The Romantic Era - Passion & Symphonic Poetry
I have always had a respect and appreciation for Classical Music but have never studied it the way I have studied Contemporary Music. That’s not uncommon in a postmodern age where we embrace Pop Culture and have ever-shortening attention spans. But like all forms of art, the artist has put passion into their creations and if you have the patience for it, that passion is ever present in Classical Music. Since I have started studying audio I have been craving minimal and less abrasive music more and more, this has increased my obsession with Brian Eno, Ambient Music and Film Soundtracks. This has eventually lead me all the way back to classical. I have been searching through second-hand stores and buying all the cheap Classical CD’s I can get my hands on and have found that it is the Romantic Era I identify with the most. This is hardly surprising as I always loved Tchaikovsky and he is still one of my favourite composers. So in order to challenge myself and to delve further into my newest obsession, I thought I would dive deeply into the Romantic Period of Classical Music and share this passion with you.
The Modern Age:
The Romantic Era drew from the Baroque and Classical periods expanding on the forms and structures. This was during a time of massive social upheaval. 1789 is largely considered the beginning of the modern age. A time when intellectuals started to value geometry, maths, and science over the tradition and religion. What is often referred to as The French Revolution would lead to The Enlightenment where as a society we first started to question the church and the state. The rise of critical thinking would challenge everything we’d been lead to believe. This new form of philosophy would translate into the rise of romanticism in art, literature, and music. While the Baroque and Classical periods had an emphasis on emotion the inspiration was of a religious nature and the music was written with the intention of giving glory to God. In contrast, the individual was at the core of romanticism. The Romantics embraced the new ideas of enlightenment and the music was inspired by philosophy, art, and poetry.
A table showing the timeline of the different era's of classical music
Beethoven was the composer who really bridged the gap between the classical period and the romantic period. He would be the one to embrace the ideas of the French Revolution and bring them into the world of music. Taught piano from a young age and a student of Joseph Haydn. Beethoven's early work would mimic his forefathers but he would go on to write pieces dealing with his own personal struggles. Beethoven went through many turmoils, his mother died when he was young and his father was an alcoholic, who put a tremendous amount of pressure on Beethoven to perform at a high standard from a young age. Beethoven was a true romantic and fell in love with many women whom he would dedicate many of his compositions too, most famously Moonlight Sonata (1802) which was dedicated to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. But he was never able to be with the Nobel women that he fell in love with due to the social hierarchy of the times.
Beethoven would slowly go deaf over the second half of his life. Living next to a large church he would hear the bell every morning and noticed it becoming more distant. This caused a considerable amount of stress for a 28-year-old man whose entire livelihood depended on his ears. This all fed into his music such as his 5th symphony (1808), which is quite a sad and lamenting piece reflecting his internal struggle with his inevitable deafness until the fourth and final movement shifts the piece from Cm into C major and the whole orchestra swells with a sense of victory, of rising above. Beethoven would go on to ascend above the physical and continued to write some of his best work as his hearing deteriorated, most notably his 9th symphony which he wrote while completely deaf.
Beethoven wrote concertos for Piano, Violin, Cello, and Horns but it was his symphonies that would really change the face of music. His symphonies would increase the size of the orchestra creating a larger dynamic range and a much bigger sound than people had ever heard. He expanded the musical language with no concern as to whether something was too simple or too complex but with a focus on the feeling that the music would evoke. This approach would inform the aesthetics of the romantic era and ultimately change the face of music forever.
Chopin was a child prodigy who was taught from a very young age. By age 7 he had written 2 polonaises and had surpassed his tutors, which lead him to the Warsaw Conservatory to further his studies. But the thing that really made Chopin’s music interesting was the outside influences he brought into classical music. During family holidays he was exposed to traditional Polish folk music. He would join in the peasant festivities playing music and dancing with the locals. I believe that this gave Chopin a fresh perspective and allowed him to bring something unique to his own compositions. A Fantasy on Polish Airs (1830) is a great example of this. Having done extremely well in his studies he left Poland, traveling to Berlin and Vienna to study music abroad and to seek fame as a concert pianist and composer. He returned home for a short break before traveling back to Vienna to continue building his career, but shortly after arriving he found out about the Polish - Russian war and his focus shifted from his career to the state of the nation and the safety of his friends and family back home. Due to the politics surrounding the war, he abandoned his plans to travel to Italy and instead relocated to Paris.
All of this would impact Chopin greatly when hearing that Poland had been taken by Russia he became so disillusioned that he began to question God's existence. This would begin a downward spiral for Chopin and even though he had entered quite a vibrant art and music scene in 1830’s Paris, he stayed low key and only gave performances amongst small groups. He made a living from piano lessons and became increasingly homesick. During this time he would still write consistently, including his famous Nocturne Op. No. 9. (1831) He also fell in love with a young Polish girl, whom he planned to marry but this was not to be due to his declining health. This would all be reflected in his music, heartbreak, sorrow, lost faith and his lament for the world he left behind. This would inspire Chopin to write some of the most beautiful music ever written. In 1838 Chopin met the love of his life George Sand who cared for him as he was slowly dying of what is believed to have been tuberculosis but may very well have been cystic fibrosis. Chopin contributed a lot to the world of music. He made increasingly difficult pieces for piano, expanded sonatas, mazurkas, waltzes, and nocturnes. He brought a more lyrical sensibility with the invention of the instrumental ballad. He brought a unique sense of passion and loss to the world of music and unfortunately was taken far too soon. Even in death Chopin left us with one of the gravest piano sonatas The Death and Funeral March.
Liszt was a 19th-century rock star, a famous concert pianist with charisma, stage presence and was way ahead of his time in terms of virtuosity and concept. He started playing piano at 6 and was taught by his father. He showed promise quite quickly. Due to this, his family moved from Hungary to Vienna where he studied at the Conservatorium and then to France to further his musical ambitions. Much like Chopin, Liszt was also inspired by folk music. While Chopin would take inspiration from Polish folk music, Liszt incorporated melodies from traditional Hungarian folk music into his own compositions. As seen in Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes. Liszt was massively influenced by Paganini’s showmanship and aspired to approach the piano the way Paganini played the violin. While Paganini was quite menacing and many believed he was the devil himself, people adored and worshipped Liszt. He made his show all about him, creating the Piano Recital, being the first to turn the piano on its side to the audience and wowing audiences with his overdramatic playing style and his stage persona. He was very popular with the ladies and created an aura and hysteria surrounding himself.
While he openly had a deep admiration for the church his lifestyle was excessive and promiscuous. He had many affairs resulting in many illegitimate children. He hung around in art circles with authors such as Charles Baudelaire and Hans Christian Which may very well have inspired his idea of the symphonic poem. A symphonic poem is a piece of music based on a piece of art or literature, that aims to paint the idea or the feeling of the work through sound. Liszt wrote a series of 13 Symphonic Poems (1848 - 1858) inspired by Greek Mythology and Shakespeare amongst other things. They were largely misunderstood when they first came out, but would ultimately change the way that artists write music and that listeners perceive music. Liszt withdrew from public performance at the young age of 35, however, he continued to write, transcribe, teach and conduct music. He continued to expand the idea of the symphonic poem writing some dark symphonies such as The Dante Sympnony and The Faust Symphony.
Franz Liszt was not a literal artist, his approach to composing music inspired by literature or art was not linear, he would aim to capture the essence of what the piece was about. This elusive approach to storytelling can be seen throughout many forms of art in the modern era, His flamboyant bravado literally reshaped the concept of live performance and his approach to the blending of art and music will continue to be relevant for generations to come.
The most infamous composer of the Romantic era and possibly of all time was the German composer Wagner. Obsessed with Beethoven he expanded the orchestra even further and expanded the boundaries of music creating bigger. louder and more flamboyant operas than anyone else even dared to dream. He created his own instrument the Wagner tuba, the concept of the Leitmotif which is which is theme attached to an object or character and he took the idea of the symphonic poem to it’s most logical extremes, creating an epic storytelling all of his own.
Wagner was an ambitious child and while he received some piano lessons growing up, he preferred to play by ear than to play scales and he dreamt of using music as a tool to tell stories and paint pictures with music. He was an extremely confident young man whom many considered to be conceited. This confidence would lead Wagner into all sorts of trouble. His first Opera to be performed Das Liebesverbot (1836), based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (1623) left him in serious financial trouble after only two nights. after being involved with a left-wing political movement alongside fellow composer August Rockel and the famous anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin. In 1849 he was forced to live in exile in Switzerland for 12 years, during this time Wagner wrote a series of papers on the future of art focussing on the aesthetics of art, music, and poetry. This would be the blueprint for his future operas where he would aim to blend these things together. During this time Wagner also became aware of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer which in stark contrast to Bakunin’s sense of idealism would lead Wagner into a pessimistic worldview that valued the contemplation of aesthetics and art above all else.
In 1864 Wagner’s luck would take a turn and after years of exile and accumulated debt, he was bailed out by King Ludwig II who was a huge fan of Wagner's earlier operas. The King supported the production of Tristan und Isolde (1865) which premiered at the National Theatre in Munich and established Wagner as a creative force to be reckoned with. He then entered the most prolific part of his career writing and producing bigger, longer and more complex operas. With the financial backing of the King, Wagner would continue his work on a 4 part opera; Der Ring des Nibelungen. This was an incredibly ambitious undertaking in every aspect and literally took 26 years to complete (1848 - 1874). The story itself is epic in nature, taking inspiration from Norse mythology, Wagner created his own story about a magic ring, which became the most desired talisman among men and gods and follows the journey of the ring through generations. This was such an epic task that a new theatre would be built to show these operas. Das Rheingold (1853–54), Die Walküre (1854–56), Siegfried (1856–71) and Götterdämmerung (1869–74) with an overarching story that was 16 hours long in total but spread over 4 nights.
Wagner’s impact on modern culture is huge. He took the first steps towards epic storytelling in entertainment. we can see his fingerprints all over films such as star wars and lord of the rings. In fact ride of the valkyrie's was used to great effect in the war film Apocolypse now. Wagner was praised by Friedrich Nietzsche who would tribute his first book the birth of tragedy to Wagner, he was also Hitler’s favourite composer and has had an undeniable influence on heavy metal music.
Tchaikovsky to me is the quintessential romantic composer, he wrote themes that are emotive and immediately recognisable. He transformed ballet into an art form, writing 3 of the most performed ballets to this day, The Nutcracker (1892), Sleeping Beauty (1889) and Swan Lake (1896), which was famously used in the Universal film Dracula (1931). In stark contrast to The German Bombast of Wagner, Tchaikovsky was more influenced by Italian composers with a more gentle, bel canto approach to musical compositions such as Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.
Tchaikovsky was a deeply emotional child obsessed with music and has said that the music in his mind never stopped. He studied music throughout his schooling, sang soprano in the school choir and wrote poetry. At 14 years old his mother died of cholera, Tchaikovsky was deeply affected by his mother’s death and he wrote a waltz for her. He went to boarding school with the intention of getting a good stable government job. In boarding school, the young Tchaikovsky became increasingly aware of the fact that he was not like other boys and that he had a different orientation. He became friends with the poet Aleksey Apukhtin and developed an infatuation for his friend and classmate Sergey Kireyev, which would inspire several of his compositions. He did eventually get a job in the ministry of justice which gave him stability but did not scratch his artistic itch so he joined the ministries choir and continued his study of music. His increasing desire to create led him to quit his job and enroll in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory where he studied, piano, organ, and flute. He also gave piano lessons during this time.
Even though Tchaikovsky was gay he married an opera singer Désirée Artôt and even though they were outwardly infatuated with one another, on the honeymoon Tchaikovsky attempted suicide and climbed into a frozen lake. All this passion for love and death would find it’s way into his music, especially The Romeo and Juliet Symphony (1870). Which embodies all the passion of Shakespeare's play. This piece embodied the feeling of love so profoundly that the Love Theme, from this symphony, has been used so many times to convey love in modern media that it's become a pastiche of sorts.
Tchaikovsky's sense of patriotism would be showcased in the 1812 Overture, a massive sounding piece commemorating the Russian defeating Napoleon's army in 1812. This has become the piece Tchaikovsky is most known for and is and hugely dynamic and triumphant piece with heavy use of percussion, brass, large bells, chimes and real cannons. Compared to Tchaikovsky's more romantic music this was a much more literal interpretation. Using regal themes and leitmotifs to tell the story of the war.
Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony which would be his last and would become a requiem for his death with the use of slow adagio’s creating very funeral like tone. The subtext of this piece led many to believe that Tchaikovsky had written his own requiem and much conjecture has been put forward suggesting he may have willingly given himself cholera to commit suicide. While it is possible, it’s not possible for us to ever really know for sure.
Tchaikovsky brought many things to the romantic era of classical music. He wrote pieces for piano, symphonies, ballets, symphonic poems and many pastiches to other pieces. He would leave the world with incredibly sad and beautiful music to remember him by and the world is a better place for it.
Musical Characteristic & Impact:
The Romantic Era was characterised by a more dramatic form of classical music that embraced folk music and took inspiration from the changing social landscape and the fantasy of art and literature. It was a time for embracing new ideas. During this era all forms of existing music were expanded, the introduction of the Symphonic poem by Franz Liszt saw dramatic changes to the use of time signatures, keys, scales and the concept behind the music. The size of the orchestras expanded, the dynamic range increased new modes and scales were used and even new instruments were invented.
The Romantic period was a period of musical expansion this was before the use of microphones and amplification in musical performance, the rooms were built with the acoustics in mind and acted as a speaker. so if a composer introduced more brass and it drowned out the strings, they would bring in more strings to compensate. This lead to the size of orchestras and even the theatres themselves increasing in size and volume. The percussion sections exploded with the use of xylophones, drums, celestes, harps, bells, triangles and even cannons.
As this period was before the technology of recorded music, pieces were recorded on paper and performed by expert performers who had studied music at the Conservatorium and that is still practiced to this day. Recording technology was in its early stages right at on the cusp of this period and you can actually find recordings of later romantic artists such as Rachmaninov performing the recording quality is very raw and most listeners would prefer to listen to pieces recorded later.
The recording of classical music is extremely different to any form of contemporary music and still relies on the sound of the room that the performance is taking place, opting to use distant and ambient micing techniques rather than the direct micing commonly used in contemporary music. A stereo pair would make up the main part of your sound with mics over areas of the orchestra. It's absolutely amazing to think how long this music has lasted in whatever, performed or recorded medium and that it will continue too last and has evolved into an industry of soundtracks for films and video games who still employ large orchestras of virtuoso musicians to perform in big rooms with big and beautiful distant sound.
In conclusion I have undertaken an epic journey into the romantic period and have developed a deep new found respect for the passion and expertise that went into this music and a deeper understanding of the impact that the romantic era had on modern society.
Shay Jagger Mitchell (2017).
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Quick pics of my current classical collection, which has also aided my studies (2017).