ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Romantic Era

1825 - 1900 A.D.

The grand staircase of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. This architectural landmark was completed in 1875.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the births of composers who would grow up thoroughly saturated with the Romantic aesthetic, who would bring Romanticism to its full ripeness and, in many cases, begin the transition to the post-Romantic world: Englebert Humperdinck (1854), Edward Elgar (1857), Ruggiero Leoncavallo and Giacomo Puccini (1858), Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf (1860), Frederick Delius (1862), Richard Strauss (1864), Paul Dukas, Alexander Glazunov and Jean Sibelius (1865), Alexander Scriabin (1872), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873), Gustav Holst and Arnold Schoenberg (1874), and Maurice Ravel (1875), among others.

Many of the conventions of music and musical performance that are with us today originated during the Romantic era. The tradition of the composer/performer, who wrote music primarily for his own performance opportunities (Beethoven had begun in this mode himself) reached a new level with such masters as Franz Liszt on the piano and Nicolò Paganini on the violin, both of whom reached levels of technical proficiency that have not been surpassed since that time. Liszt is credited with inventing the solo recital; before him, it would have been unthinkable to ask people to attend a concert and listen to only one musician all evening long.

Listen to Liszt: Mephisto Waltz

At the Opera, Mary Cassatt, 1880

And those evenings were long. The new middle class that was flocking to concerts wanted its money’s worth, and they got it—typical programs would include several symphonies, a concerto or two, some chamber-music interludes, vocal soloists performing opera arias, and maybe more. Individual works also became longer and longer. Wagner’s operas, which can run five or six hours with intermissions, seem exceptionally long to us not only by today’s attention-deficit standards, but even when compared to operas by his contemporaries. (Wagner, incidentally, was also responsible for the innovation of lowering the lights in a theater during a performance.) But Wagner designed his epic music-dramas to be performed by themselves, while other composers’ works were often coupled with other pieces. The famous singer Maria Malibran, for instance, once sang Beethoven’s Fidelio and Bellini’s La Sonnambula on a double bill; and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which today is considered a full-length ballet, was originally a mere curtain-raiser for the composer’s opera Iolanta.

Symphonic works became longer, too. The symphonies of Anton Bruckner (1824-96) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) became enormous structures; the expanded harmonic palette gave composers a wider musical terrain to roam, and they took their time doing it.

Listen to Mahler: Symphony No. 5, Adagietto (fourth movement)

It has been pointed out that many of the earmarks and attitudes of the Romantic era—a deep respect for the individuality of the artist, the artist as the rebel or unappreciated prophet, the role of music to express extreme emotions, the concept of art being timeless, the endless search for something new and different—are with us still. If there is any one factor that makes appreciation of the great Romantic works difficult for modern audiences, it is the vastly slower and more expansive sense of time that people had in the 19th century, when there was no remote control to change channels every 15 seconds.

Listening to music is like taking a vacation, in more ways than one. It requires that you set aside a certain amount of time for the experience; it can take you places you’ve never been before; and you return to the mundane world refreshed and uplifted. The Romantic era is like a city that you can’t really get to know in a two-day visit; it deserves a significant time commitment to get to know and distinguish between the wealth of musical genius the period produced.

The 20th century was about to dawn, and with it would come massive changes in virtually every aspect of life—artistic, social, political and scientific.

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