ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Romantic Era

1825 - 1900 A.D.

Listen to Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1, first movement

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828), the Viennese composer who was one of the torch-bearers at Beethoven’s funeral, once asked rhetorically, “Who would dare to do anything after Beethoven?” Of course many composers dared to do a great many things after Beethoven (Schubert himself, for instance, established the “song cycle,” or a collection of related songs intended to be performed together, as a new genre to be taken seriously), but the question illustrates the phenomenal influence Beethoven had on those who came after him. He had shaken the music world down to its foundations; the “rules” of composition had been broken, and as every succeeding artist has learned, it is far more difficult to work without rules and limitations than with them. Once you reach the point that anything is possible, nothing is surprising anymore; you cannot defy the audience’s expectations if they don’t know what to expect.

As we move further into the 19th century, it becomes more and more difficult to make generalizations, because one of the earmarks of Romanticism was a new emphasis on and respect for the individual, for idiosyncrasy. Where the Classical period—the time of the Enlightenment—emphasized balance, precision and clearly defined forms, the new world of Romanticism was one in which feeling took precedence over intellect, in which the fantastic and supernatural were not only tolerated but celebrated. A famous picture by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828), showing a sleeping man slumped over his desk while ghastly apparitions of bats and other creatures filled the air around him, bore the caption, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), Francisco Goya, 1797

The optimism of the Enlightenment, the faith that human beings were endowed with an innate goodness and nobility of spirit, was beginning to yield to a suspicion that a dark side lurked within as well. It was an 1816 soirée devoted to telling ghost-stories, for instance, that resulted in the literary birth of two monsters that intrigue us to this day: Frankenstein and Dracula.

Listen to Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, fourth movement

Behavior and events that earlier would have been considered unsavory and improper subjects for contemplation now fascinated the newly emerging Romantic spirit. Berlioz revolutionized symphonic music in 1830 (only three years after Beethoven’s death) with his Symphonie Fantastique, which portrayed a love-sick poet who overdoses on opium and hallucinates a nightmare vision of his beloved dancing obscenely in hell. Romantic ballet was born the following year with the scandalous divertissement in Meyerbeer’s 1831 opera Robert le Diable, featuring a moonlit dance performed by ghosts of nuns who had broken their vow of chastity. The bright sun of reason was being eclipsed by the haunting shadows of emotion.