ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Romantic Era

1825 - 1900 A.D.

clockwise from top left: Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Literature itself took on a new importance for Romantic composers, some of whom made extensive use of literary references in their music. Artistic genres were mutating into daring new forms. Italian opera metamorphosed into the enormous spectacle of French grand opéra with Auber’s La muette de Portici (“The Mute Girl of Portici”) in 1828 and, the following year, with Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell. Henceforth Paris, not Italy, would be the operatic center of Europe, and having an opera succeed there became the ultimate crown of success for any composer. Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, with its politically inflammatory depiction of a conspiracy to murder a king, marked a daring new level of theatrical realism in 1830, and 1831 saw the premiere of the quintessential Romantic opera, Norma by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835).

Listen to Bellini: Norma, “Casta diva”

The first half of the 1800s brought a flurry of musical activity and the births of a staggering number of composers whose music still forms the bulk of the orchestral repertoire: Felix Mendelssohn (1809), Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann (1810), Franz Liszt (1811), Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner (1813), Charles Gounod (1818), César Franck (1819), Anton Bruckner (1824), Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825), Johannes Brahms (1833), Georges Bizet (1838), Modest Mussorgsky (1839), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840), Antonín Dvořák (1841), Edvard Grieg (1843), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844) and Gabriel Fauré (1845).

Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, symbolising French nationalism during the July Revolution 1830.

The various nationalities of these musical giants raises the subject of nationalism in music, which became more and more of an issue as the 19th century progressed. The Baroque style, which was essentially Italian, and the primarily Austrian—or more specifically Viennese—style of the Classical era were both, for all practical purposes, pretty much the same throughout Europe. Romantic composers, however, began to discover not only their own individual voices but those of their national heritage as well. Wagner, for example, made German opera a force to be reckoned with for the first time in a genre that had been dominated by Italians.

Listen to Wagner: Overture to The Flying Dutchman

Mussorgsky became part of a movement to establish a truly Russian musical vocabulary, Dvořák explored his Bohemian roots, Grieg expressed Norway’s musical soul, and so on.

This interest in distinctive national styles was part of the entire movement toward developing national identities. After Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the Austrians and British in 1813, the map of Europe was redrawn by the Congress of Vienna. During the next century, more and more countries would find their own national spirit and declare their autonomy, including Mexico (1813), Brazil (1815), Argentina (1816), Venezuela (1817), Chile (1818), Peru (1821) and Greece (1822), while others reorganized, became unified or adopted their first modern constitutions, including Germany (1815), Switzerland (1848) and Italy (1870). Political tensions created by the new borders and divisions set up by the Congress of Vienna would ultimately lead, 100 years later, to the First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which in turn required yet another carving up of Europe.

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