The word "romantic" actually comes from the French word "roman", meaning a novel. This was an era in which literature was a dominating influence in music, from the inspiration that poetry provided as the foundation of lieder (song cycles) to the influence of narrative in even purely instrumental music ( such as in Berlioz's revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique). While the musical hero of this epoch was undoubtedly Beethoven (witness his plaster bust on top of the piano Fran Liszt is playing in the painting of salon life, at left, the great philosopher-poet-playwright-scientist and statesman Wolfgang von Goethe was no less a pivotal influence. For the Romantics, Beethoven embodied the image of the individual as hero, pouring out personal angst in the midst of titanic struggles, shattering the bonds of convention to pursue his own unique and authentic vision while Goethe best articulated the themes of love and yearning. In his epic play Faust, Goethe ultimately asserted the primacy of mystery beyond reason. The story of a man who sells his soul to the devil but is redeemed through love had the two themes that were deeply imbedded in the Romantic psyche: passion and a fascination with the supernatural.
Goethe's poem "Holy Longing" captures the spirit of this age perhaps better than any other. The language of this poem (death, strange, silent, obsession with darkness, desire, magic, insane, troubled guess, dark earth) places us in a very different universe than the Apollo's pretty kingdom in the Age of Enlightenment. This is Dionysus's realm: intense, raw, visceral emotional depth.
Holy Longing Tell a wise person, or else keep silent, because the mass man will mock it right away. I praise what is truly alive, what longs to be burned to death.
In the calm water of the love-nights, where you were begotten, where you have begotten, a strange feeling comes over you, when you see the silent candle burning.
Now you are no longer caught in the obsession with darkness, and a desire for higher love-making sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter. Now, arriving in magic, flying, and finally, insane for the light, you are the butterfly and you are gone. And so long as you haven't experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.
(Translated from the German by Robert Bly)
There were enormous cultural shifts in how musicians were perceived. In Bach and Mozart's time, composers were seen as servants to Popes and Kings, and would eat in the servants quarters with maids and butlers and the rest of the household staff. With Beethoven, the first successful free lance composer, this all changed: it is estimated that one fourth of all Vienna turned out for the maestro's funeral in the rain. In the Romantic era, with the rise of the concert hall, they became viewed as the prophet of the people. Franz Liszt could be viewed as the first rock star: women fainted at his concerts which grossed the equivalent of millions of dollars.
Musical shifts were similarly dramatic. Minor keys take over, steady beats becomes fragmented, rhythm becomes more complex, disjointed and unpredictable- all hallmarks of the Dionysian aesthetic. Even the very names of pieces (“Fantasy”, “Impromptu”, “Nocturne”, "Elegy", "Humoresque", and a bevy of character sketches conjure up the theatrical, nighttime world of the dark, mysterious and paradoxical god. Musical instructions include terms like "rubato" (robbing time) and "morendo" (dying away).
This is an age of extremes. Dynamics range extremes (pppp to ffff) and sudden or dramatic changes ("sfz", "attaca", abrupt endings or sudden silences) appear in scores. Both intimacy and grandiosity are present. It is reported that Chopin never played above a mezzoforte because he was so weak from tuberculosis, and one of his Preludes is only 3 lines long. Meanwhile, Mahler's Symphony No. 8 lasts an hour and a half and is nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand because of its monumental forces.
Cast of Composers:
Franz Schubert- In his all too brief life, Schubert showed evidence of becoming Beethoven's musical heir. Alas, his idol killed him. Schubert was a pall bearer in Beethoven's cold and rainy funeral and died of pneumonia soon afterwards. While his symphonies, chamber music and piano sonatas are all sublime, the song "Die Erlkonig" might be considered most representative of the spirit of Romanticism. Vividly recounting Goethe's creepy poem of a young boy whose life is snatched away by the spectre of an Elf King as he rides through a forest with his father, it is a miniature masterwork of storytelling. Personally, I suspect J.R.R. Tolkein had this lied in mind when he wrote the scene in The Lord of the Rings of the Nazgul chasing the Hobbits.
Frederic Chopin- Polish poet of the piano, the Orpheus who spent most of his career in Paris. The Preludes and Nocturnes are exquisite gems, works of both deep emotion and gracious elegance.
Robert Schumann- literary and musical genius who succumbed to madness. Both the Davidsbundertanze Op.6, and Carnival feature two sides of his musical personality: "Florestan", the dynamic, dramatic hero and "Eusebius", the introspective, dreamy and melancholy poet.
Franz Liszt- Hungarian virtuoso whose keyboard technique is still considered unsurpassed by many music historians. His piano concerto Totentanz (Dance of Death) is a shameless over- the -top exploitation of the technical marvels of the piano based on the Dies Irae. This piece celebrates the demonic, the macabre, the outrageous and the lewd: it is the equivalent (I only imagine!) of binge drinking in Las Vegas on Halloween during a convention of Satanists. No wonder at the end of his life, Liszt felt the need to become a Franciscan tertiary and exorcist.
Johannes Brahms – Musical conservative, loyal friend and unsung hero-many people (including Robert Schumann) have felt that Brahms was Beethoven's true heir. His music weds a disciplined mastery of 18th century structure with the depth of emotional expression that was the aim of the 19th century. By turns rousing, energetically infectious, swooning with passion and opening to a state of sublime heart-opening acceptance, almost every one of his 130 published works is a gem.Intermezzo Op. 118 No.2 in A Major is the music I want played at my own funeral.
The Norwegian Edvard Grieg's lush Piano Concerto in A minor was inspired by Schumann's Concerto in the same key , a wedding gift for his wife Nina Haggerup and it remains one of the enduring staples of concert life. In the Hall of the Mountain King (made famous by Loney Tunes cartoons) is one of Grieg's many character sketches that bring to life Norse myth with a catchy "folk song" element.
Hector Berlioz- Besotted stalker and musical revolutionary. His Symphonie Fantastique is one of the world's greatest examples of what to do with unrequited love: go to Italy and create a masterpiece.
Richard Wgner is the most decisive figure of music history: love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. His gesamtkunstwerke music drams ( he hated the word opera) brought a whole new array of psychological understanding, mythological grandeur and music expression to the stage. Though he was one of the most egotistical, amoral and thoroughly repugnant human beings who has ever lived, he exudes a fascination and obsession amongst his fans that is unequaled.
This clip below from the film Impromptu captures the wild excesses of emotion that the Romantic era was prone to. Here, poor Hugh Grant struggles with a Polish accent in his portrayal of Chopin while Judy Davis as writer George Sand passionately pursues him.