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Chapter 9: The Early Romantic Period

Franz Schubert


Franz Schubert

Biographical Sketch
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.

Der Erlkoenig One of Schubert's Goethe songs, written when he was only 18 years old, is The Erlking (Der Erlkoenig). The singer must portray four different characters: the narrator, the father, his son, and the Erlking, a malicious forest elf who seeks to kidnap the boy. Despite the father's efforts to allay the boy's fears, when they arrive at their destination the boy is dead. The piano also plays a role, that of the horse who spirits them through the forest by night. You can find the text of Goethe's poem, in German and English, at this website.

Who's riding so late through night, so wild?
It is the father who's holding his child;
He's tucked the boy secure in his arm,
He holds him tight and keeps him warm.

My son, why hide you your face in fear?"
See you not, father, the Erl King near?
The Erl King in his crown and train?"
My son, 'tis but a foggy strain."

Sweet lovely child, come, go with me!
What wonderful games I'll play with thee;
Flowers, most colorful, yours to behold.
My mother for you has garments of gold."

My father, my father, and can you not hear
What Erl King is promising into my ear?"
Be calm, stay calm, o child of mine;
The wind through dried leaves is rustling so fine."

Wouldst thou, fine lad, go forth with me?
My daughters should royally wait upon thee;
My daughters conduct each night their song fest
To swing and to dance and to sing thee to rest."

My Father, my father, and can you not see
Erl King's daughters, there by the tree?"
My son, my son, I see it clear;
The ancient willows so grey do appear."

I love thee, I'm aroused by thy beautiful form;
And be thou not willing, I'll take thee by storm."
My father, my father, he's clutching my arm!
Erl King has done me a painful harm!"

The father shudders and onward presses;
The gasping child in his arms he caresses;
He reaches the courtyard, and barely inside,
He holds in his arms the child who has died.

Die Forelle Another favorite Schubert song—one with a less ominous text—is Die Forelle, The Trout. This song calls on the pianist to create the impression of a fish playfully splashing in the clear stream. A devious angler tries to catch the trout and the narrator looks on indignantly when the angler muddies the waters to fool the fish. Of course, there is an allegorical meaning to this poem, warning young people to beware of seducers. Schubert later used the melody of Die Forelle in a quintet for piano and strings. This delightful work in five movements features a theme and variations based on the song. It is an example of chamber music from the early Romantic period. The performance below of Die Forelle is by an English tenor.

A brooklet soft and gentle --
rushing on with glee --
A trout like arrow darting -
so playfully and free -
And standing by the brook-side
I gazed in pure delight.
At happy fishlet playing
In lucid brooklet bright.

A fisherman with rod stood
watching from nearby
He followed fishlet's movements
With cold and scheming eye.
"So long stays clear that brooklet"
I thought, with comfort sure
"He cannot trap my fishlet --
Or catch it with his lure."

But soon with crude impatience --
He broke the calm -
He stirred and muddied all that water --
And just as I had feared --
He tugged upon his rod --
And dangled my fishlet on his hook.
Oh, how my heart was burning
Betrayed were fish and brook!

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Frédéric Chopin


Frédéric Chopin

Biographical Sketch
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

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Felix Mendelssohn


Felix Mendelssohn

Biographical Sketch
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!

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Robert and Clara Schumann


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.

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Franz Liszt


Franz Liszt

Biographical Sketch
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

    Faust Symphony
    Dante Symphony
    12 Tone Poems
    Mephisto Waltzes 1 and 2

    St. Elisabeth
    Via crucis
    Missa solemnis
    Missa choralis
    Hungarian Coronation Mass
    Requiem Mass

    The authoritative biography is Alan Walker's, Franz Liszt, 3 volumes, 1983-1996.

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Ancillary Readings Composer Synopsis: Franz Schubert
Composer Synopsis: Frédéric Chopin
Composer Synopsis: Felix Mendelssohn
Composer Synopsis: Robert & Clara Schumman
Composer Synopsis: Franz Liszt
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.

Beethoven is the place to begin to understand this. His early works tend to sound like the music of Haydn, while his later compositions set the tone for the first half of the 19th century. The first and second symphonies, and also the fourth, sound like Classic Period works and adhere to most of the conventions of construction. But the third, sixth, and ninth are monuments of romanticism and originality. The third and the sixth contain programmatic (representational) elementsInformationInstrumental music that refers to a non-musical idea, image, or event, often indicated in a printed program to communicate the idea to the listener. Composers such as Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Musorgsky have been inspired by poems, dramas, natural wonders, pictures, etc. while the ninth calls for a large chorus singing a lofty humanistic text.

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.

Symphonie Fantastique
Episodes in the Life of an Artist (1830)


Hector Berlioz

Program of the Symphony: A young musician of morbidly sensitive temperament and passionate imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of lovesick despair. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, his emotions, and his memories are transformed in his diseased mind into musical thoughts and images. Even the woman he loves becomes a melody to him, an idée fixe, as it were, that he encounters and hears everywhere.

Reveries, Passions: First he remembers the soulsickness, the aimless passions, the baseless depressions and elations which he felt before seeing her whom he loves. Then—the volcanic love that she instantly inspired in him; his jealous furies; his returns to tenderness; his religious consolations.

A Ball: He meets his beloved at a ball, in the midst of a noisy, brilliant fête.

Scene in the Country: On a summer evening in the country, he hears two shepherds piping in dialogue. The pastoral duet, the location, the light rustling of trees stirred by the wind, a few recently conceived grounds for hope—all this gives him a feeling of unaccustomed calm, and a brighter color to his thoughts. But she appears again, his heart misses a beat—what if she is deceiving him again? . . . One of the shepherds resumes his simple lay; the other does not answer. The sun sets. Distant thunder. Solitude. Silence.

March to the Scaffold: He dreams he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to die and led to execution. A march accompanies the procession, now gloomy and wild, now brilliant and grand, during which the dull sound of heavy footsteps follows abruptly on the noisiest outbursts. Finally the idée fixe appears for a moment, to be cut off by the fall of the axe.

Dream of the Witches' Sabbath: He finds himself at a Witches' Sabbath, in the midst of a frightful crowd of ghosts, sorcerers, and all kinds of monsters come to bury him. Unearthly sounds, groans, shrieks of laughter, distant cries echoed by others. The melody of his beloved is heard, but it has lost its character of nobleness and timidity. It is she who comes to the Sabbath! A roar of joy at her arrival. She joins in the devilish orgies. The funeral knell; burlesque of the Dies irae.

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.InformationA 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.

Chapter 9: Music for Listening