The eighteenth century fascination with ancient Greek and Roman culture wasn’t limited to the artistic world. The intelligentsia, too, were exploring their ideas through books and scrolls faithfully preserved and copied by the monks of Europe and the scholars of the Near East. In them they found a philosophy and science which had since been overwhelmed in European thought by the squabbling feudal states and the vested interests of Church hierarchies. Invigorated by what they found (and conveniently overlooking the Roman penchant for conquest, oppression, infanticide, mass slavery and execution as sport and entertainment) they championed a world of order, logic and cool rationalism, presided over in benevolent dictatorship by the kind of philosopher-princes envisioned by Plato. It wasn’t long before the artistic world rebelled.
To the Romantics, whether in music, literature or art, the world proposed by the great minds of the Enlightenment was a cold, sterile place in which the masses would be oppressed by an intellectual élite. In contrast, they idolised nature, the emotional, the spiritual, and the democratic, and it is this vision which is reflected in the music composed between roughly 1825 and 1875.
No longer written for great ceremonies and church festivals or with an eye to producing commercially-viable entertainment, this was art for art’s sake, sometimes beautiful, sometimes challenging, but almost always intended to leave an emotional mark on the audience. In the latter part of the period there was a marked split in the style in which composers sought to do this, with traditionalists such as Brahms and Verdi contrasting with more innovative composers like Liszt. Perhaps the most innovative of them all was Wagner, who reimagined opera as virtually a new art-form, complete with (for the time) stunning special effects and epic cycles which could last for days. Sadly (or happily, depending on your opinion of Wagner), he lost out to the completely-new world of film, which was first developed in the late 1890s.
The spirit of Romanticism is beautifully captured by Berlioz’s amazing, and still deservedly popular, ‘Symphony Fantastique‘, which tells the story of a young man who falls in love at first sight with a beautiful woman. Instead of telling her how he feels (which would be entirely too logical, and where’s the fun in that?) he goes to a party, then out for a walk in the countryside where he starts tormenting himself with thoughts of her (completely imagined, because he hasn’t actually spoken to her yet) rejection and unfaithfulness, until he reaches such a point of despair that he decides to poison himself with opium. In the resulting hallucination he imagines he has murdered his beloved and sees himself being executed upon the scaffold before awakening in a witches sabbath of a funeral, at which his beloved, who is presumably a witch, appears. Cheery stuff. It’s entirely possible that Berlioz himself was as high as a kite on opiates when he wrote it. The Romantics were like that.
Away from the orchestra, the pianoforte continued the ascendency which it had begun in the Baroque, and although many names (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, the Strauss lineage and Brahms to give just a handful of the best-known) are associated with piano composition at this time two dominate: Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. The former was a flamboyant showman who developed the piano into a performance art which could fill a concert hall solo. The latter produced intimate works suitable for smaller venues and domestic performance.
Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
The rise of the piano also meant that women began to gain a foothold in the mainstream musical scene. While there had always been female composers, particularly in the convents where a comparative lack of male oversight made room for female creativity to flourish, most women had been denied the educational opportunities which would have imparted the necessary knowledge for composition over a range of instruments. All well-bred women, however, were expected to learn the piano, and for talented women such as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann and it was a comparatively small step from playing to composition.
The Romantic period produced a diverse range of sounds, to the point that although the following period is usually referred to as Nationalism, a separate, distinct movement, the Impressionist, also emerges.
Berlioz, Liszt and Chopin are just the tip of the creative iceberg of the Romantic period. Do you have a favourite Romantic composer?