Discovering Classical Music
Discovering Classical Music

Chapter 7

The Romantic Period (1820-1900)

Chapter Ancillaries Composer Synopsis: Franz Schubert
Composer Synopsis: Frédéric Chopin
Composer Synopsis: Felix Mendelssohn
Composer Synopsis: Robert & Clara Schumman
Composer Synopsis: Franz Liszt
Composer Synopsis: Johannes Brahms
Music Background: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Opera Synopsis: The Ring Cycle
Let's begin with a review of what Romantic means. Classic art is objective, restrained and balanced (ORB); Romantic art is subjective, extravagant, and favors expression over form. Like the music of the Baroque era, that of the 19th century tends to glorify the expression of feeling, often to the point of hyperbole. Romantics often regarded music as the language of the soul. Instrumental music was thought especially capable of expressing profound emotion because it was not limited by the specificity of words.

Beethoven is the place to begin to understand this. His early works tend to sound like the music of Haydn, while his later compositions set the tone for the first half of the 19th century. The first and second symphonies, and also the fourth, sound like Classic Period works and adhere to most of the conventions of construction. But the third, sixth, and ninth are monuments of romanticism and originality. The third and the sixth contain programmatic (representational) elementsInformationInstrumental music that refers to a non-musical idea, image, or event, often indicated in a printed program to communicate the idea to the listener. Composers such as Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Musorgsky have been inspired by poems, dramas, natural wonders, pictures, etc. while the ninth calls for a large chorus singing a lofty humanistic text.

The famous Fifth Symphony contains elements of both classicism and romanticism, as great works of art often do. It is objective in the sense that it has no attached meaning or non-musical reference point; the music is abstract or absolute, as some like to say. You might contrast that with the Sixth Symphony (Pastoral), which tells the story of the composer's vacation in the country and contains all sorts of representational music, including bird calls and a thunderstorm similar to those found in operatic music.

Instrumental music that tells a story or takes its inspiration from a literary work is generally known as program music. The concept goes back to 18th century works like Vivaldi's The Seasons and even further back to compositions depicting battles of the 16th century. Undoubtedly, the idea of music imitating or representing non-musical events is as old as music itself, but the practice reached its peak in the hands of such early Romantic composers as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt.

Symphonie Fantastique
Episodes in the Life of an Artist (1830)


Hector Berlioz

Program of the Symphony: A young musician of morbidly sensitive temperament and passionate imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of lovesick despair. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, his emotions, and his memories are transformed in his diseased mind into musical thoughts and images. Even the woman he loves becomes a melody to him, an idée fixe, as it were, that he encounters and hears everywhere.

Reveries, Passions: First he remembers the soulsickness, the aimless passions, the baseless depressions and elations which he felt before seeing her whom he loves. Then—the volcanic love that she instantly inspired in him; his jealous furies; his returns to tenderness; his religious consolations.

A Ball: He meets his beloved at a ball, in the midst of a noisy, brilliant fête.

Scene in the Country: On a summer evening in the country, he hears two shepherds piping in dialogue. The pastoral duet, the location, the light rustling of trees stirred by the wind, a few recently conceived grounds for hope—all this gives him a feeling of unaccustomed calm, and a brighter color to his thoughts. But she appears again, his heart misses a beat—what if she is deceiving him again? . . . One of the shepherds resumes his simple lay; the other does not answer. The sun sets. Distant thunder. Solitude. Silence.

March to the Scaffold: He dreams he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to die and led to execution. A march accompanies the procession, now gloomy and wild, now brilliant and grand, during which the dull sound of heavy footsteps follows abruptly on the noisiest outbursts. Finally the idée fixe appears for a moment, to be cut off by the fall of the axe.

Dream of the Witches' Sabbath: He finds himself at a Witches' Sabbath, in the midst of a frightful crowd of ghosts, sorcerers, and all kinds of monsters come to bury him. Unearthly sounds, groans, shrieks of laughter, distant cries echoed by others. The melody of his beloved is heard, but it has lost its character of nobleness and timidity. It is she who comes to the Sabbath! A roar of joy at her arrival. She joins in the devilish orgies. The funeral knell; burlesque of the Dies irae.

Music that has sung text cannot be considered to be program music, so opera cannot be seen as such, even though it tells a story. And while there are several examples of program symphonies, such as Beethoven's Sixth or Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony, the more common construct is the overture.InformationA composition played by the orchestra before an opera or ballet, later called a prelude. An example is Mendelssohn's Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummernight's Dream. Later, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss would compose particularly effective examples of program music known as tone poems. (Listen to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy and Strauss's Don Juan.)

Program music extends as well to the solo piano repertory. Schumann's Scenes from Childhood is a well-known example. In the early 19th century, the piano reached its peak as a solo instrument and recitals given by a solo pianist became very popular. Franz Liszt performed in concerts all over Europe, becoming a sensation of the entertainment world comparable to rock stars of today. Besides his incredible virtuosity, he possessed good looks and charisma that made women swoon. The story of his personal life is fascinating and astonishing. He became the poster boy of the great romantic artist. Moreover, he was a major composer of piano and orchestral music. If you're interested in reading a composer's biography, his would be a good choice.

Hardly less interesting is that of his contemporary, Frederic Chopin, a Pole who migrated to Paris and became the darling of upper-crust society. He disdained public concerts, preferring the intimacy of the salon. His highly poetic music quickly became the most popular of all solo piano repertoire and a staple of the recital program. He had a scandalous personal relationship with a cigar-smoking, cross-dressing woman of letters and died an early death of tuberculosis as befits the tragic romantic artist. His life was the subject of movies in the 1950s.

Diseases like TB and syphilis claimed the lives of many great artists at that time. Schubert and Schumann both died of syphilis. Beethoven was born with it and it probably caused his deafness, although he lived into his late fifties. Mendelssohn died at 39 from depression and exhaustion. By contrast, Liszt, Wagner and Verdi lived to be old men. In his later years Liszt became a pious mystic and was ordained as an abbé.

The solo recital venue also includes vocal music, and the art song flourished in the hands of composers like Schubert and Schumann. Schubert wrote over 600 Lieder and is generally regarded as the greatest composer of art song. These miniature masterpieces are presented by a solo singer accompanied only by the piano in a concert hall or drawing room. They are regarded as vocal chamber music. The German poetry is frequently of very high literary quality. Composers often chose poems of Goethe or Schiller to set to music.

Instrumental chamber music continued to be important, and the string quartet remains the most significant genre. Beethoven and Schubert made especially important contributions. Other instrumental combinations, such as the piano trio and the woodwind quintet emerged as important genres that attracted major composers. The piano trio includes violin, cello, and piano; the woodwind quintet is made up of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. In keeping with the romantic emphasis on the individual, great virtuosity is demanded of the performers in these small ensembles.

Similarly, the early 19th century concerto makes increased demands on the soloist and the orchestra. The favored instruments are the piano and the violin. Beethoven composed five concertos for the piano, all of which are very fine. The last three are masterpieces. Before he lost his hearing, Beethoven would often perform them himself. He also wrote a fine violin concerto, as did Mendelssohn. Many view Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor one of the finest concertos of the period.

Opera continued to be important throughout Europe. Major opera houses flourished in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and Milan as well as in smaller cities. Among the Italian composers, Rossini is the best known. His Barber of Seville and William Tell are famous for their sparkling and dramatic overtures. In his day, Rossini was the most successful composer for the stage in all Europe. Close behind him were Bellini and Donizetti, both of whom produced operatic masterpieces that have remained in the repertoire. Bellini's Norma and Donizetti's Elixir of Love and Lucia di Lammermoor are among the best known operas of the period.

Sacred music, especially larger works, continued to be composed and performed despite the humanistic focus of the romantic movement. The English public had developed a particular taste for the oratorio, and choral societies were founded for the performance of these works. Although now regarded as a Classic Period composer, Haydn lived until 1809 and contributed a couple of important oratorios to this repertoire. The Creation and The Seasons, originally with German text, were often presented in English translation in London. The same is true of Mendelssohn's Elijah. All these works are scored for large chorus, soloists, and orchestra and provide an entire afternoon or evening of entertainment, lasting two or three hours.

These oratorios, along with those of Handel, are the staples of amateur choral groups who often present regular series of choral works with orchestra. Groups like this also perform the Masses of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, which vary in scope from small compositions that can be performed by good church choirs to major works that require the economic and human resources of a major orchestra and chorus.

The Late Romantic Period

Vienna continued to be a center of symphonic composition and performance in the second half of the century. Johannes Brahms emerged as the most important composer of orchestral music in the 1870s. He composed four extraordinary symphonies that are in the repertory of every major orchestra and have been recorded hundreds of times. In addition to his symphonies, Brahms composed a number of other orchestral pieces, the most famous of which is his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which takes the theme and variation form to new heights. Brahms's adherence to traditional forms and his avoidance of programmatic associations account for his reputation as the most classic of the great Romantic composers. Brahms also composed two magnificent piano concertos and the best violin concerto of the period. He wrote no opera.

Brahms's first work to achieve wide recognition was his German Requiem, a large work for chorus, orchestra, and soloists that ranks as one of the great masterpieces of Romantic vocal music. Instead of using the traditional Latin liturgical text of the requiem mass, Brahms drew his text from Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, choosing scripture associated with death and the life everlasting. There are seven movements, three of which feature the baritone and soprano soloist. Perhaps the best known and most often excerpted movement is the fourth, titled in English "How lovely is thy dwelling place," which can be sung as an anthem by a very good church choir. Choral societies and symphony choruses keep the Brahms Requiem in their repertoire, and there are many recordings available including the famous recording of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Biographical Sketch
The second son of Bernhard and Marie Hermann Mahler, Gustav Mahler was born in a small Bohemian village in 1860. At a young age, Mahler took private piano and music theory lessons and at the age of 15, he attended the Vienna Conservatory where he studied piano and composition. Soon after leaving the conservatory, he worked for five years as a conductor at various theatres including Bad Hall and in 1885 he accepted the conducting position at the Neues Stadttheater in Leipzig, Germany. During this short three-year tenure, Mahler conducted operas by Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner, and it was during this time that he began composing his two volumes of Lieder und Gesänge and most notably his first symphony.

Today we celebrate Mahler as a composer, but during his life he was primarily known as a conductor. He was appointed to several posts and conducted at some of the most important opera houses in Europe including the Royal Opera in Budapest, Stadttheater in Hamburg, and most importantly the Vienna State Opera House where his reputation as a conductor gained worldwide attention. Even though he took the Catholic baptism in 1897, Mahler was discriminated against for his Jewish heritage his entire life. In an effort to escape a pervading anti-semitism in the Viennese press, Mahler came to the United States near the end of his life in 1908 where he conducted the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the summers, Mahler spent his time almost exclusively composing. Even though he earned his living primarily conducting opera, Mahler never wrote one, and although he wrote a song cycle and several songs, he is mainly known for his 10 symphonies. Note that the 10th was left unfinished by the composer, but the nearly completed first movement is often performed.

Mahler's symphonies are dramatic, bold, and expansive in their scope and depth. Many of the symphonies have multiple movements (#3 has six movements) and last over an hour. They are tightly constructed with recurring motives and themes and exemplify German composition technique and craft. Although he exemplifies romanticism and its aesthetics, there are also many innovations in his music. Composers inspired by Mahler often revere his craft of orchestrating, or how instruments are chosen and combined. Additionally, Mahler's ability to create large dramatic musical shapes with limited musical material is another source of inspiration for many composers who came after him.

The largest of Mahler's symphonies is number 8, better known as the "Symphony of a Thousand." Although it is generally performed by fewer than 1000 performers, the size and scope of this work make it a challenge to produce. Part I of this symphony is a setting, in Latin, of the Pentecost hymn, "Veni creator spiritus". In Part II, Mahler sets the final scene of Goethe's Faust in a way that coalesces elements of cantata, oratorio, song cycle, tone poem, and symphony. The romantic idea of redemption and absolution through love is at the heart of this amazingly beautiful work -- a topic many romantic composers attempted to tackle. After its premiere, Mahler wrote to his wife, "it is all an allegory to convey something that, no matter what form it is given, can never be adequately expressed."

Symphony No. 1 in D Major
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ("The Resurrection")
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Symphony No. 5 in C# Minor
Symphony No. 6 in A Minor ("Tragic")
Symphony No. 7 in E Minor ("Song of the Night")
Symphony No. 8 in Eb Major ("Symphony of a Thousand")
Symphony No. 9 in D Major
Symphony No. 10 in F# Major
Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth")
Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children")

*note about tonal keys: Although it is common to prescribe a key for each of Mahler's symphony, these works often use non-traditional progressive tonal schemes often ending in keys different from the beginning. For example, Symphony No. 5 begins in C# minor but ends in D Major. To avoid confusion, Mahler suggested to his publisher to omit the key signatures from the titles. The keys above indicate the starting tonal center and mode for each symphony.

Lieder un Gesänge Volumes 1-3
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

A Bohemian contemporary of Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, also occupies a major place among symphonists of the period. He composed nine symphonies in addition to a great deal of music in other genres. His Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" is one of the most popular symphonic works ever composed and is often performed. There are many recordings available—some good ones on budget labels.

Another Viennese composer of note is Anton Bruckner, whose nine symphonies effectively incorporate the musical language of Richard Wagner into the structure of the symphonic form. All of the expressive and impressive gestures and devices associated with Wagnerian opera, such as rich chromatic harmony, wide dynamic range, and colorful orchestration, are found in Bruckner's symphonic music. His Symphony No. 7 is particularly engaging, and many listeners find the second theme in the first movement extremely attractive. Under Solti, the Chicago Symphony became famous for their interpretations of Bruckner, which provides a showcase for the brass section. Like Brahms, Bruckner composed no operas.

Another prolific symphonist associated with the Austrian capital in the late 19th century is Gustav Mahler. His nine symphonies also tend to feature the brass sections of the orchestra, and the CSO is still considered the finest exponent of them in the world. Mahler was also a great cosmopolitan conductor and was at one time music director of the New York Philharmonic. All of his symphonies are immensely popular and have been often recorded. The Eighth, also called the "Symphony of a Thousand" employs an oversize orchestra, orchestra, a giant chorus, children's choir, and soloists. The opening movement is based on the text Veni Creator Spiritus, a hymn from the liturgy of the feast of Pentecost. The last movement has a German text taken from the last five lines of Goethe's Faust. This symphony represents the apogee of German Romanticism. It is somewhat ironic that Mahler, a great opera conductor, composed no music for the stage.

The last composer in this Viennese line is the great Richard Strauss, also one of the eminent conductors of the late 19th and early 20th century. In contrast to Mahler, Strauss is better known for his operas and tone poems than for symphonies. His one-movement programmatic works like "Death and Transfiguration" and "Don Juan" bring the art of representational music to its highest peak, and his operas are considered among the greatest of the German repertoire. Salome, based on the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, scandalized polite society with its portrayals of debauchery, incest, and murder. Der Rosenkavalier, on the other hand, cloaks the decadent conventions of fin de siècle society in some of the most sumptuous music ever composed for the stage.

Besides his operas, Giuseppe Verdi composed some sacred music. His Four Sacred Pieces are extraordinarily sensitive a cappella settings of Latin texts associated with the Blessed Virgin. More often performed is his Requiem Mass, which makes use of the liturgical Latin text of the mass of the dead. Verdi's music is frankly operatic, calling for the same voices that would sing Il Trovatore or Aida and a large chorus and orchestra. The music is sublime.

In addition to Italian opera and German orchestral music, the student of Romantic music must know Russian music of the period. The greatest Russian composer is of course Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who excelled in every genre. His six symphonies are comparable in quality and profundity to those of the greatest German masters. Symphonies No. 4, 5, and 6 are undisputed masterpieces that are in the repertoire of every major orchestra. Perhaps no work captures the depths of melancholy as well as the Symphonie Pathetique (No. 6).


Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Better known to the general public are Tchaikovsky's shorter orchestral works like the 1812 Overture and the Marche Slave, both of which make use of Russian hymns and folk tunes. His two piano concertos are perennial favorites with symphony patrons, and his Violin Concerto is a fine vehicle for the virtuoso. Fans of the Russian piano concerto also appreciate the four concertos composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff; the second is the most popular. Russian conservatories have always excelled at training great pianists, and the Tchaikovsky Competition remains among the most prestigious of all contests.

Russian composers, and particularly Tchaikovsky, excelled in composing music for the ballet. Works like The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake became immensely popular all over Europe and remain so today. Symphonic suites drawn from these ballet scores are frequently heard at symphonic concerts and have been often recorded. Arranging favorite numbers from ballets, operas, and incidental music for the concert hall became a standard practice, and the composers themselves often made or approved the suites.

A very popular Russian symphonic suite in a programmatic vein is Scheherazade, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This colorful four-movement work portrays characters and situations from 1001 Arabian Nights. If you like music with a story, then you will love this work. There are many good recordings available.

Russian composers from the 18th century on have excelled in creating music for worship. The liturgical music of the Russian Orthodox Church features large a cappella choirs often singing in 8-12 parts. The deep basses give the music a solemn mystical quality appropriate to the Orthodox style of worship. Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov set the texts of the Divine Liturgy and the All-Night Vigil (Vespers).

Chamber music continued to be composed and performed all over Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Most major composers essayed the string quartet, but combinations with winds and piano also became popular. Brahms's two piano trios and the Clarinet Quintet are especially fine. Brahms also excelled at writing solo sonatas for the piano, the cello and the violin. Once again, notice his predilection for classical forms.

Vocal chamber music is no less important, and composers from Brahms to Richard Strauss make important contributions to the recitalist's repertoire. The
German Lieder of Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler are also important in this genre. French composers like Faure and Debussy set great poetry of artists like Paul Verlaine to create a body of French art song known as melodie.


Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet (1840-1926)

One of the most remarkable repertoires of orchestral music was created by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Like their counterparts in the visual arts, these Parisian composers sought to create a more subtle landscape by blurring lines and choosing softer colors. In music this is done by avoiding the "hard" chord progressions of functional harmony and the diatonic scales of common practice music. Debussy favored more exotic scales like the modal, the pentatonic and whole-tone scales. A master of orchestration, he also excelled at using timbre in subtle and often onomatopoetic ways. Listen to his Nuages (Clouds) from the Nocturnes or the tone poem called La Mer, which depicts the sea at different times of day. Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a wonderful impressionist score based on a poem by Mallarmé. You won't find a work called Symphony No 1 by an impressionist; they prefer representational titles. Their music is like film music for the cinema of your mind!

Debussy also excelled at evoking exotic locations. The Catalan composer Manuel de Falla called Debussy the greatest composer of Spanish orchestral music. Listen to Debussy's "Iberia" from Images! Another great Spanish piece by a French composer is Emmanuel Chabrier's España.

If you love the piano, listen to Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a marvelously evocative and impressionistic three-movement work for solo piano and orchestra Falla's ballet score called The Three-Cornered Hat, is a favorite in the concert hall and the theatre.

Romantic Opera

Two of the five greatest opera composers in history were contemporaries: Verdi and Wagner were both born in 1813. The other three are Monteverdi, Mozart, and Puccini.

Giuseppe Verdi & Richard Wagner
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
In 1813 two of the greatest opera composers in Western music history were born: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Verdi and Wagner created the most daring, most beautiful and most significant operas of the Nineteenth Century and in the process strongly influenced the course of Western music. Since the middle of the 1850s their work has stood as the cornerstone of operatic repertory and for many even today defines what opera is.

Yet, Verdi and Wagner had little to do with each other and barely acknowledged each other's existence. Each was immersed in his musical tradition and championed his own national heritage. Both came to represent the national style of his culture and both played a huge role in moving Western Music in new directions. Each was revered in his own country. But, the paths they followed were remarkably different.

Italian opera is dominated by Verdi (1813-1901) from the mid 1840's until the end of the Nineteenth Century. Verdi began where his countrymen, Donizetti and Bellini, left off. Melody, principally sung by a solo voice, is the primary vehicle of musical expression. Operas are structured by organization into distinct scenes that are clearly divided into recitatives (which supply the information to understand the action of the drama) and arias (which supply the emotion and beautiful melody). The orchestra essentially accompanies the vocal solos and remains in the background. Dramatic expression is delivered through the timbre of the singers' voices together with colorful harmony and instrumentation and distinctive rhythms.

In the earlier operas of Verdi formal structure begins to loosen in order to serve dramatic needs. The principle of separate numbers and scenes remains. But, Verdi begins to combine choruses with arias, insert sections of stark contrast into the musical context of scenes as well as vary their organization, and increase the role of the orchestra to a far greater degree than was common in Italian operas from the first few decades of the Nineteenth Century.

Verdi's late operas, in contrast, offer a continuity of dramatic action and music. Although there are still recitatives, arias and scenes, these are now connected by recurring motifs such as "the kiss" motif in Otello and orchestral transitions as in the beginning of the final scene in Falstaff. Melody is now far more dramatic, noble and flexible than in Verdi's earlier operas. It interweaves with a much more colorful and active orchestra, more fluid harmonies and strong rhythmic motifs that help to characterize scenes. Dramatic declamation as in the scene in which Otello murders Desdemona, is now an important part of Verdi's style. This kind of free, passionate, exceptionally dramatic melodic style had not been present in Italian opera since its beginnings with Monteverdi in the early Seventeenth Century.

Verdi was a supreme master of the theatrical and the dramatic. All of his operas present characters who find themselves in conflicts that audiences understand viscerally and find cathartic: Radames loving the daughter of his country's arch enemy in Aida, Rigoletto vainly trying to protect his daughter, Gilda, from the evil Duke in Rigoletto. His genius was to make these stories and characters heroic and overflowing with human passion. The struggles Verdi portrayed in his operas became inspirational symbols to his countrymen, who struggled against the oppression and tyranny leveled against them by occupying forces. Verdi became a national hero and his operas became rallying cries for Italian nationalism. Verdi's true legacy, however, is that he created human dramas that are expressed directly and simply through melody of exceptional power.

In the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) German national and artistic ideals find their most developed expression. His early works through the opera Lohengrin in 1846-1848 represent the culmination of nineteenth century German Romantic style. The later operas beginning with Das Rheingold, 1853-1854, the first opera in the monumental cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, embrace entirely new concepts of dramatic organization, fundamental understandings of what an opera is and how it is created and basic music theory – chromatic harmony and "endless melody." Wagner is the only important composer in Western Music history whose writings outside the field of music are considered important. To understand Wagner's music it is critical to understand his philosophy of art in general and of drama in particular. Wagner pursued his thoughts about art and drama with ruthless thoroughness. The basis of his aesthetic is a rigorous artistic morality. The ideas that art supersedes all conventions in the theater and that audiences exist to appreciate art underlie all of his work. These are ideas drawn from the eighteenth century German philosopher, Hegel, and transformed to suit Wagner's view. They place art on the level of a religion. For Wagner art is existence.

Wagner believed in the unity of drama and music. To further this vision he controlled the creation of all aspects of his operas. He wrote the librettos, he designed the stage sets and the costumes, he created the stage directions and he composed the music. He even designed and oversaw the building of his own opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, for the production of his operas. Only by creating all of the artistic elements needed for the production of a work could he create his vision – a total work of art – a "Gesamtkunstwerk," the term Wagner wished to use in referring to his operas.

Wagner also helped transform thinking about music composition, particularly in opera. In Lohengrin Wagner's orchestration is full, but subdued. The music flows continuously with few stops for separate numbers. Choruses are combined with solos and orchestral music into long, unified scenes. Melody is declamatory and arioso (vocal pieces that combine aria and recitative, common in early opera, but absent until Wagner) can be found frequently. Recurring themes that represent important ideas, people, places and things in the text appear. Motifs that are associated with Lohengrin, the Grail and the forbidden question are heard throughout the opera. Tonality is used to help organize the music and coordinate it with the text. For example, when Lohengrin sings the key is usually A Major. When Elsa, his wife, sings the key is almost always A-flat or E-flat Major. When the evil characters sing the key is generally F-sharp Minor.

In Der Ring des Niebelungen the concept of recurring themes is expanded into what Wagner called Leitmotifs (musical themes associated with a particular person, thing, place or emotion as in Lohengrin, but now expanded to include all of these that are important in the drama). Leitmotifs function to identify things that are important in the drama, and also to create coherence within the continuously flowing music and drama. Usually leitmotifs appear in the orchestra when the subject is first mentioned. After that, whenever the subject is referred to again, the musical leitmotif reappears, unifying the music and highlighting the subject in the context of the drama.

Leitmotifs act as the basic material for Wagner's creation of "endless melodies." Unlike classic forms which depend on balanced phrases set off by cadences from one another, Wagner's forms depend on leitmotifs, their development, variation and combination with each other and the connective material that links them to create a "musical prose," as he put it, to replace symmetrical phrases with poetic rhythms (iambic, dactylic, etc.). The result is an unbroken, continuous musical line that reshapes musical syntax.

This style culminates in Tristan und Isolde. The musical line that begins in the Prelude to the opera never ends until the final notes of the Liebestod at the very end of the work (more than four hours later). To a large extent this continuity is created by Wagner's new and extremely personal style of harmony that tears apart traditional concepts of tonal harmony. Here Wagner utilizes complex chromatic alterationsInformationa chord alteration is taking one of the diatonic notes which "belong", and replacing it with one that doesn't. Previous composers would sneak alterations in to make changing keys sound less abrupt to the listener. of chords together with constantly shifting keys and the telescoping of chord resolutions and the blurring of chord progressions with suspensions and non-harmonic tones to produce a new, ambiguous type of tonality. Wagner's new tonality breaks with the clear contrasts and functions of chords in common practice tonality and can be seen from an historical perspective as the first step toward the ultimate breakdown of the tonal system around the turn into the Twentieth Century.

Wagner based all of his operas on legends, myths and symbolism. In doing this he was the antithesis of Verdi and his sense of humanism. Few composers tried to imitate Wagner's librettos or their subject matter. But, Wagner's great ideas, the Gesamtkunstwerk, his style of writing continuous music, the "endless melody," the extensive use of leitmotifs, the dramatic importance of the orchestra in conveying the story of a work and his new concepts of addressing tonality, were copied and recopied by composers throughout the late Nineteenth and the early Twentieth Century and set the stage for new directions in Western music in the Twentieth Century.

Verdi inherited the mantle of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti and composed 26 operas between 1839 and 1893. All but one or two are serious or tragic in nature. The best known are:
All these have Italian librettos. The libretto is the text that the composer sets to music. Very few composers wrote their own librettos, but many, like Verdi, collaborated with the poet in shaping the drama.

Richard Wagner is the exception to the rule. Once he reached his artistic majority he wrote all his own librettos—in German. His early operas (e.g., Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman had prepared him for the creation of his music dramas, which include:
Wagner's operas call for the integration of music, drama, literature, dance, and visual art to produce what he called his "Gesamtkunstwerk"InformationWagner sought to combine every form of art into the theatre, combining them into something greater still. or complete works of art. Performances typically last four to six hours and call for enormous human and economic resources to produce. Because they call for heroic voices, they are difficult to cast. The orchestra frequently numbers more than a hundred players, and the operas feature extended orchestral passages that have become standard repertoire of symphony orchestras. The Death March and Forest Murmurs from Siegfried and the Preludes to Tristan and Die Meistersinger are good examples.

Wagner can certainly be counted as one of the most influential composers in history because his musical language was emulated by several succeeding generations of composers. His rich chromatic harmonyInformationWhen diatonic scales and chords are interspersed with out-of-key tones to the point that the tonal center itself becomes blurred, it became known as chromaticism in the hands of composers like Wagner and Chopin. and lush orchestral scoringInformationScoring is how a composer or arranger will assign music parts to instruments in an ensemble. Usually, a composer starts with the melody, harmony, and rhythm in a single score, and this piece is then broken down into various parts for whatever instruments will be performing it. served as a model for Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler. It is generally understood that his expansion of chromatic harmony paved the way for the atonalInformation"Without tonic." Music written that does not gravitate toward a specific pitch. revolution of the 20th century.

 While Wagner died in 1883, Verdi lived into the 20th century but only composed two operas in his later years—the two Shakespeare works mentioned above. The next big name in Italian opera is Giacomo Puccini. His best-loved works are in the repertoire of every major opera company: La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot. These operas are among the most popular with opera goers and are good choices for persons attending their first opera. The leading roles in them are the meat and potatoes many famous opera singers. In fact, Verdi and Puccini roles are the goal of every aspiring opera singer and integral to a major singing career. Enrico CarusoInformationCaruso (1873-1921) was a famous Italian tenor and one of the first opera singers to be commercially recorded. He made nearly 300 recordings over the course of his short 25 year career and is celebrated by many as the greatest tenor that ever lived. premiered some of Puccini's operas.

Besides the Italian and German operas, there are also a number of important French ones. Bizet's Carmen is perhaps the most popular of all operas. Its music is so popular that two orchestral suitesInformationA suite is when a musical accompaniment is separated from its original format (opera, ballet, etc.) and performed in a concert hall. have been made from it for performance in concert halls. Another masterpiece of the French repertory is Gounod's Faust, based on the literary masterpiece of Goethe. It contains a lot of gorgeous music and some devilish scenes that please audiences.

If you've ever been to an opera, you know that it is performed in a theatre with a pit orchestra. No microphones or loudspeakers are used. A legitimate operatic voice must possess range, beauty, and sufficient power to be heard over a 60-piece orchestra in a 2000 seat hall. The Civic Opera House in Chicago seats about 3400, and the Met over 4000. Electronic amplification is incompatible with genuine operatic performance.

Of course, microphones are essential for recordings, and they are also used when performances are given outdoors. Only in the last 20 years or so have concerts been given in baseball stadia and arenas seating 50,000 people. No voice could carry such a space without amplification. Only the microphone made it possible for Placido DomingoInformationDomingo (born 1941) is a celebrated Spanish tenor and conductor whose career spans nearly 60 years. He has sang nearly 150 different operatic roles and performed in every major opera house in the world. Domingo is one of the greatest tenors of all time. to sing a duet with John Denver.

All the operas mentioned are available on CD recordings and most of them on video. Because opera is music drama, the video gives a much more complete impression of the art form. Students may enjoy Franco Zeffirelli's films of La Traviata, Otello, and Carmen, all of which star Placido Domingo. You can find these "opera movies" at some some rental stores and for sale online. A different kind of experience is the videotape of a live performance in the theatre. These give a much truer impression of the art form but may not appeal to the general public or the neophyte as much as the opera movies. Both varieties usually contain English subtitles.

Opera in English translation is a controversial performance practice. Most real opera fans want to hear the music sung in the original language, even if they aren't fluent in it, because Italian, French, and German each has its own particular musical quality that is integrated with the music. Translations, particularly from Italian or French, are hard to sing and don't sound as good as the original. Still, there are a few companies, mostly smaller ones, that perform all their productions in English translation. The Chicago Opera Theatre is an example of this. Every opera performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is given in the original language. International singers are engaged for the roles.

Several Russian operas are among the works regularly produced by American opera companies. Tchaikovsky composed eleven operas, two of which are in the standard repertoire. Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are both based on the works of Pushkin, the poet laureate of Russia. As you might expect, these operas are filled with beautiful melodies and lush orchestration. Another Russian opera often performed in the United States is Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, also on a text by Pushkin, but loosely based on historical events. Borodin's Prince Igor is occasionally revived. Like Boris, it was completed and scored by Rimsky-Korsakov, who composed a number of operas himself, the best-known of which is The Snow Maiden.


Opened in 1876, the Bayreuth festival and opera house were designed to promote and present the works of Wagner.

Chapter 7 Music for Listening