, in which he performed a concerto by Gyrowetz. During these years he learned the keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. He also began to perform in the aristocratic salons of Warsaw where he astounded listeners with his ability to improvise. In 1831 Chopin travelled to Paris, where he made his home for the rest of his life. At first he performed public concerts, but found them distasteful. These performances, however, established Chopin's reputation and catapulted him into the center of Parisian musical and social life. Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Liszt, Bellini, the painter Delacroix, the poet Heine and the novelist Balzac were his friends and he soon became the most fashionable piano teacher in the city. He was patronized by the Rothschilds and admitted into the highest social circles. He gradually removed himself from concert performance in favor of intimate salon appearances while his reputation as a composer grew immensely. In 1836 he met the writer George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) with whom he shared the most stable and affectionate relationship of his life over the course of the next ten years. Following the breakup of their relationship in 1847 Chopin's health began to deteriorate quickly. He died in October 1849 of tuberculosis.
Chopin embodies the romantic ideal. His musical style combines an exquisite melodic sense with adventurous harmonies, coloristic use of the pedal and an intuitive understanding of freedom in formal design. But, his place as one of the leading romantic figures was determined less by his musical style than by his personality and social circumstances. He was viewed as an impulsive artist by Parisian society of the 1830s and 1840s. He was handsome, well spoken, and sensitive. Moreover, he was perceived to be an exiled patriot who was suffering from the disease that ultimately killed him. When he played at salons his improvisations dazzled listeners. He never played one of his own compositions the same way twice, which led people to think of Chopin as the inspired genius who blurred the lines between strictly formal work and freedom of expression.
The body of Chopin's work reflects the stages of his life. In the late 1820s and early 1830s Chopin wrote two piano concertos, a number of additional pieces for piano and orchestra and several of his most brilliant virtuoso pieces including the three rondos and the Andante spianato. All of these were written for concert performances. By 1832 as Chopin began to rely more on teaching and the salons for his livelihood, he began to compose etudes (studies) and smaller works of only moderate difficulty (the nocturnes, waltzes, impromptus, mazurkas and the earlier polonaises). Many of these pieces were dedicated to students and all were shaped by the elegant and polished tastes of the Parisian aristocracy. But, a third category also began to emerge at this time: larger pieces, which Chopin wrote for himself to play. These include the scherzos, ballades the Barcarolle, the F Minor Fantasie, the later Polonaises and the sonatas. All require great technical proficiency and emotional sensitivity and display improvisatory qualities that derive from Chopin's own improvisations in the salons.
Chopin influenced later generations of musicians in the use of flexible, improvisatory melody, rubato and innovative harmony. Most importantly, though, he demonstrated how the piano could be used as an instrument to express the full range of human emotions.
Some of Chopin's best known compositions include:
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 39
Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, Op. 54
Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47
24 Preludes, Op. 28
Two Nocturnes, Op. 37
Two Nocturnes, Op. 55
Two Nocturnes, Op. 62
12 Etudes, Op. 10
12 Etudes, Op. 25
Four Mazurkas, Op. 24
Four Mazurkas, Op. 30
Four Mazurkas, Op. 33
Four Mazurkas, Op. 41
Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44
Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53
Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57
Barcarole in F-sharp minor, Op. 60
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
Composer Synopsis: Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Felix Mendelssohn was arguably the greatest child prodigy in the history of Western Music. By the age of sixteen Mendelssohn already possessed a mastery of musical style and technique. Not only did he have a gift for creating beautiful, lyrical melodies and transparent textures, but he had the ability to control large-scale musical structures better than any composer of his generation. In the Octet, for example, one of the masterpieces of the first half of the Nineteenth Century, which Mendelssohn wrote when he was sixteen, the way that Mendelssohn brings back and integrates the scherzo in the finale of the piece is a stroke of genius unmatched in his age. Similarly, the craftsmanship and originality Mendelssohn displays in the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream is exceptional. Listen to the beginning of the recapitulation where the flutes repeat the soft, swirling lines of the very beginning of the piece. This is brilliantly original.
Beethoven was Mendelssohn's most important influence. He imitated the older master in numerous works (the Quartets in A Minor and E-flat Major, the E Major Piano Sonata, for example). He also adopts Beethoven's creative need to express strong emotion in his music and to use traditional elements of Classical Form to produce profoundly non-classical results. Unlike Beethoven, Mendelssohn skillfully advanced literary and other extra musical subjects in a great deal of his music (the Italian Symphony, the Hebrides Overture, the Scottish Symphony, to name a few), a characteristic that identified him as a musician of the new Romantic Age. Yet, his Classical inclinations led him to minimize the storms and the power of nature, favored by other Romantics, and to emphasize form, elegance and melodic grace.
Felix Mendelssohn was born into an upper middle class family of bankers, factory owners and intellectuals on 3 February 1809 in Hamburg Germany. His paternal grandfather was the enormously influential philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a central figure in the establishment of a German national literature and a leader in the fight against religious intolerance and anti Semitism. His views played a significant role in the education of Felix. The boy grew up in a cultured environment in which music was extremely important. Mendelssohn's older sister, Fanny, also became an excellent pianist and important composer of smaller scale works.
To escape the invasion of Napoleon's forces in 1811 the Mendelssohn family moved to Berlin. Berlin at the time was beginning to flower as a center of culture and wealth. It proved to be the perfect place for Mendelssohn to develop his extraordinary musical gifts. Felix received his first piano instruction from his mother. In 1816 Felix's father, Abraham Mendelssohn, had his children convert from Judaism to Christianity. Although there may have been some practical reasons for these conversions, Abraham seems to have acted with a genuine conviction to reconcile the moral and ethical essence of Christianity with the inclinations of Enlightenment philosophy. In Felix's later life this conviction became part of his own religious attitude and strongly influenced the creation of his two monumental oratorios, St. Paul and Elijah.
By the age of nine Felix had developed into a promising pianist. He also studied composition and music theory, poetry, creative writing and drawing. At eleven he began composing in earnest and by thirteen wrote his first piano sonata, followed soon thereafter by his first concertos, the Piano concerto in A Minor and the Violin Concerto in D Minor. During these years Mendelssohn met and made lasting relationships with the great German poet and writer, Goethe, as well as the composer Hummel and the writer and critic, Ludwig Rellstab. In the ensuing years Mendelssohn's father opened his house in Berlin to theatrical performances, literary readings and regular concerts. Through this salon environment Felix became acquainted with some of the most important musicians, actors, philosophers and scientists of the age including the philosopher Hegel and the natural scientist Alexander von Humbolt. Against this backdrop of intellectual and artistic stimulation Mendelssohn began to study Shakespeare, translate Latin poetry and drama and become familiar with the works of J. S. Bach and George Frederic Handel. In 1819 at the age of twenty Mendelssohn conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion, which until then had lain in a manuscript since its composition eighty years earlier. This performance and two others that followed shortly began the revival in interest of Bach's music.
During his twenties and early thirties Mendelssohn established himself as both a sought after conductor and significant composer. He travelled across Europe championing the Oratorios of Handel (Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus, Solomon, and others) and performing operas by Mozart, Weber and Cherubini. In 1836 he composed his Oratorio, St. Paul, based on the models of Handel's oratorios. Just before this composition Mendelssohn was hired as the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra. Directing the orchestra was probably the most important activity of his life, bringing together his sense of compassion, interests in both older and contemporary music, his own composition and his awareness that standards of orchestral performance had to improve. In this capacity Mendelssohn fought to improve the social position of musicians, brought the leading soloists of the time to Leipzig to perform with the orchestra, dramatically increased the performance level of orchestral music by instituting the position of performance conductor, which had not previously existed, to the point that the orchestra was considered a virtuoso ensemble, and premiered numerous compositions of his own.
During the last years of his life Mendelssohn divided his conducting duties between Leipzig and Berlin, played a significant role in establishing the Leipzig Conservatory of Music and wrote several of his most important works including the oratorio, Elijah, and the String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80. His colleagues and friends continued to be the greatest musicians and artists of the mid Nineteenth Century: Robert and Clara Schumann, Niels Gade, Jenny Lind, Anton Rubenstein, Moscheles, Vieuxtemps and Joachim. Mendelssohn was a brilliant musician and could be celebrated only for that. He was unique, however, in his comprehension of the importance of art and culture to human society and in his deep sense of human rights and social equality. In November 1847 he died of a stroke at his home in Leipzig. He was 38 years old.
Aria: "Lord God of Abraham" from Elijah
Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels,
laßt heut kund werden, daß du Gott bist
und ich dein Knecht. Herr, Gott Abrahams!
Und daß ich solches alles nach deinem Worte getan!
Erhöre mich, Herr, erhöre mich!
Herr, Gott Abrahams, Isaaks und Israels
erhöre mich, Herr, erhöre mich!
Daß dies Volk wisse, daß du der Herr Gott bist,
daß du ihr Herz danach bekehrest!
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,
this day let it be known that Thou art God,
and that I am Thy servant! Lord God of Abraham!
Show all people that I have done these things according to Thy word.
Oh hear me, Lord, and answer me!
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,
oh hear me and answer me,
and show this people that Thou art Lord God.
And let their hearts again be turned!
Composer Synopsis: Robert & Clara Schumman
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)
The story of Robert and Clara could be the plot of a Hollywood movie. He was handsome, gifted, intelligent and sensitive; she was a lovely, spirited child prodigy who became one the greatest pianists of her time. They began their relationship when he was 23 and she only 14 years old. In spite of her father's objections, they eventually married and had seven children. Devoted to her spouse, Clara put her career on hold while Robert pursued his. After Robert became mentally ill and died in an asylum when he was only 46 years old, Clara resumed her concert career to support their family. She lived to be an elderly woman and became a mentor of Johannes Brahms, who helped her raise her children.
Like many young men of his time, Robert attended university to study law, but he had little interest in jurisprudence. His life was consumed by his love for literature and music. An insightful music critic, he founded and edited a music journal in Leipzig, the Neue musikalische Zeitung. His earlier aspirations of a career as a concert pianist had been dashed by an injury to his right hand, self-inflicted by over-zealous practicing. Music criticism allowed Robert to blend his two passions, words and music, and it brought in a little income.
Clara met Robert when he came to study piano with her father, Friedrich Wieck, a prominent German piano teacher in Leipzig. Wieck had many students, but his star pupil was his own daughter, whom he was grooming for a concert career. Her budding relationship with Robert, who lived in their home, was a threat to Wieck's ambitions. He eventually went so far as to take legal action to stop their marriage, but the couple won the case and married in 1840.
That same year the Schumanns moved to Dresden, where Robert composed many of his greatest works including his piano concerto and the popular and profitable Album for the Young. Schumann called 1844 his "most fruitful year." Clara continued to give recitals and teach students and to support Robert in his endeavors, as his health was deteriorating.
In 1850 Schumann was offered a position as Music Director to the city of Düsseldorf. This proved to be a frustrating situation because Robert was not an effective conductor. His performances did not receive good reviews; moreover, he experienced repeated conflicts with the orchestra players and the music committee. His eminence as a composer continued to soar, while his health declined.
On September 30, 1853 a winsome young man presented himself at their door and asked for an audience. Johannes Brahms had traveled from Hamburg to meet the Schumanns and play some of his compositions for them. Robert and Clara were deeply impressed with Brahms and his music. Soon after that Robert published an article in the Neue Zeitung für Musik proclaiming Brahms the heir to the mantle of Beethoven.
Robert's tragic illness has been the subject of much speculation. He suffered from depression all his life and had at least three nervous breakdowns. After a failed suicide attempt at age 44 he was committed to a mental institution, where he died. Clara was frustrated by the attitudes of his doctors, who refused permission for her to see him. Robert composed nothing during his final years of confinement.
Schumann's major works include four symphonies, a celebrated piano concerto, a violin concerto, a cello concerto, much chamber music, many songs, some choral music and one opera, which has never entered the standard repertoire. His style is highly romantic, with many programmatic associations. His songs are sensitive musical settings of German Romantic poetry, often depicting the suffering of unrequited love or the intimate thoughts of women musing on family life.
Clara's compositional output is more modest. Though talented, she had little time to compose and subordinated her creative work to that of her husband. Her songs and piano pieces feature a charming musical language, strongly pianistic in character. In her day she was known as the greatest female pianist in Europe. Of course, there were many fine women musicians, but social conventions prevented them from having careers as composers and concert artists. Both Mozart and Mendelssohn had gifted sisters who were denied access to the professional music world because of gender stereotypes and expectations. Clara's father was unusual in wanting a career for his daughter, and he got his wish, though perhaps not as he had envisioned it.
Composer Synopsis: Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the greatest pianist of his time, and some say of all time, but of course we have no recordings to bear that out. What we have are many first-person accounts of this dynamic playing, as well as the music he composed for his own performance. But Liszt was much more than a virtuoso pianist. He was a great composer of orchestral music, songs, and sacred music. He was a prodigy, an entertainer, a writer, a teacher, a conductor, and a religious mystic.
Born October 22, 1811 in a German-speaking area of Hungary, Liszt never mastered the difficult Magyar tongue, though he spent a great deal of time in Budapest, especially in his later years. He founded and funded the Hungarian National Academy of Music, which is today called the Franz Liszt Academy.
In 1822 Liszt's family moved to Vienna where he studied piano with Czerny and composition with Salieri. When he was twelve the family moved on to Paris and French became his language of choice, though he always identified himself as a Hungarian. He was refused admission to the Paris Conservatory on the grounds that he was a foreigner, so he studied theory and composition with Reicha and Paer. His friends in Paris included Chopin, Berlioz, Rossini, and other great musicians, as well as writers such as Dumas and Georges Sand. Although not high born, he moved in the most elevated social circles. His love for literature led him to compose works inspired by the great books of authors such as Dante, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron.
In 1833 Liszt was introduced to the beautiful Countess Marie d'Agoult. She was 28 and he 21 years old. Their affair tuned into a ten-year relationship that produced three offspring. They never married because she already had a husband and two children. When Liszt began touring Europe their relationship became strained, and they eventually parted, not amicably. Marie, who wrote under the pen name Daniel Stern, portrayed Liszt in a very unfavorable light in her autobiographical novel N´e;lida.
Between 1839 and 1847 Liszt performed in all the capitals of Europe, traveling the roads of Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Belgium, Holland, Rumania, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland and England. It was in London that Liszt first gave piano "recitals" in 1840. His inspiration was the violinist Paganini, after whom he patterned his concerts and on whose music he wrote variations and studies. It was from Paganini that Liszt got the notion of the diabolical as musical inspiration.
By 1841 Liszt's fame exceeded that of any musician; he was a celebrity throughout Europe, but especially in Berlin where "Listomania" reigned. He earned a great deal of money, and he gave most of it away. He played for the benefit of flood victims in Hungary, retired musicians, music education, and the Beethoven bronze statue in Bonn. He was generous to a fault, and he never charged his pupils for lessons.
Exhausted from concertizing, Liszt retired from the stage at age 35. In 1848 he took up full-time residence in Weimar, where he served as Grand Ducal Director of Music Extraordinaire. Most of Liszt's great orchestral works were written in Weimar. There he drew inspiration from Goethe for his magnificent Faust Symphony, and from The Divine Comedy for his Dante Symphony. His 12 tone poems represent a new genre of orchestral music based on literary and pictorial models. He was also occupied with conducting and teaching while at Weimar.
In 1847, while playing in Kiev, Liszt had met the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who became the second great love of his life. They lived together in Weimar until 1860 when she moved to Rome. Liszt joined her there the following year and was to have married her on his fiftieth birthday, but the annulment of her earlier marriage was rescinded at the eleventh hour. Liszt never married, and increasingly began to dedicate his life to the Roman Catholic Church. He took four of the seven orders necessary for the priesthood, becoming an abbé. Many of the later photographs of Liszt show him wearing a clerical collar.
Liszt in March, 1886
photograph of Liszt by the famed 19th century photographer, Nadar.
Liszt adored Rome and continued to divide his time between the Eternal City, Weimar and Budapest. He lived a semi-monastic life at the Madonna del Rosario from 1863 to 1868, composing a great deal of sacred music, including his oratorio Christus. His friends there included cardinals and even Pope Pius IX.
Liszt is often associated with Richard Wagner, who married his daughter Cosima in 1870 after she divorced her husband, Hans von Bülow, a musical colleague of both Liszt and Wagner. Liszt was scandalized but reconciled with his daughter and Wagner after a few years. Although not an opera composer himself, Liszt became a great champion of the operas of Wagner, conducting the premiere of Lohengrin. He was staying with Cosima and Wagner in Venice when Wagner died in 1883.
Liszt's late compositions anticipate the harmonic innovations of the 20th century. While old age was not especially kind to Liszt, he continued playing the piano and composing up until his death at age 75. He died from pneumonia in Bayreuth on July 31, 1886, having recently heard Wagner's mystical opera Parsifal.
Anées de pélerinage (Years of Pilgrimage, three sets)
19 Hungarian Rhapsodies
Transcendental Etudes after Paganini
2 Piano Concertos
56 transcriptions of Schubert songs
Transcriptions of operatic excerpts by Mozart, Donizetti, Gounod, Rossini, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Verdi, et al.
Transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies
Mephisto Waltzes 3 and 4
Grand Concert Solo
Sonata in B minor
12 Tone Poems
Mephisto Waltzes 1 and 2
Hungarian Coronation Mass
Composer Synopsis: Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms ranks as the foremost successor of Beethoven in orchestral and chamber music. Today he is thought of as being a truly classic composer in the late romantic age because of his inclination to impose a traditional sense of order and form on his music. For this reason he has emerged as the true upholder of the Viennese Classic tradition established by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
Brahms' fame was established in 1853 through an essay written by Robert Schumann, "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths). It became solidified in public opinion in 1868 after the triumphal premier of his German Requiem. Unfortunately for Brahms, the esteem he enjoyed at this time was due as much to his association with a conservative group of "serious minded musicians" who polemicized against the excesses of the "New German School," represented most notably by Richard Wagner. Against his will, Brahms was promoted as the symbol of traditional Germanic musical values in opposition to the radicalism of Wagner and Liszt.
Johannes was the second child of a double bass player in the Hamburg City Orchestra. He showed signs of being a child prodigy as a pianist and composer. In 1846 he began his education in music theory and soon after became the pianist, composer and arranger for the Alster Pavilion Orchestra, a small chamber orchestra in Hamburg. In 1848 he made his debut as a solo pianist and in 1853 met Robert and Clara Schumann, beginning a romantic infatuation with Clara that lasted ten years.
In 1857 Brahms and his friend, the great violinist Joachim, declared their opposition to the policies, but not necessarily the aesthetics, of the New German School. This group of musicians, founded around the composer Franz Liszt and later Richard Wagner, controlled much of the performance, distribution and publication of music in Germany. Brahms became recognized as the most creative and able opponent of the New German School and, thus, a composer to be feared and ostracized. For the next five years Brahms encountered increasing difficulty getting his works performed and published.
An example of the type of difficulties Brahms dealt with can be found in the first performances of his D Minor Piano concerto, Op. 15, which he began in 1854 and completed in 1858. The work was premiered in Hanover in January 1859 and was critically acclaimed. However, before another performance could be mounted his enemies stirred up public opinion against the piece. A second performance in Leipzig was a dismal failure, forcing Brahms to recognize that by remaining outside the musical establishment, he jeopardized his artistic career. Later in 1859 Brahms retreated somewhat from public controversy, settling in Hamburg and forming a women's chorus, for which he arranged folksongs and composed many original compositions.
In 1862 Brahms moved to Vienna. Through introductions provided by Clara Schumann, Brahms was soon accepted into artistic circles, where he and his music were greeted with relative enthusiasm. In 1863 Brahms was elected to the position of Director of the Vienna Singakademie, a position that lasted only one year, but established Brahms as a creative force in Vienna. To raise funds for the group Brahms performed concerts of his own new compositions such as the April 1863 concert in which choral works, the B-flat Sextet and the Sonata for Two Pianos (the first version of the F Minor Quintet) were performed. In 1869 Wagner came to Vienna and viciously attacked Brahms in a periodical article, "Ueber das Dirigieren," that nearly provoked a duel.
For the next few years Brahms toured extensively performing his own works. He continued to seek an official appointment as director of an orchestra or professor at a conservatory. He believed that such an appointment was the basic condition for a stable middle class life that included a family. None came, however, until 1872 when he was named director of the Vienna Gesellschafts-Konzerte, a prestigious orchestra and chorus in Vienna. Brahms used this position to introduce many of his own compositions together with works by Bach and Handel. But, while Brahms' reputation as a composer was growing, his limitations as a conductor were becoming more apparent. In 1875 he resigned this position as the formal position of conductor was becoming more professionalized.
During these years Brahms was hailed as a patriot because of the growing public appreciation for his German Requiem and other works such as his "patriotic" songs of 1861, Op. 41, and the Triumphlied, Op. 55, written in commemoration of the Franco-Prussian War. In 1873 Brahms completed his most popular work to date, Variations On a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56. From this point on, Brahms was secure financially and his artistic success was assured.
Brahms left the world extraordinary choral music, both a cappella works and large works for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra such as the Requiem. He also composed the most significant repertory of Lieder (art songs) for solo voice and small solo ensemble and piano of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. But, possibly due to his difficulties with Wagner, he never composed an opera.
His solo piano music that includes the three early piano sonatas, the Waltzes, the two sets of Pagannini Variations and the numerous rhapsodies, intermezzos, ballades, capriccios, romances and fantasias form one of the most extensive repertories of piano music that continues to be performed today.
Brahms' lasting fame and reputation, however, is due to his chamber music, both with and without piano, and his orchestral music. At least a half dozen of Brahms' chamber works are considered among the masterpieces of European music literature. These include the Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 34 (1864), the Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, Op. 40 (1865), the Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 101 (1886), the String Quintet in G Major, Op. 111 (1890) and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891). In addition, his three sonatas for violin and piano, two sonatas for cello and piano and two sonatas for clarinet and piano contain some of Brahms' most beautiful melodic writing, as well as sensitive use of colorful harmonies. The clarinet sonatas, dating from the very end of Brahms' life offer exquisite autumnal tonal colors and are among his most mature compositions.
Brahms wrote most of his compositions for orchestra later in life. These include four symphonies, two serenades for orchestra, four concertos (two for piano, one for violin and one for violin and cello), two concert overtures, a set of Hungarian Dances and the Haydn Variations. He composed most of these after the early 1870s in Vienna, but none during his last creative period in the later 1880s and early 1890s, when he returned to the composition of chamber music, song and small piano pieces. Although he revered the symphony and had paid great attention to the problems of organizing symphonic works, he seems to have felt himself inadequate to undertake such works. In order to prepare for this task he first turned to composing a concerto, two serenades and variations for orchestra, all formal designs he considered relatively simple. He even wrote his First Symphony as a sonata for two pianos first before recasting it as a symphony.
Brahms worked for many years on Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68. Sketches for the Sonata for Two Pianos appeared well before 1862 and the Sonata was completed in 1864. During the years 1874-1876 Brahms took up the idea again and converted it into a symphony. The work owes a huge debt to Beethoven. No symphonic work since Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is crafted with such intricate musical elaboration and such depth of intensity. In addition, both works share a sense of human pain, overcome by the triumph of the human spirit and creativity. Beginning with moods of dark struggle, both works end in triumphal light and brilliance. Also, as in many of Beethoven's works, the first movement is dominated by a motiveA fragment of a melody, manipulated by composers in many ways to achieve symmetry and unity. that supplies the basic connecting tissue to the piece and its consistency, while serving as its main melodic material. After two lighter, lyrical middle movements the last movement begins with darkness. A horn solo breaks the gloom and suddenly signals the salvation of the soul before the hymn-like Allegro ends the work in victory over pain and suffering.
Brahms conceived the last movement as a chaconne,A musical form, in which a short bass line (ground bass in the baroque era) repeats, allowing other voices to make extensive variations. a complex set of variations, frequently used in Baroque Era music. The movement is based on an eight-bar theme, which is repeated thirty-one times. There is no harmonic modulation, yet the movement flows fluidly. Each variation is interlaced with its surrounding variations. The entire texture is overlaid with a second series of variations after a return of the theme near the middle of the movement. Despite the extreme complexity of the construction, the movement still flows freely. Brahms' genius is shown in the fact that a listener's attention is drawn to the beauty of the sound, not to the technical underpinnings of the movement.
As in all of Brahms' work technical mastery in the Fourth Symphony never overshadows aesthetic beauty. One simply serves the other. But, it is not only Brahms' extraordinary compositional technique that serves as the foundation of his work, it is also his conception of how music should be put together. In the Romantic Age melody, harmonic color and timbre that freely express emotion dominate musical thought. Form becomes essentially a platform on which these elements are displayed. For Brahms, though, the idea of developing far-reaching conclusions from a kernel of basic material was central to his compositional process. Brahms uses motivic and thematic manipulation to underlie all sections of his formal designs in a similar, but even more rigorous way to what Beethoven did in his last works. He also discovered how to create extended compositions, to present motivic and melodic material within a movement in a broad and understandable way without the aid of periodic structure and traditional cadential harmony.The arrival points in music. Cadences end sections of music with a feeling of conclusiveness. In these ways Brahms demonstrated the vitality of formal music design and earned the label, "most classic composer in the Romantic Age."
Some of Brahm's best known compositions include:
Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
Symphony #2 in D major, Op. 73
Symphony #3 in F major, Op. 90
Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83 Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45
String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25
Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26
Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 88
Seven Fantasias for piano, Op. 116
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel for piano, Op. 24
Brahms also composed a great number of oustanding art songs and choral works.
Music Background: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) Translation from French by Roger Fry (1866-1934)
These nymphs I would perpetuate.
Their light carnation, that it floats in the air
Heavy with tufted slumbers.
Was it a dream I loved?
My doubt, a heap of ancient night, is finishing
In many a subtle branch, which, left the true
Wood itself, proves, alas! that all alone I gave
Myself for triumph the ideal sin of roses.
Let me reflect
. . .if the girls of which you tell
Figure a wish of your fabulous senses!
Faun, the illusion escapes from the blue eyes
And cold, like a spring in tears, of the chaster one:
But, the other, all sighs, do you say she contrasts
Like a breeze of hot day in your fleece!
But no! through the still, weary faintness
Choking with heat the fresh morn if it strives,
No water murmurs but what my flute pours
On the chord sprinkled thicket; and the sole wind
Prompt to exhale from my two pipes, before
It scatters the sound in a waterless shower,
Is, on the horizon's unwrinkled space,
The visible serene artificial breath
Of inspiration, which regains the sky.
Oh you, Sicilian shores of a calm marsh
That more than the suns my vanity havocs,
Silent beneath the flowers of sparks, RELATE
"That here I was cutting the hollow reeds tamed
By talent, when on the dull gold of the distant
Verdures dedicating their vines to the springs,
There waves an animal whiteness at rest:
And that to the prelude where the pipes first stir
This flight of swans, no! Naiads, flies
Or plunges . . ."
Inert, all burns in the fierce hour
Nor marks by what art all at once bolted
Too much hymen desired by who seeks the Ia:
Then shall I awake to the primitive fervour,
Straight and alone, 'neath antique floods of light,
Lilies and one of you all through my ingenuousness.
As well as this sweet nothing their lips purr,
The kiss, which a hush assures of the perfid ones,
My breast, though proofless, still attests a bite
Mysterious, due to some august tooth;
But enough! for confidant such mystery chose
The great double reed which one plays 'neath the blue:
Which, the cheek's trouble turning to itself
Dreams, in a solo long, we might amuse
Surrounding beauties by confusions false
Between themselves and our credulous song;
And to make, just as high as love modulates,
Die out of the everyday dream of a back
Or a pure flank followed by my curtained eyes,
An empty, sonorous, monotonous line.
Try then, instrument of flights, oh malign
Syrinx, to reflower by the lakes where you wait for me!
I, proud of my rumour, for long I will talk
Of goddesses; and by picturings idolatrous,
From their shades unloose yet more of their girdles:
So when of grapes the clearness I've sucked,
To banish regret by my ruse disavowed,
Laughing, I lift the empty bunch to the sky,
Blowing into its luminous skins and athirst
To be drunk, till the evening I keep looking through.
Oh nymphs, we diverse MEMORIES refill.
"My eye, piercing the reeds, shot at each immortal
Neck, which drowned its burning in the wave
With a cry of rage to the forest sky;
And the splendid bath of their hair disappears
In the shimmer and shuddering, oh diamonds!
I run, when, there at my feet, enlaced. Lie (hurt by the languor they taste to be two)
Girls sleeping amid their own casual arms; them I seize, and not disentangling them, fly
To this thicket, hated by the frivilous shade,
Of roses drying up their scent in the sun
Where our delight may be like the day sun-consumed."
I adore it, the anger of virgins, the wild
Delight of the sacred nude burden which slips
To escape from my hot lips drinking, as lightning
Flashes! the secret terror of the flesh:
From the feet of the cruel one to the heart of the timid
Who together lose an innocence, humid
With wild tears or less sorrowful vapours.
"My crime is that I, gay at conquering the treacherous
Fears, the dishevelled tangle divided
Of kisses, the gods kept so well commingled;
For before I could stifle my fiery laughter
In the happy recesses of one (while I kept
With a finger alone, that her feathery whiteness
Should be dyed by her sister's kindling desire,
The younger one, naive and without a blush)
When from my arms, undone by vague failing,
This pities the sob wherewith I was still drunk."
Ah well, towards happiness others will lead me
With their tresses knotted to the horns of my brow:
You know, my passion, that purple and just ripe,
The pomegranates burst and murmur with bees;
And our blood, aflame for her who will take it,
Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire.
At the hour when this wood's dyed with gold and with ashes
A festival glows in the leafage extinguished:
Etna! 'tis amid you, visited by Venus
On your lava fields placing her candid feet,
When a sad stillness thunders wherein the flame dies.
I hold the queen!
O penalty sure . . .
No, but the soul
Void of word and my body weighed down
Succumb in the end to midday's proud silence:
No more, I must sleep, forgetting the outrage,
On the thirsty sand lying, and as I delight
Open my mouth to wine's potent star!
Adieu, both! I shall see the shade you became.
Opera Synopsis: The Ring Cycle
Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) Der Ring des Nibelungen is comprised of what Wagner called "music dramas":
Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
Wagner not only wrote the music, but also wrote the libretto of this extraordinary opera cycle. It took him over 25 years to compose, and he intended the work to be performed as a series over the course of four evenings. In total, the length of "The Ring" is approximately 15 hours. Taken form Norse legends, the ring cycle tells the stories of gods and heroes as they struggle to secure a ring that grants supreme power over the world. Musically, Der Ring des Nibelungen is a masterpiece built of beautiful melodies in a dense and rich texture. Wagner expanded chromatic harmony and blurs the lines of functional harmony. Scored for a large orchestra, the choice of instruments Wagner made are on equal footing with the melody, harmony, libretto, staging, etc... All of these elements combine to support the drama of this work -- a gesamtkunstwerk or "Total work of art."
Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen
by Topi Ylinen
I. Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
The Three Rhinemaidens are swimming in the depths of the river Rhine, as Alberich the Nibelung (a night-dwarf) enters. The Rhinemaidens tease him as he tries catch them.
Then a ray of sunlight shines on pile of gold. The Rhinemaidens tell Alberich that if someone should forswear all love, he would be able to forge an all-powerful ring of the Rhinegold. They tell this to Alberich because they think he would never forswear love, as he was so lustily chasing them. But they are wrong: mad with despair, Alberich forswears and curses all love and he steals the Rhinegold and flees before the shocked Rhinemaidens can take any action.
Elsewhere, Wotan (Odin, the chief of gods) has hired two giants - Fasolt and Fafner - build him a mighty fortress. Following the cunning Loge's advice, he promised the giants goddess Freya as payment. Now Freya is fleeing towards Wotan and his wife, Fricka (goddess of marriage), as the giants appear: the fortress is completed and they want their payment. Wotan tries to play time and hopes Loge would appear and find some clever way out of the nasty situation. Donner (Thor) and Froh arrive to protect Freya. Donner is about to swing his hammer at the giants, but Wotan stops him: Wotan's Runespear protects his deal with the giants.
Just then Loge appears in a flickering flame. All gods are angry at him. Loge says he understands the giants' demand - for who could deny a woman's charm? Who except Alberich? And so Loge tells them about Alberich and new might: the Ring and the treasures he has acquired by the power of the Ring. Alberich is a bitter enemy of the giants and the two giants declare that they will take the Nibelung's treasure instead of Freya. As Wotan hesitates, the giants take Freya away and demand their payment be delivered before sunset. The gods suddenly feel weak: Loge knows that this is because Freya normally gives them Golden Apples which bestows them their eternal youth - no Freya, no Apples. Loge suggests that Wotan should take the Ring from Alberich, since it does not belong to him: steal from the thief. Left with little choice, Wotan agrees to try to win Alberich's treasure. He tells Loge to lead him to Nibelheim, but not through the river Rhine (possibly because he does not want the Rhinemaidens to see him, as he does not intend to return the gold to them but keep it).
Incidentally, the Rhinemaidens may be his daughters, although there is no evidence whatsoever in the text that Wotan is the father they referred to.
Meanwhile, in Nibelheim, Alberich has forced his brother, Mime, forge a magic helmet called the Tarnhelm, which enables its wearer to change shape and to become invisible (it also grants its wearer the ability to teleport, but this will be revealed much later). Mime has hidden the Tarnhelm, hoping to steal the Ring with its help, but he fears Alberich's might too much and gives the helmet when Alberich asks for it. Alberich wears the Tarnhelm and turns invisible - and beats poor Mime up.
Alberich has just left when Loge and Wotan arrive. They hear latest news from Mime and Loge promises Mime they will free all Nibelung dwarfs from Alberich's tyranny. Alberich arrives and becomes visible. He recognizes Wotan and Loge immediately and asks what is their business here. He is told that the gods have heard of his new might and wanted to see if the rumours are true. Alberich boasts with his great treasures with which he says he will rule the world. Loge pretends disbelief in the Tarnhelm's powers, and to prove its might, Alberich wears the Tarnhelm and turns into a huge dragon (serpent?). Loge pretends to be frightened, and asks next whether Alberich could turn into something tiny to evade his enemies. Alberich doesn't see the trick and turns into a toad. Loge tells Wotan to catch the toad: the gods seize the Tarnhelm and leave Nibelheim with Alberich as their captive.
Wotan demands that Alberich pay all his treasures as a ransom before he can be freed. Alberich summons the Nibelungs and they pile all his treasures. Loge also places the Tarnhelm on the pile, Alberich is furious, but tries to calm himself with the knowledge that Mime can forge a new magic helmet. But then Wotan demands the Ring as well. He proceeds to take it and lets Loge free Alberich. Crushed, Alberich places a powerful curse on the ring: whoever has the Ring will be its slave and is doomed, he will be envied and hated by others - everyone will covet for the Ring. With these words he leaves. Wotan ignores his words.
The giants return with Freya. They demand that the treasure must fully cover Freya before they are satisfied. After all gold has been used, her hair can still be seen: the Tarnhelm must cover that. Even then, Fasolt claims he can still see Freya's eye - but he can also see a golden ring on Wotan's finger: he wants it too. Wotan refuses abruptly. The giants say the deal is off.
Just then, bathed in blue light, a woman appears and tells Wotan to surrender the Ring and thus evade its dread curse. She introduces herself as Erda the Earthmother and tells the gods she has seen a dark day dawn for the gods: the End of Everything. Then she disappears. Reluctantly, Wotan follows this piece of advice and gives the Ring to the giants.
Immediately, the giants start a fight over how to divide the treasure. Fafner kills his brother Fasolt, and gets all the treasure. The power of the curse horrifies Wotan. After Fafner has left, the gods turn to greet their new home. Donner summons a lightning bolt to clear away the fog and a Rainbow Bridge spreads out. Wotan is silent for a moment, as though seized by a novel idea. He christens the fortress Valhalla.
As the gods are walking the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, Loge stays behind them and remarks (aside) that they are merely hastening to their own end and he would welcome the day he can turn again into his elemental (form) and burn everything. Then, distant singing can be heard: the Rhinemaidens mourn their lost gold. Wotan bids Loge tell them to be silent - but they won't be silenced. The gods ignore the Rhinemaidens and enter Valhalla.
II. Die Walküre, (The Valkyries)
There is a thunderstorm. A weaponless man called Siegmund is fleeing and comes across a house: he is wounded and exhausted and cannot go on, so he decides to rest here. (It is possible that Siegmund does not know his own name yet). Sieglinde, who lives in the house, finds him and gives him water. She informs him that the the house and she herself belong to Hunding and that the guest should wait for the master of the house. Siegmund says that bad luck haunts him and that he must leave lest he should bring bad luck to the house but Sieglinde bids him stay: he cannot bring bad luck where bad luck already lives. Siegmund names himself "Woeful" and waits for Hunding.
Hunding arrives and greets Siegmund in a formal manner and then wants to hear his story. Siegmund tells his father was "Wolf" (he wore a wolfskin), and he had a twin sister. "Wolf" was very warlike and had many enemies. As Siegmund one day returned home, his mother had been killed and the home burned. His sister and father were nowhere to be found. He only found an empty wolfskin in the forest. Later he saw a damsel in distress: she was being forced into a marriage he did not want. Siegmund rushed into her defence and killed some of her enemies - only to learn they were actually her brothers and kinsmen. Siegmund fought, but was wounded and eventually lost his sword. The girl was killed and Siegmund had to flee.
Now Hunding declares that he was summoned to avenge on a murderer who had killed some people nearby and Siegmund turns out to be that murderer. Hunding says that his house will protect "Woeful" for today but that he must prepare to fight Hunding to the death tomorrow. Then he retreats to his bed - and Sieglinde mixes him a drugged drink, which will make him sleep heavily so she can meet Siegmund in private.
Siegmund is left alone. He remembers his father (whom he now calls "Volsa") promised him a sword when he most badly would need one - where is that sword now he asks. Sieglinde enters. She tells him she was forced into marrying Hunding against her will. Their wedding party had an uninvited guest: a fearsome stranger whose large hat was pulled down to cover one eye. Everybody except Sieglinde were afraid of him. The stranger had a sword and he thrust the sword in the tree trunk that is in the middle of Hunding's house and said that the blade would belong to anyone who pulled it out of the tree. Many have tried but none of them succeeded. (The appearance of the Valhalla leitmotif here makes it clear that the stranger was Wotan - just as he was "Volsa"). Sieglinde believes Siegmund is this person: the hero who would free her from her miserable life as Hunding's property.
They both reveal their true feelings to each other. Sieglinde reveals to Siegmund that she is his lost twin sister as well, and calls him his true name, Siegmund. Siegmund draws the enchanted sword from the tree and names it Nothung ("Needy"). They embrace each other passionately and the curtain falls.
Wotan is giving orders to his valkyrie daughter Bruennhilde: she is to protect Siegmund in the fight that will come soon. Just then Fricka arrives and starts to complain: she, as the guardian of the wedlock, is furious at Wotan's latest stunt. She was alarmed by Hunding's prayers to her, but Wotan says he does not honor Hunding's marriage since it was against Sieglinde's will. Now Fricka says the trouble is not only that but - she asks - when has anyone heard of twin-born lovers! Wotan answers abruptly: you are hearing of it now. But Fricka insists that it is the gods' status and honour that is at stake: should they lose the mortals' respect, they would lose their power.
Not even Wotan's explanations can change her mind: as Wotan calls Siegmund a "free hero", she quite rightly points out that Siegmund not free nor independent at all [since it was Wotan - posing as "Volsa" - who brought him up, and led him to the "Wotan Sword" (as it is called by Mime in the opera)] and she demands that Wotan withdraw all protection and even the magic sword from Siegmund - and finally makes Wotan give his promise of that.
Fricka leaves as Bruennhilde enters and finds her father looking gloomy. Wotan tells her his tale: how Loge tricked him into dishonest treties concealing evil, how they stole the Ring and how he was warned by Erda. Later Wotan visited her again "in the bowels of the earth" and overpowered her with the magic of love. Erda gave him information but as a price bore him Bruennhilde the Valkyrie [though the other 8 Valkyries are her "sisters" and quite equal in status and powers, they may have a different mother - this would explain Bruennhilde being Wotan's favorite child]. Wotan sent the valkyries to collect perished brave heroes into the halls of Valhalla to avert the horrible end Erda foretold. Alberich's army could not beat Wotan's heroes, but if Alberich regained the Ring, he could turn Wotan's heroes against him. Fafner is guarding the Ring now, but Wotan's own treaties prevent him from attacking Fafner directly. Thus, the only possible solution for him is to let a free hero kill Fafner - Siegmund was to be this hero, but as Fricka remarked, Siegmund was everything but free. Wotan has no idea what to do now. He even knows the end is near for Erda said that when Alberich has a son, the end will come soon: now he has learned Alberich has bought a woman with gold and that woman is now pregnant with Alberich's child.
Wotan orders Bruennhilde to protect Hunding instead of Siegmund, but Bruennhilde - feeling as compassionate toward Siegmund as Wotan himself - refuses. Wotan is angered by this: he furiously orders Bruennhilde to ensure that Siegmund dies. Bruennhilde can only obey.
Siegmund and Sieglinde are desperately fleeing Hunding and his kinsmen who are hunting them with dogs. Sieglinde gets hysterical and faints. Then Bruennhilde appears and announces to Siegmund that only those doomed to die may see her - he is to follow her to Valhalla. But as he learns he will not find Sieglinde in Valhalla, Siegmund refuses Bruennhilde's promises. He decides he'll rather kill himself and Sieglinde with one swift blow than let Hunding get them. Bruennhilde is so moved by his courage that she decides to rebel against Wotan's orders and protect Siegmund.
When Sieglinde awakens, Siegmund has already left to face Hunding: she can hear their voices but cannot see them. Hunding and Siegmund fight, after a few insults. As they fight, Bruennhilde appears, holding a shield above Siegmund and tells him trust his sword. But then Wotan appears, in a red storm cloud and breaks Nothung into pieces with his spear. Hunding finishes Siegmund off easily, Bruennhilde flees with Sieglinde on her horse's back.
Wotan gazes thoughtfully Siegmund's corpse and then turns to Hunding who is gloating over his victory. He gives Hunding one contemptuous gesture and Hunding falls down dead. Then he turns to chase Bruennhilde, the rebel, who dared disobey his order and leaves with thunder and lightning.
Eight of the Valkyrie sisters are bringing dead heroes on their horses, when Bruennhilde appears with Sieglinde, asking for a horse for Sieglinde (her own horse, Grane, faints after a strenuous ride). The other valkyries are shocked when they hear she has disobeyed Wotan. They refuse to give Sieglinde a horse, but when Schwertleite tells Bruennhilde that Wotan seldom ventures eastwards, where Fafner guards his treasure in the form of a dragon, Bruennhilde thinks it would be the safest place for Sieglinde. She gives her the splinters of Nothung and tells that she is carrying the greatest hero of all time in her womb and she is to name him Siegfried. Sieglinde flees just before Wotan arrives in a thundercloud.
Bruennhilde is terrified behind the backs of her sisters - but finally comes out of her hiding. Wotan is furious: he says Bruennhilde will be a valkyrie no longer, she will lay defenceless in deep sleep and will become wife to the first person who finds her. The other valkyries protest, but Wotan tells them to leave lest they wish to share Bruennhilde's fate. The eight valkyries flee in terror, only Bruennhilde and Wotan are left. They have a talk: Bruennhilde tries to make Wotanchange his mind, but it is no use. Her last wish is that Wotan surround her with a wall of fire which only bravest of all heroes can penetrate. Wotan says she's asking too much, but as Bruennhilde asks him to rather kill her on the spot, he is moved so deeply that he decides to grant his daughter's last wish, after all.
Bruennhilde falls in deep sleep and Wotan gives her a long goodbye - and then kisses her godhood away: she is a mortal woman now. Wotan knocks the ground three times with his Runespear and thus summons Loge (in his fire-elemental form) to surround the sleeping Bruennhilde. He leaves the scene with the words "Whosoever fears the tip of my spear shall never pass through the fire!"
In a cavern in deep wilderness, Mime the dwarven smith is forging a sword. He is frustrated: no matter how good a sword he forges, his young "ward" Siegfried breaks every one of them. There is only one sword Siegfried could not break: Nothung the enchanted. But Mime cannot forge it anew. In his monologue we learn that he wants Siegfried to slay Fafner (who is now a dragon) so he could get the Ring.
That's when Siegfried arrives, riding a bear he has tamed: Mime is scared stiff. Siegfried asks for a sword and Mime hands him his latest piece of forging. Siegfried lets the bear go and studies the sword, but he breaks it saying that a sword must be hard and firm, not a puny pin. Siegfried also refuses the food Mime offers him, saying he has roasted meat for himself. Next he makes an inquiry about his parents: he saw that all animals have two parents, and Mime cannot be his since he looks so different. Pressed hard, Mime finally tells him he found his mother as she gave birth to him in the wilderness and died. He says he does not know Siegfried's father's name (this claim is obviously untrue, see later). Finally Mime shows Siegfried the fragments of the sword Nothung as a proof of his tale. Siegfried tells him to forge Nothung again so he can leave Mime forever. He exits, telling Mime to be ready when he is back.
Mime is alone, worrying about his plans which do not seem to work, as Wotan enters, disguised as "Wanderer". Mime is terrified: he wants to get rid of "Wanderer", but Wotan stubbornly sits down and challenges Mime to a riddle game. Wotan wagers his head and Mime is to ask three riddles - he must answer all three correctly to redeem his head.
First Mime asks the name of the race that dwells in the earth's depths. Wotan answers correctly Nibelungs. The next question is the name of the race that dwells on the earth's face - the Giants. Mime's last question is which race lives high in the clouds, and Wotan answers correctly: the gods. As he tells Mime about them, he by "mistake" lets his Runespear knock the ground: there is thunder and lightning - Mime cowers. Now "Wanderer" tells that since he wagered his head, Mime should have asked things he needed to know instead of such meaningless riddles. Now Mime must answer to three riddles of his or Mime's head is his! First "Wanderer" asks the name of the race Wotan oppresses though he loves them very much. This Mime knows, it is the Volsungs. Next he asks the name of the sword Siegfried must wield to slay Fafner. Mime answers correctly and here we also learn that Mime is fully aware of who Siegfried is and who his parents really were. Wotan's last riddle is: who will forge Nothung anew? This Mime cannot answer: he cannot forge Nothung anew, so who can? As Mime panics, "Wanderer" leaves, having won Mime's head. He also says that one who knows no fear shall forge Nothung anew and that he leaves Mime's head to him who has never felt fear.
Mime is left alone in utter horror. His wild imaginings take over, and as Siegfried's figure shadows the cavemouth, he thinks it is Fafner who has finally come for him and screams in terror. Siegfried comes back to ask for Nothung, but Mime answers him that he cannot forge Nothung. Mime says there is one more thing Siegfried should learn: the meaning of fear - he promised Siegfried's mother (he says) he would teach young Siegfried the meaning of fear. He cannot teach Siegfried, but he knows one who can: Fafner. All right, says Siegfried, after I have seen this Fafner, I will leave you forever.
Siegfried decides to forge Nothung himself. As he forges the sword, Mime brews a drugged potion for him. Mime is happy again, he can see the fulfillment of his plans. The act ends with one mighty blow by Siegfried's Nothung, cleaving the anvil in two.
Alberich is watching Fafner's cave, Neidhoehle (the "Hate- hole"), for he wants to know where his precious Ring is. Wotan arrives, still posing as "Wanderer", but Alberich sees through his disguise immediately and calls him a shameless thief. Alberich remarks that Wotan cannot kill Fafner himself or else his Runestaff would break and his powers be lost forever and he also boasts about his own schemes of world domination. Wotan answers that Alberich need not mind him: he should worry about Mime instead. He also suggests that Alberich ask Fafner to give the Ring to him. As Alberich hesitates, Wotan wakes Fafner up. Wotan and Alberich tell Fafner about a strong boy with a sharp blade who is coming to kill Fafner, but wants only the Ring: if he gives up the Ring, he will be spared. Fafner ignores their words and goes back to sleep. Wotan laughs at this ingenious prank he pulled at Alberich and then leaves, warning about Mime one more time.
Mime leads Siegfried to Neidhoehle but dares not come near it himself. Even his terrifying descriptions of the Dragon do not scare Siegfried. Mime stays there waiting for Siegfried - Siegfried walks alone toward Neidhoele. He wonders what his mother was like - he has never seen a woman. He sees a beautiful bird - he carves a flute and tries to imitate its singing, but realizes his playing does not sound right. So Siegfried decides to give the bird a few notes from his hunting-horn.
As Siegfried blows the hunting-horn, Fafner comes out of his cave to investigate the noise. He says he wanted a drink and now he has found some food as well. Naturally, Siegfried does not want to end up as the Dragon's meal - he just wanted to "learn the meaning of fear". Fafner takes this to be bravado and a fight ensues presently. It is a brief fight: Nothung pierces the Dragon's heart very quickly.
Fafner, just before he dies, asks his slayer's name and tells his story to the boy. He also warns Siegfried about the evil intents of the one who lead him to Fafner.
Some of the Dragon's blood has been spilled on Siegfried's fingers and as he licks them - i.e. tastes the Dragon's blood - he realizes he can now understand the bird's speech. The bird tells Siegfried to take only the Tarnhelm and the Ring and leave the rest of the treasure (why the bird says this beats me: the bird must have been aware of the Ring's curse. Does the bird wish Siegfried's doom? TY).
Meanwhile, Alberich has reached Mime. They quarrel about to which one of them the treasure belongs. Mime suggests that they split the treasure: Alberich may keep his Ring and Mime gets the Tarnhelm. Alberich refuses: he could never sleep his nights safely if Mime had the Tarnhelm - thus he wants _both_ of the two magical artifacts. But just then Siegfried appears, carrying both the Ring and the Tarnhelm. Alberich curses and hurries off.
Now Siegfried can hear the bird's voice again: the bird warns him of Mime's treachery and tells him that he now can perceive what Mime is thinking in his heart.
Siegfried tells Mime that the teacher has failed: he could not learn the meaning of fear from Fafner. Mime tries to offer Siegfried a drugged potion, but Siegfried can read his mind as if it were an open book. He gets angry and slays Mime with one swift blow of his sword. He throws Mime's corpse in Neidhoehle.
Siegfried asks the bird if the bird knows where he could find a suitable companion. The bird tells him about Bruennhilde, who is lying in deep sleep, surrounded by a magic fire which can be penetrated only by one who knows no fear. Siegfried realizes how stupid he was, trying to learn fear and now follows the woodbird who will lead him to Bruennhilde.
It is night - the weather is stormy: there is thunder and lightning. Wotan, still disguised as the Wanderer, can be seen standing before a vault-like hollow in a rocky mountain. With a spell-song he wakens Erda the Earthmother herself, saying that he wants information. Erda is tired and asks why Wotan did not ask the Norns first. Wotan replies that the Norns can only perceive things: they cannot alter what is to come. Next Erda suggests that Wotan seek Bruennhilde's advice - she is very wise. But as Wotan tells about what has befallen on Bruennhilde, Erda is utterly bewildered. Wotan is disappointed in Erda's inability to give him any advice. He tells Erda about Siegfried, the _free_ hero and says that he will gladly accept anything all this leads to. He lets Erda fall back down to her slumber and leaves to meet Siegfried.
Siegfried meets Wotan at the base of the mountain on the top of which Bruennhilde lies. "Wanderer" (Wotan) interviews Siegfried about his newest heroic deed. But the disrespectful Siegfried talks to him so abusively that he eventually gets mad with anger. The furious Wotan blocks Siegfried's way with his Runespear and tells Siegfried to flee lest his spear break Nothung once more. Siegfried knows he has now met the person responsible for his father's death and as a vengeance breaks Wotan's Runespear in two with Nothung: there is a crack of thunder and Wotan (according to his own words) loses all his might. He flees and Siegfried ignores him, starting his climb up to Bruennhilde.
Siegfried goes through the enchanted fire and finds Bruennhilde there, thinking her to be a "man". But as Siegfried realizes she is definitely not a man, but something different, he shudders: for the first time in his life, he experiences fear. Unsure of what to do, Siegfried tries first to waken Bruennhilde, then kisses her. And by this kiss Bruennhilde is awakened.
Bruennhilde is ecstatically joyous to see that her awakener really is Siegfried. But as she sees her valkyrie battlegear and her steed, she is reminded once more of her glorious past. She realizes that she can never get that back again. But then the passion toward Siegfried takes over her, and she cares no more for Valhalla. They declare their love to each other and Siegfried has readily forgotten the fear he had just learned. Bruennhilde falls in Siegfried's arms, leaving her past life behind her, for good.
IV. Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods)
The First Prelude
The Three Norns are spinning the rope of fate. They are talking about things which are, have been and will be. We learn how Wotan lost his eye drinking from the Spring of Wisdom and how he carved his Runespear from a branch of the World-Tree Ash. Now the spring has dried up and the Ash has died, and Wotan's Runespear has been shattered. Wotan has ordered the dead Ash be cut down and the wood be piled around Valhalla as a great pyre which will one day be ignited by Loge. As the Norns are discussing Alberich and his Curse, the rope of fate snaps and is broken. The wisdom of the Norns is at an end and the Norns hurry to their mother, Erda.
The Second Prelude
A new day dawns around the Valkyrie Rock where Siegfried and Bruennhilde are. Siegfried can be seen in full armour in the sunlight. He wants to go wandering in search of new heroic deeds. Bruennhilde lets him ride her horse, Grane, and Siegfried gives the Ring to Bruennhilde, as a token of his faith. After a passionate farewell, Siegfried rides down the mountainside toward the River Rhine. Bruennhilde can hear the sound of his hunting-horn from the distance.
In the hall of the Gibichungs, lord Gunther asks his clever half-brother Hagen (whose father is Alberich) how could he win more fame and glory. Hagen says that Gunther should marry and only one wife would be noble enough for him: Bruennhilde who is surrounded by magic fire which only the bravest of heroes can penetrate. Gunther moans: he lacks the courage for such a task, why did Hagen have to mention that? Hagen says that indeed, the one with such courage is Siegfried - who is the person Gunther's sister, Gutrune, should marry. Gutrune thinks Hagen is jesting: how could she charm the bravest hero in the world? Hagen reminds her of a magic potion which would make Siegfried lose his memory and fall in love with the first woman he sees. Gunther admiresHagen's cleverness, but asks how they can find Siegfried.
Hagen replies that Siegfried is wandering, searching for new heroic deeds to be achieved and he might drop in here any day. Surprise surprise, that's when we hear Siegfried's hunting-horn. He has come to visit the castle and wants to see Gunther, Gibich's son. Hagen calls him by name (explaining later that of course everybody had heard of such a great hero and that's how he knew Siegfried). Siegfried wants Gunther to either fight with him or become his friend. Gunther, who evidently is not the bravest of living men, prefers to become his friend. Hagen leads Grane to the stables as Siegfried follows Gunther into the castle.
As Hagen returns, he inquires if it is true that Siegfried is really the owner of the Nibelung treasure hoard. Siegfried briefly describes his encounter with Fafner. Hagen asks if Siegfried took anything from the hoard. Siegfried shows him the Tarnhelm, which Hagen immediately identifies. He tells Siegfried of its powers: it allows its wearer to change shape at will and to travel from one place to another at the speed of his thought (this latter power was never mentioned nor used before). Siegfried also mentions the Ring and says "a most marvellous lady" is keeping it safe. Gutrune appears and gives a "welcoming toast" to Siegfried. It is the magic potion which makes Siegfried lose his memory and fall madly in love with Gutrune. The unfortunate Siegfried drinks the toast "for Bruennhilde" [he speaks these words "aside" so Gunther does not know that Siegfried's beloved is none other than Bruennhilde].
Siegfried wants now to marry Gutrune. When hears about Gunther's "beloved", Bruennhilde, and the fires which surround her rock, his mind is struggling to throw off the spell of amnesia, but up to no avail. He devises an ingenious plan: he will use the magic of the Tarnhelm to disguise himself as Gunther and win Bruennhilde for Gunther, if Gunther lets him marry his sister, Gutrune. It's a deal, says Gunther and Hagen makes Gunther and Siegfried swear an oath of bloodbrotherhood before Siegfried leaves to conquer Bruennhilde for Gunther. [It is indeed possible - even likely - that Gunther never realized Bruennhilde was Siegfried's beloved. Had he known that, he might not have been so eager to take part in this plot]. Hagen sits on watch, waiting for Siegfried's return and when left alone, reveals his true plans: he is only interested in the Ring and is using Siegfried and his half-brother, Gunther, only as pawns in his master scheme.
Meanwhile, Bruennhilde has a visitor: her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute, rides in on a flying Valkyrie horse with a clap of thunder - against Wotan's orders. She tells Bruennhilde the lates news from Valhalla: how Wotan no longer goes wandering, but just sits on his throne, doing nothing. Wotan has said that only if Bruennhilde would give the Ring back to the Rhinemaidens, the gods and the whole world would be freed from its Curse. Bruennhilde has no intention of throwing her precious Ring away and she angrily tells Waltraute to leave. Waltraute, seeing that her pleads can only be refused, leaves predicting some horrid fate for Bruennhilde, gods and everyone.
Bruennhilde hears a horn - she thinks Siegfried is coming back. But the figure who emerges from the fire is Gunther (actually Siegfried in Gunther's guise). He imitates Gunther's voice and informs the terror-stricken Bruennhilde that she is now Gunther's wife. He takes the Ring from Bruennhilde's finger. He decides to spend the night here, but proclaims that Nothung will guard his oath of bloodbrotherhood during the night.
Hagen has fallen asleep. His father, Alberich, appears in a dream vision. He tells Hagen that he must oppose Wotan's kin and gain the Ring no matter what price. He also says that the Rhinemaidens must not get the Ring or all is lost - and that Bruennhilde might be wise enough to do that. As Alberich gets Hagen's promise, he disappears and Hagen wakes up.
Just then Siegfried appears, using the Tarnhelm's power of teleportation. He speeds to Gutrune, telling her that she can now marry Siegfried: he has completed his part of the bargain.
Hagen blows into a cowhorn, summoning the Gibich vassals, who think there is an attack or some other danger. This is, however, only a practical joke: he tells the alarmed vassals that there is no danger and they should now prepare a great marriage feast. The vassals love Hagen's joke.
As the crowd watches, Bruennhilde and Gunther come from a boat. Bruennhilde is shocked, seeing Siegfried and Gutrune together. Then she notices the Ring on Siegfried's finger and says it was Siegfried who took the Ring from her. Siegfried is confused: he can now remember slaying a Dragon and thus winning the Ring. Hagen suggests to Bruennhilde that Siegfried has played some trick. Bruennhilde screams: trickery! treachery! The crowd is getting nervous. She even claims that Siegfried forced delight from her, at which Siegfried decides to swear a new oath that he has spoken true. Hagen offers his spear for the oath. Siegfried swears: if I have sworn falsely, let yours be the blade that pierces me. Suddenly, Bruennhilde also places her hand on the spear and blesses the blade for this purpose, for, she says, falsely has Siegfried sworn indeed. Siegfried feels a bit uneasy whispers to Gunther that maybe the Tarnhelm hid his features only partially and instructs Gunther that he should let Bruennhilde be in peace for some time so that she can learn to accept her fate.
Later, Bruennhilde, Hagen and Gunther are together. Bruennhilde wonders what has happened to Siegfried - what devil's trickery has made him betray her? Hagen offers to avenge her on Siegfried, but Bruennhilde doubts his combat prowess: a single flicker from Siegfried's eyes would suffice to make Hagen's courage falter. Surely, asks Hagen, he would still be vulnerable to his spear because of the false oath he swore on it? Bruennhilde says that she has protected Siegfried with magic which makes him invulnerable to any weapon - only his back she spared protection as she knew Siegfried would never turn and run from any combat. There shall my spear strike, declares Hagen. Gunther is desperate: the events have put him into a terrible shame. Hagen's answer is that only one thing can restore his honour now: Siegfried's death. Gunther falls silent and hesitates, but Hagen makes him come around with a hint of the all-powerful Ring which Siegfried is wearing. Bruennhilde, Hagen and Gunther decide that Siegfried shall die. Aside, Hagen tells Alberich to summon the Nibelungs to serve him once more: the hour of their dominion is at hand.
The Three Rhinemaidens are singing and swimming in the River Rhine, as Siegfried arrives. He is hunting, but has lost his prey. The Rhinemaidens spot the Ring and try to persuade (almost seduce) Siegfried into giving it to them. For a moment Siegfried holds the Ring in the air and is indeed going to give it away, but as the Rhinemaidens warn him of the dangers which he will meet if does not yield the Ring, he simply declares he does not care for his life. The Rhinemaidens swim away calling him a madman - and they prophecy that the Ring will today go to a certain lady, who make a more reasonable decision. Siegfried ignores them: first seducing, then threatening, but it did not work - not for him.
Siegfried meets the rest of the hunting party: Hagen, Gunther and some vassals. Gunther is very depressed as Hagen mixes a drink for Siegfried, who also offers the drink to Gunther. To brighten Gunther, Siegfried decides to tell a story from the years when he was but a boy. He now remembers Mime and how he could understand the bird which told him not to trust Mime - and how he eventually slaughtered Mime. Hagen gives him another drink which will "waken [his] memory more clearly". Now Siegfried tells the others how he found Bruennhilde - Gunther is shocked: Siegfried remembers now everything [and what's more, his beloved turns out to be none other than Bruennhilde - Gunther may not have suspected this earlier]! Two ravens fly up and circle above Siegfried, then fly away. Hagen asks him if he was able to understand what the ravens said. Revenge they cried to me, says Hagen, and plunges his spear in Siegfried's back. Siegfried falls down. Gunther and the vassals are terrified and ask Hagen what did he do that for. Hagen still maintains it was a vengeance. Siegfried opens his eyes and still sees a vision of Bruennhilde, then dies.
Siegfried's corpse is taken to the hall of the Gibichungs. Hagen tells Gutrune that Siegfried has fallen prey to a wild boar. Gutrune accuses Gunther of murdering Siegfried, but Gunther replies that Hagen was the "wild boar". Hagen confesses murdering Siegfried, but as Gunther proceeds to take the Ring, he attacks Gunther and strikes him dead, saying abruptly: "Give the Ring here!". Now everyone present is shocked, as Gunther is killed by his own half-brother. Nobody makes any attempt to stop Hagen as he now proceeds to take the Ring - but miraculously Siegfried's corpse raises its hand as Hagen draws near. Hagen is terrified and dares not go any nearer.
Now Bruennhilde enters: she has heard everything and now knows what all was about. She makes it clear that Siegfried belonged to Bruennhilde all the time and Gutrune admits that.
Bruennhilde instructs the vassals to pile logs into a funeral pyre and leave Siegfried's corpse atop the pyre. She understands that it was not in fact Siegfried who deceived her as he in turn was betrayed himself and thus forgives Siegfried and mourns her loss. She wishes him peace saying that she knows now everything. She takes the Ring and says that the fire that soon consumes her will cleanse it from the Curse and then the Rhinemaidens can fetch their gold from the ashes. She puts on the Ring and takes a torch from one of the vassals. She tells Wotan's ravens to fly home past the Valkyrie Rock and bid Loge, who is still there, to go to Valhalla: the downfall of gods is nigh. He hurls the torch into the pyre with the words "Thus do I throw this torch at Valhalla's vaulting towers!" (DG translation). The wood catches fire rapidly. Bruennhilde mounts her steed, Grane, and speaking a last greeting to Siegfried she rides into the blazing pyre.
"The flames instantly blaze up and fill the entire space before the hall, seeming even to seize on the building. In terror the women cower towards the front. Suddenly the fire falls together, leaving only a mass of smoke which collects at back and forms a cloud bank on the horizon. The Rhine swells up mightily and sweeps over the fire. On the surface appear the three Rhine-daughters, swimming close to the fire-embers. Hage, who has watched Bruennhilde's proceedings with increasing anxiety, is much alarmed on the appearance of the Rhine- daughters. He flings away hastily his spear, shield and helmet, and madly plunges into the flood crying 'Keep away from the Ring!'
"Woglinde and Wellgunde twine their arms round his neck and draw him thus down below. Flosshilde, swimming before the others to the back, holds the recovered Ring joyously up.
"Through the cloud-bank on the horizon breaks an increasing red glow. In its light the Rhine is seen to have returned to its bed and the nymphs are circling and playing with the Ring on the calm waters.
"From the ruins of the half-burnt hall, the men and women perceive with awe the light in the sky, in which now appears the hall of Valhalla, where the gods and heroes are seen sitting together.... Bright flames seize on the abode of the gods; and when this is completely enveloped by them, the curtain falls." (Wagner's stage directions)
Let's begin with a review of what Romantic means. Classic art is objective, restrained and balanced (ORB); Romantic art is subjective, extravagant, and favors expression over form. Like the music of the Baroque era, that of the 19th century tends to glorify the expression of feeling, often to the point of hyperbole. Romantics often regarded music as the language of the soul. Instrumental music was thought especially capable of expressing profound emotion because it was not limited by the specificity of words.
The famous Fifth Symphony contains elements of both classicism and romanticism, as great works of art often do. It is objective in the sense that it has no attached meaning or non-musical reference point; the music is abstract or absolute, as some like to say. You might contrast that with the Sixth Symphony (Pastoral), which tells the story of the composer's vacation in the country and contains all sorts of representational music, including bird calls and a thunderstorm similar to those found in operatic music.
Instrumental music that tells a story or takes its inspiration from a literary work is generally known as program music. The concept goes back to 18th century works like Vivaldi's The Seasons and even further back to compositions depicting battles of the 16th century. Undoubtedly, the idea of music imitating or representing non-musical events is as old as music itself, but the practice reached its peak in the hands of such early Romantic composers as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt.
Music that has sung text cannot be considered to be program music, so opera cannot be seen as such, even though it tells a story. And while there are several examples of program symphonies, such as Beethoven's Sixth or Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony, the more common construct is the overture.A composition played by the orchestra before an opera or ballet, later called a prelude. An example is Mendelssohn's Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummernight's Dream. Later, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss would compose particularly effective examples of program music known as tone poems. (Listen to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy and Strauss's Don Juan.)
Program music extends as well to the solo piano repertory. Schumann's Scenes from Childhood is a well-known example. In the early 19th century, the piano reached its peak as a solo instrument and recitals given by a solo pianist became very popular. Franz Liszt performed in concerts all over Europe, becoming a sensation of the entertainment world comparable to rock stars of today. Besides his incredible virtuosity, he possessed good looks and charisma that made women swoon. The story of his personal life is fascinating and astonishing. He became the poster boy of the great romantic artist. Moreover, he was a major composer of piano and orchestral music. If you're interested in reading a composer's biography, his would be a good choice.
Hardly less interesting is that of his contemporary, Frederic Chopin, a Pole who migrated to Paris and became the darling of upper-crust society. He disdained public concerts, preferring the intimacy of the salon. His highly poetic music quickly became the most popular of all solo piano repertoire and a staple of the recital program. He had a scandalous personal relationship with a cigar-smoking, cross-dressing woman of letters and died an early death of tuberculosis as befits the tragic romantic artist. His life was the subject of movies in the 1950s.
Diseases like TB and syphilis claimed the lives of many great artists at that time. Schubert and Schumann both died of syphilis. Beethoven was born with it and it probably caused his deafness, although he lived into his late fifties. Mendelssohn died at 39 from depression and exhaustion. By contrast, Liszt, Wagner and Verdi lived to be old men. In his later years Liszt became a pious mystic and was ordained as an abbé.
The solo recital venue also includes vocal music, and the art song flourished in the hands of composers like Schubert and Schumann. Schubert wrote over 600 Lieder and is generally regarded as the greatest composer of art song. These miniature masterpieces are presented by a solo singer accompanied only by the piano in a concert hall or drawing room. They are regarded as vocal chamber music. The German poetry is frequently of very high literary quality. Composers often chose poems of Goethe or Schiller to set to music.
Instrumental chamber music continued to be important, and the string quartet remains the most significant genre. Beethoven and Schubert made especially important contributions. Other instrumental combinations, such as the piano trio and the woodwind quintet emerged as important genres that attracted major composers. The piano trio includes violin, cello, and piano; the woodwind quintet is made up of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. In keeping with the romantic emphasis on the individual, great virtuosity is demanded of the performers in these small ensembles.
Similarly, the early 19th century concerto makes increased demands on the soloist and the orchestra. The favored instruments are the piano and the violin. Beethoven composed five concertos for the piano, all of which are very fine. The last three are masterpieces. Before he lost his hearing, Beethoven would often perform them himself. He also wrote a fine violin concerto, as did Mendelssohn. Many view Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor one of the finest concertos of the period.
Opera continued to be important throughout Europe. Major opera houses flourished in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and Milan as well as in smaller cities. Among the Italian composers, Rossini is the best known. His Barber of Seville and William Tell are famous for their sparkling and dramatic overtures. In his day, Rossini was the most successful composer for the stage in all Europe. Close behind him were Bellini and Donizetti, both of whom produced operatic masterpieces that have remained in the repertoire. Bellini's Norma and Donizetti's Elixir of Love and Lucia di Lammermoor are among the best known operas of the period.
Sacred music, especially larger works, continued to be composed and performed despite the humanistic focus of the romantic movement. The English public had developed a particular taste for the oratorio, and choral societies were founded for the performance of these works. Although now regarded as a Classic Period composer, Haydn lived until 1809 and contributed a couple of important oratorios to this repertoire. The Creation and The Seasons, originally with German text, were often presented in English translation in London. The same is true of Mendelssohn's Elijah. All these works are scored for large chorus, soloists, and orchestra and provide an entire afternoon or evening of entertainment, lasting two or three hours.
These oratorios, along with those of Handel, are the staples of amateur choral groups who often present regular series of choral works with orchestra. Groups like this also perform the Masses of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, which vary in scope from small compositions that can be performed by good church choirs to major works that require the economic and human resources of a major orchestra and chorus.
The Late Romantic Period
Vienna continued to be a center of symphonic composition and performance in the second half of the century. Johannes Brahms emerged as the most important composer of orchestral music in the 1870s. He composed four extraordinary symphonies that are in the repertory of every major orchestra and have been recorded hundreds of times. In addition to his symphonies, Brahms composed a number of other orchestral pieces, the most famous of which is his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which takes the theme and variation form to new heights. Brahms's adherence to traditional forms and his avoidance of programmatic associations account for his reputation as the most classic of the great Romantic composers. Brahms also composed two magnificent piano concertos and the best violin concerto of the period. He wrote no opera.
Brahms's first work to achieve wide recognition was his German Requiem, a large work for chorus, orchestra, and soloists that ranks as one of the great masterpieces of Romantic vocal music. Instead of using the traditional Latin liturgical text of the requiem mass, Brahms drew his text from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, choosing scripture associated with death and the life everlasting. There are seven movements, three of which feature the baritone and soprano soloist. Perhaps the best known and most often excerpted movement is the fourth, titled in English "How lovely is thy dwelling place," which can be sung as an anthem by a very good church choir. Choral societies and symphony choruses keep the Brahms Requiem in their repertoire, and there are many recordings available including the famous recording of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti.
A Bohemian contemporary of Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, also occupies a major place among symphonists of the period. He composed nine symphonies in addition to a great deal of music in other genres. His Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" is one of the most popular symphonic works ever composed and is often performed. There are many recordings available—some good ones on budget labels.
Another Viennese composer of note is Anton Bruckner, whose nine symphonies effectively incorporate the musical language of Richard Wagner into the structure of the symphonic form. All of the expressive and impressive gestures and devices associated with Wagnerian opera, such as rich chromatic harmony, wide dynamic range, and colorful orchestration, are found in Bruckner's symphonic music. His Symphony No. 7 is particularly engaging, and many listeners find the second theme in the first movement extremely attractive. Under Solti, the Chicago Symphony became famous for their interpretations of Bruckner, which provides a showcase for the brass section. Like Brahms, Bruckner composed no operas.
Another prolific symphonist associated with the Austrian capital in the late 19th century is Gustav Mahler. His nine symphonies also tend to feature the brass sections of the orchestra, and the CSO is still considered the finest exponent of them in the world. Mahler was also a great cosmopolitan conductor and was at one time music director of the New York Philharmonic. All of his symphonies are immensely popular and have been often recorded. The Eighth, also called the "Symphony of a Thousand" employs an oversize orchestra, orchestra, a giant chorus, children's choir, and soloists. The opening movement is based on the text Veni Creator Spiritus, a hymn from the liturgy of the feast of Pentecost. The last movement has a German text taken from the last five lines of Goethe's Faust. This symphony represents the apogee of German Romanticism. It is somewhat ironic that Mahler, a great opera conductor, composed no music for the stage.
The last composer in this Viennese line is the great Richard Strauss, also one of the eminent conductors of the late 19th and early 20th century. In contrast to Mahler, Strauss is better known for his operas and tone poems than for symphonies. His one-movement programmatic works like "Death and Transfiguration" and "Don Juan" bring the art of representational music to its highest peak, and his operas are considered among the greatest of the German repertoire. Salome, based on the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, scandalized polite society with its portrayals of debauchery, incest, and murder. Der Rosenkavalier, on the other hand, cloaks the decadent conventions of fin de siècle society in some of the most sumptuous music ever composed for the stage.
Besides his operas, Giuseppe Verdi composed some sacred music. His Four Sacred Pieces are extraordinarily sensitive a cappella settings of Latin texts associated with the Blessed Virgin. More often performed is his Requiem Mass, which makes use of the liturgical Latin text of the mass of the dead. Verdi's music is frankly operatic, calling for the same voices that would sing Il Trovatore or Aida and a large chorus and orchestra. The music is sublime.
In addition to Italian opera and German orchestral music, the student of Romantic music must know Russian music of the period. The greatest Russian composer is of course Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who excelled in every genre. His six symphonies are comparable in quality and profundity to those of the greatest German masters. Symphonies No. 4, 5, and 6 are undisputed masterpieces that are in the repertoire of every major orchestra. Perhaps no work captures the depths of melancholy as well as the Symphonie Pathetique (No. 6).
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Better known to the general public are Tchaikovsky's shorter orchestral works like the 1812 Overture and the Marche Slave, both of which make use of Russian hymns and folk tunes. His two piano concertos are perennial favorites with symphony patrons, and his Violin Concerto is a fine vehicle for the virtuoso. Fans of the Russian piano concerto also appreciate the four concertos composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff; the second is the most popular. Russian conservatories have always excelled at training great pianists, and the Tchaikovsky Competition remains among the most prestigious of all contests.
Russian composers, and particularly Tchaikovsky, excelled in composing music for the ballet. Works like The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake became immensely popular all over Europe and remain so today. Symphonic suites drawn from these ballet scores are frequently heard at symphonic concerts and have been often recorded. Arranging favorite numbers from ballets, operas, and incidental music for the concert hall became a standard practice, and the composers themselves often made or approved the suites.
A very popular Russian symphonic suite in a programmatic vein is Scheherazade, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This colorful four-movement work portrays characters and situations from 1001 Arabian Nights. If you like music with a story, then you will love this work. There are many good recordings available.
Russian composers from the 18th century on have excelled in creating music for worship. The liturgical music of the Russian Orthodox Church features large a cappella choirs often singing in 8-12 parts. The deep basses give the music a solemn mystical quality appropriate to the Orthodox style of worship. Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov set the texts of the Divine Liturgy and the All-Night Vigil (Vespers).
Chamber music continued to be composed and performed all over Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Most major composers essayed the string quartet, but combinations with winds and piano also became popular. Brahms's two piano trios and the Clarinet Quintet are especially fine. Brahms also excelled at writing solo sonatas for the piano, the cello and the violin. Once again, notice his predilection for classical forms.
Vocal chamber music is no less important, and composers from Brahms to Richard Strauss make important contributions to the recitalist's repertoire. The German Lieder of Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler are also important in this genre. French composers like Faure and Debussy set great poetry of artists like Paul Verlaine to create a body of French art song known as melodie.
Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet (1840-1926)
One of the most remarkable repertoires of orchestral music was created by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Like their counterparts in the visual arts, these Parisian composers sought to create a more subtle landscape by blurring lines and choosing softer colors. In music this is done by avoiding the "hard" chord progressions of functional harmony and the diatonic scales of common practice music. Debussy favored more exotic scales like the modal, the pentatonic and whole-tone scales. A master of orchestration, he also excelled at using timbre in subtle and often onomatopoetic ways. Listen to his Nuages (Clouds) from the Nocturnes or the tone poem called La Mer, which depicts the sea at different times of day. Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a wonderful impressionist score based on a poem by Mallarmé. You won't find a work called Symphony No 1 by an impressionist; they prefer representational titles. Their music is like film music for the cinema of your mind!
Debussy also excelled at evoking exotic locations. The Catalan composer Manuel de Falla called Debussy the greatest composer of Spanish orchestral music. Listen to Debussy's "Iberia" from Images! Another great Spanish piece by a French composer is Emmanuel Chabrier's España.
If you love the piano, listen to Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a marvelously evocative and impressionistic three-movement work for solo piano and orchestra Falla's ballet score called The Three-Cornered Hat, is a favorite in the concert hall and the theatre.
Two of the five greatest opera composers in history were contemporaries: Verdi and Wagner were both born in 1813. The other three are Monteverdi, Mozart, and Puccini.
Verdi inherited the mantle of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti and composed 26 operas between 1839 and 1893. All but one or two are serious or tragic in nature. The best known are:
Rigoletto, which contains the famous tenor aria "La donna e mobile"
La Traviata, a touching love story with a tragic ending
Il Trovatore, the most often produced and parodied of them all
Aida, an Egyptian opera commissioned for the opening of the Suez canal
Otello, based on Shakespeare's Othello
Falstaff, based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor—his only comedy
All these have Italian librettos. The libretto is the text that the composer sets to music. Very few composers wrote their own librettos, but many, like Verdi, collaborated with the poet in shaping the drama.
Richard Wagner is the exception to the rule. Once he reached his artistic majority he wrote all his own librettos—in German. His early operas (e.g., Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman had prepared him for the creation of his music dramas, which include:
Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg, his only comic opera
Tristan und Isolde
The Ring of the Nibelungs, an operatic tetralogy based on Teutonic mythology
Parsifal a mystical medieval music drama with deeply spiritual overtones: it's about the recovery of The Holy Grail.
Wagner's operas call for the integration of music, drama, literature, dance, and visual art to produce what he called his "Gesamtkunstwerk"Wagner sought to combine every form of art into the theatre, combining them into something greater still. or complete works of art. Performances typically last four to six hours and call for enormous human and economic resources to produce. Because they call for heroic voices, they are difficult to cast. The orchestra frequently numbers more than a hundred players, and the operas feature extended orchestral passages that have become standard repertoire of symphony orchestras. The Death March and Forest Murmurs from Siegfried and the Preludes to Tristan and Die Meistersinger are good examples.
If you've ever been to an opera, you know that it is performed in a theatre with a pit orchestra. No microphones or loudspeakers are used. A legitimate operatic voice must possess range, beauty, and sufficient power to be heard over a 60-piece orchestra in a 2000 seat hall. The Civic Opera House in Chicago seats about 3400, and the Met over 4000. Electronic amplification is incompatible with genuine operatic performance.
All the operas mentioned are available on CD recordings and most of them on video. Because opera is music drama, the video gives a much more complete impression of the art form. Students may enjoy Franco Zeffirelli's films of La Traviata, Otello, and Carmen, all of which star Placido Domingo. You can find these "opera movies" at some some rental stores and for sale online. A different kind of experience is the videotape of a live performance in the theatre. These give a much truer impression of the art form but may not appeal to the general public or the neophyte as much as the opera movies. Both varieties usually contain English subtitles.
Opera in English translation is a controversial performance practice. Most real opera fans want to hear the music sung in the original language, even if they aren't fluent in it, because Italian, French, and German each has its own particular musical quality that is integrated with the music. Translations, particularly from Italian or French, are hard to sing and don't sound as good as the original. Still, there are a few companies, mostly smaller ones, that perform all their productions in English translation. The Chicago Opera Theatre is an example of this. Every opera performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is given in the original language. International singers are engaged for the roles.
Several Russian operas are among the works regularly produced by American opera companies. Tchaikovsky composed eleven operas, two of which are in the standard repertoire. Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are both based on the works of Pushkin, the poet laureate of Russia. As you might expect, these operas are filled with beautiful melodies and lush orchestration. Another Russian opera often performed in the United States is Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, also on a text by Pushkin, but loosely based on historical events. Borodin's Prince Igor is occasionally revived. Like Boris, it was completed and scored by Rimsky-Korsakov, who composed a number of operas himself, the best-known of which is The Snow Maiden.
Opened in 1876, the Bayreuth festival and opera house were designed to promote and present the works of Wagner.