The following sample essay focuses on the composers of German classical and romantic music. Read the introduction, body and conclusion of the essay, scroll down.
The transition from the Classical area to the Romantic area The characteristics of music during the Classical area were its simplicity of both melody and harmony, as well as a spirit of perfection; Moreover people expected something easy to listen. However things began to change gradually before 1800. Music was getting more and more expressive. Several musical examples include Mozart’s slow movement from his Clarinet Concerto written in 1791, which is very romantic in style, full of expression and emotion.
Moreover, the first appearance of a form of atonality can be heard in Haydn’s oratorio The Creation written between 1796 and 1798, notably representing chaos. Music and other arts, which were clearly separated formerly, became to get close to each other by their common point of willing to describe nature and human feelings, that means full of expression.
All those facts will actually end the Classical period, and will lead to the Romantic period.
During this period, composers will write either programmatic music, or absolute music, so it is important to know that the programmatic music is music intended to evoke extra-musical ideas, such as stories, or nature, contrary to the absolute music which is exclusively composed for the beauty of the music itself, and without reference concerning the outside world. My essay is dealing with several of the important composers of the romantic area, in the first part the ‘futuristic’ composers, and in the second part ‘conservative’ ones.
Not all composers are talked about, and several are talked about more briefly than others, according to the impact they had on music. Following each composer’s footstep, we will discover whether they were conservative or futuristic in their music writing and why. Have they been influenced by other composers? If so, how can it be felt in their works? Moreover, have they influenced some composers after them? Eventually, have they contributed in any evolution concerning programmatic music, absolute music, or opera, and if so, how?
I. The futuristic composers Among the composers from the Romantic period, several ones were futuristic: they contributed to the change of music thanks to the new ideas they brought. We will talk about several of the most important ones. The first composer of the Romantic period was Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. He first wrote music in the Classical style of Mozart and Haydn, but from around 1800 he gradually opened up his music with his own new ideas.
There was more tension and drama in his music than in the music of earlier composers, and this led to the ‘Romantic’ style of music. Beethoven claimed that “Music must represent humans’ feelings”. One of Beethoven’s first works, Sonata for Piano No. 8 written in 1798 was very dramatic in mind, thus continuing the ‘expressive’ movement of late Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 6, also called Pastoral Symphony composed between 1805 and 1808, describing scenes from the countryside. It is the first ever official ‘programmatic’ work to be written and is the work that starts the programmatic movement.
But almost all of his music was absolute, even if some of his symphonies have themes related to them. Beethoven developed the symphony, extending instrumentation as well as length; he was the first composer to use trombones in a symphony and his Symphony No. 3 also called Eroica written in 1803 and 1804 lasted more than an hour. His opera Fidelio composed in 1804 and 1805 dealt with human suffering. From around 1815 he was a pioneer with his Symphony No. 9 composed between 1822 and 1834 in including voices to a symphony for the first time.
Indeed he is the first composer to replace the Minuet by a Scherzo, quicker, and could re-use themes in different movements of the same symphony, those called ‘Leitmotif’. Even if he was a pioneer, he was also influenced by earlier masters such as Bach in his Piano Sonata No. 31 and his Grosse Fugue for String Quartet for the fugal techniques, and he also loved Handel’s music. Beethoven made the link between the Classical period to the Romantic period, and was respected by every composers after him for his magnificent music.
Beethoven was an inspiration for almost all of them, whatever their point of view. After Beethoven a succession of composers will follow his footsteps, like Hector Berlioz, who was born in 1803 near Grenoble and died in 1869 in Paris. He was a programmatic composer and was inspired by Beethoven, notably by his Symphony No. 9. Indeed Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique contains a chorus added to the orchestra. Franz Liszt was born in 1811 in Doborjan and died in 1886 in Beyreuth. He first wrote transcriptions of operas and symphonies by earlier masters like Beethoven and Schubert.
He gradually brought a notion of virtuosity in the piano playing. Almost all his music is programmatic, but he did write in 1852 and 1853 his Piano Sonata and several Etudes d’execution transcendante for piano which are not programmatic in mind. While writing his famous symphonic poem Les Preludes composed in 1850 he declared “What else is our life than a series of preludes to an unknown song, whose first and solemn notes are intoned by death? ”. This work, based on the words of Joseph Autran, as actually a ‘thematic metamorphosis’, very new in music.
He inspired by Chopin for his piano works. Richard Wagner was born two years after Liszt, in 1813 in Leipzig and he died in 1883 in Venice. He was inspired by earlier composers, as his opera Rienzi written between 1838 and 1840 is written in the style of Meyerbeer. He was also impressed by Beethoven’s style and was influenced by him in the use of Leitmotif (recurrent themes) in his works and often found first in the ‘Prelude’ of everyone of his operas. He was also influenced concerning the fusion of voices and orchestra by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
Wagner met Weber in 1822 but it’s not said he was one of his inspirations. Like Schumann he was a complete artist, and created the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, meaning ‘total artwork’, and which is movement for the unification of all the arts. He wrote his own libretti for his operas as well. In 1876 is premiered Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen lasting about 15 hours total. Nobody had ever composed such a long lasting piece of music. Characteristic of Wagner’s music is heavy instrumentation and orchestration, thus contrasting again with the main rule of the Classical period, that is music easy to listen.
He was also harmonically shifting, and many people think he’s the main starting point for the atonality. More precisely, the first chord of the ‘Prelude’ from Tristan und Isolde which consists in an augmented 4th, and augmented 6th, and an augmented 2nd above the root F, is considered to be the breakdown point for tonality. Moreover, he wrote his operas in the continuity, not with determinate formal structures. Wagner contributed to the development of instrumentation adding the ‘Wagner tuba’, a sort of fusion of French horn with a tuba, to the brass section of the orchestra.
With the conception of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a concert hall designed for the performance of his operas, Wagner revolutionized the opera as a show, moving the orchestra under the stage, reducing the lightning of the audience, removing intervals, and redesigning the acoustics of the hall. With all those modifications, the audience really felt like living the opera themselves, like being part of it. Following Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner was born in 1824 in Ansfelden and died in 1896 in Vienna. He was an absolute fan of Wagner, whom he called ‘The Master’.
He was admiring him and was influenced by him although he wasn’t copying him in his music; to the contrary, there are a lot of personal fingerprints in his music. For instance he used counterpoint quite extensively which he mastered, as well as Landlern in his scherzos, which are Austrian folkloric dances. He improved the use of the brass section, notably the French horn for his warm and almost human-like sound. Bruckner also had the particularity of writing his sonatas with three subjects instead of the usual two. Like Wagner he was really adventurous in the use of keys, modulating widely, and used Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies.
He dedicated his Symphony No. 3 composed in 1873 to the ‘Master’ including several motifs by Wagner, and eventually wrote the ‘Adagio’ of his Symphony No. 7 written in 1881 and 1882 as an elegy for the death of Wagner. However the music he wrote was exclusively absolute. Finally, Gustav Mahler was born in 1860 in Kaliste and died in 1911 in Vienna. His first three symphonies were programmatic, but the fourth, written between 1899 and 1900 is absolute because contrary to the others, it didn’t have any programme notes attached to it.
This Mahler’s own decision. Mahler was a genius of orchestration and had the gift of making any instrument heard separately from the orchestra. Like Bruckner he preferred using Landler his the ‘Trios’ of his symphonies, and could make great use of the counterpoint as well, as in the 1st movement his Symphony No. 4 written between 1899 and 1900 in which he used counterpoint quite extensively. His harmonic writing in most of his works was highly innovating and futuristic, sometimes being at the limit of atonality. II. The conservative composers
Even if the Romantic period saw an overall evolution epitomised by the futuristic composers we have just talked about, several ones were inevitably nostalgic of the former music, kept writing their music in the former styles. Here are the main ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’ composers. The first of the conservative composers is Franz Schubert, who was born in 1797 in Vienna and died 1828 in Vienna. His symphonic music was structured with traditional forms. He was influenced by Haydn and Mozart for his piano music, and most of his music is absolute.
He was therefore very traditionalist, but was the uncontested master of Lieder, which appeared during the romantic period. They are an intimate music, as scored for piano and singer, who have equal importance. They became extremely popular during the romantic period. Indeed Schubert wrote about 600 of them during his life. Born after Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg and died in Leipzig in 1842. He was a musically adventurous young man, as he composed his String Octet at 16-years-old with a Scherzo in 2/4 instead of the usual 3/4. At 17 he composed an enchanting overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
While he could be futuristic sometimes, he was nevertheless influenced by earlier composers such as Bach and Handel. For instance, there are similarities between Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. While other Romantic composers emancipated from formal musical structures in their works, Mendelssohn kept being structurally well-ordered in his music as in the Classical period, which make him a conservative composer. Mendelssohn is quite difficult to classify though, as his music was a mix of both the old school and the new school of writing; he included for instances very romantic themes in his classical forms.
While on a trip to Great-Britain in 1829 he visited Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa which inspired him to write his famous Hebrides Overture completed in 1830. This led to the definition of the ‘concert overtures’ which are usually very descriptive of nature and landscapes. Mendelssohn used in his concert overtures as well as in his symphonies the sonata form, characteristic of the Classical period. His Symphony No. 2 composed in 1840 was inspired by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for the instrumentation, as vocal soloists as well as a chorus are added to the orchestra.
Mendelssohn’s music was absolute, in spite of the titles given to some of his works, such as the Italian Symphony finished in 1833, or the Scottish Symphony finished in 1842. Frederic Chopin was born in 1810 in Warsaw, and died in 1849 in Paris. He was traditionalist; he indeed considered himself as very classical, and thought his music was written in the Classical style, but he was musically more adventurous than he though he was. He was influenced by Bach while composing his 24 Preludes for piano between 1835 and 1839, as well as Schubert while composing Impromptus between 1837 and 1833.
He is the inventor the new form of music called ‘Ballade’. He didn’t write any programmatic music; all the music he composed, mainly piano music is absolute. Even his Nocturnes for piano which have a special dark mood, are written in traditional way. Born the same year as Chopin, 1810, Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, and died in 1856 in Endenich. Like many of the romantic composers he was a complete artist as he was a poet and philosopher as well. In 1834 he founded the music magazine ‘Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik’ (meaning ‘New Journal of Music’) in which he published articles full of praise about composers like Chopin and Berlioz.
He wrote programmatic music like his Symphony No. 3 composed in 1850 also called Rhenish Symphony whose describe a ceremony in Cologne Cathedral, as well as his Spring Symphony, and numerous piano works. But the rest of his works is absolute, like his Piano Concerto written in 1845, his Konzertstuck for four horns in 1849 or his Cello Concerto in 1850. Schumann was mainly inspired by Schubert when writing more intimate works, like Lieder. He was also influenced by Bach when he composed baroque-like pieces such as 6 Fugues for organ, 6 Canons for Pedal-Flugel, 6 Sketches for Pedal-Flugel.
Schumann once said about Bach “Every day, I prostrate myself before that great musical savant, I confess myself to that incommensurable and incomparable genius, intercourse with whom purifies and fortifies me”. Schumann was inspired by Chopin for his piano works, and inspired himself Grieg for his Piano Concerto which has many similarities with Schumann’s. Even being a conservative composer he was harmonically quite adventurous, creating unique effects in his music. Finally, Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 in Hamburg and died in 1897 in Vienna.
He was very nostalgic of the earlier music, and wrote his own music in the continuity of the Classical style; For instance he wrote numerous sonatas for piano as well as for other instruments, and almost all his music is absolute. He was inspired by great masters from the past, and wrote piano pieces in the style of Bach, Handel or Paganini. For instance he wrote Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel in 1861, and used motifs from Bach’s Passacaglia for his Symphony No. 4 in 1884 and 1885. He also wrote waltzes in the style of Johann Strauss II whom he loved.
He was one of the pioneer of the use of ‘new’ rhythms, such as 2’s against 3’s. When he was young, Brahms played some of his works to the Robert Schumann who claimed Brahms to be a genius, even comparing him to Beethoven. Brahms once said referring to Beethoven “You have no idea what it is to hear the tromp of genius over your shoulder”. Conclusion: Retrospective of the Romantic area We have seen that composers were either futuristic or conservative in their music writing, and even that some were a bit of both. Whatever they were, they all contributed to a global evolution of music in programmatic music, absolute music, and opera.
Indeed, compared to the Classical period, music of the Romantic period is more spaced out, with dynamics played up, and more contrasted. Composers, who were often complete artists, were looking for the total freedom in their writing. They began to explore more musical possibilities, using an extended orchestra, as well as venturing in harmony, and using instrumental effects like strings tremolos and pizzicati. Music stopped being harmonically and melodically ‘mechanical’ as it used to be in the Classical area. It became more human-like, expressing emotions and feelings, as well as describing nature and landscapes.
The use of complex chords helped describing those feelings like tension. Almost every composer, as futuristic as they were, were influenced by earlier masters like Bach, whose music became to reappear and performed again. Composers began to us counterpoint which was left as “too complex” during the classical period. But at the same time was born a very intimate form of music, the Lied, scored for one voice and piano. At the end of the romantic period, the patronage had already disappeared, confirming the total freedom of composers, whatever they were futuristic or traditionalist.