Unit 3 Introduction: The Classic-Romantic Era
<-- Apollo and Dionysus -->
The Classic and Romantic periods can thought of also in terms of Apollo and Dionysus. The sun god Apollo symbolizes logic and reason while his brother Dionysus represents passion, ecstasy, and emotion. Using Apollo and Dionysus as models, philosophers such as Nietzshe (1844-1900) wrote a great deal about how the fusion of these polar opposites are necessary in order to create great art.
The Classic-Romantic Era encompasses the second half of the 18th century and the entire 19th century. Like all the fine arts, music is informed by the ideas of the EnlightenmentBeginning in the late 17th century, a cultural movement in which reason and the scientific method were used to challenge outmoded traditions and ideas.
and then responds to the swell of Romanticism. While wealthy patrons subsidize some composers, the rise of the rich merchant class brings about a new commercialism in art music. Theatres, concert halls, and churches are filled with music, and the public will pay to hear it.
The piano emerges as the dominant instrument, and most composers of this period are pianists, many of them virtuosos. Every middle class home has a piano, and young people study piano as part of their education or "finishing." Composers begin to write music not only for other professionals, but also for amateurs, some of whom take lessons from great musicians like Beethoven. Publishers respond to the demand for new music for amateurs to play in the salon.
The most important instrumental genres are the sonata and concerto (3-movement works) and the symphony and the string quartet (4-movement works). But as Romanticism takes hold of the imagination, composers look to less restrictive forms like the art song, the character piece for the piano, and the tone poem for the orchestra.
In the more cosmopolitan, secular world created by the Enlightenment, philosophy challenges theology, and music takes on the aspect of a religion, with composers like Liszt and Wagner as its high priests. Romantic music becomes the language of the soul, more expressive than mere words.
While much of the musical activity is centered in Vienna, important musicians are at work all over Europe. In this unit you will meet Mozart and Beethoven, Berlioz and Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, Verdi and Wagner, all of whom are characters who might appear in a novel by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Their compositions constitute the heart of what is commonly called classical music, but there is nothing classic about their bios. Some of them composed abstract music, with no attached meaning, while others wrote program music based on poems, plays, and even pictures. Some, like Beethoven, wrote both. And most composed operas.
Throughout the Classic-Romantic Era there is a consistency of musical language. While the classic style evolves into a more expressive medium, the basic elements persist until the early 20th century when composers begin to look for new sounds. But we will discuss that in the next unit.