You Gotta Know These Romantic-Era Composers
- Franz Schubert (1797–1828) was an early Romantic composer from Vienna whose relatively short life largely overlapped with that of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Schubert wrote over 600 lieder, or German art songs. These lieder include works notable on their own, such as his Op. 1 “Die Erlkönig”; the two song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise; and lieder which he used as the basis for theme and variations movements in other namesake works, such as the “Trout” Quintet (for piano and string quartet, based on his lied “The Trout,” or “Die Forelle”). Schubert’s orchestral output included numerous symphonies, the most well-known of which are No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished” (so named because Schubert only ever completed two movements), and No. 9 in C major, known as the “Great C Major” (in part to distinguish it from No. 6, the “Little C Major”).
- Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) was the most prominent French composer of the early Romantic. His best-known work, the programmatic Symphonie fantastique (subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist”), was inspired by his obsession with the actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz would later marry (and divorce). The work, whose movements include vivid depictions of a “March to the Scaffold” and a “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” uses a recurring melody known as an idée fixe. Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is a work for solo viola and orchestra, which the composer claimed was inspired in part by Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Harold in Italy was commissioned by Niccolò Paganini, who subsequently abandoned the project because he felt that the viola was not sufficiently showcased, and who never performed the work. Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens (based on the Aeneid), is a massive production that—while never completely performed while Berlioz was alive—is now often listed among the greatest operas ever written.
- Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) was a German musical prodigy who completed his first symphony when he was only 15 years old. Mendelssohn’s five completed, published symphonies are numbered for the order in which they were published, not the order in which they were written. His “Italian” (No. 4 in A major) and “Scottish” (No. 3 in A minor) symphonies were inspired by his travels in the namesake countries. Mendelssohn’s journey through Scotland included a trip to Fingal’s Cave, which inspired his “Hebrides” Overture, whose theme he sketched on a postcard to his sister Fanny (who was also a composer). When Mendelssohn was 17 years old, he wrote a concert overture inspired by Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream; many years later, he wrote a complete set of incidental music for the play, including his famous “Wedding March.” Mendelssohn’s non-orchestral music includes eight books of Songs Without Words for solo piano.
- Robert Schumann (1810–1854) was a German composer and music critic who identified and promoted many of the other best-known composers of the 19th century. Schumann edited Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (“New Journal for Music”) and lauded the music of Frederic Chopin and Johannes Brahms while both were relatively unknown. Schumann’s early music mainly consisted of works for solo piano, such as Carnaval, which features a musical cryptogram. In 1841, he began to write orchestral music; his four completed symphonies include No. 1 in B-flat major, “Spring,” and No. 3 in E-flat major, the “Rhenish.” Schumann married Clara Wieck, the daughter of Friedrich Wieck, Schumann’s piano teacher, and a virtuoso pianist and composer in her own right. Schumann battled mental illness throughout much of his life; he spent the last two years of his life in a mental asylum after attempting and failing to commit suicide.
- Franz Liszt (1811–1886) was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer who created a sensation with his performance tours across Europe, spawning a phenomenon that was given the nickname “Lisztomania.” Among Liszt’s innovations in the performance space, he was the first pianist to give solo concert-length recitals, playing entirely from memory. As a composer, Liszt was seen as the head of a more progressive “New German School” of music. His music for the piano includes the notoriously-difficult Transcendental Études and the Hungarian Rhapsodies, which are based on Hungarian folk music. Liszt wrote numerous works inspired by the tale of Faust, including a Faust Symphony and a set of Mephisto Waltzes. Liszt is also generally credited with inventing the orchestral genre of the symphonic poem or tone poem, a form later taken up by Richard Strauss; Liszt’s own works in this genre include Les préludes.
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) was one of the most prolific and successful Italian opera composers of the Romantic period, and his operas include some of the most performed works in the repertoire. Aida is the tale of a captive Ethiopian princess (who longs for her homeland in the aria “O patria mia”) who falls in love with the Egyptian general Radamès. Rigoletto tells the story of a hunchbacked jester who seeks revenge on the womanizing Duke of Mantua (who sings “La donna è mobile”), but instead ends up causing the death of his own daughter, Gilda. Verdi’s late operas include two masterpieces based on the works of Shakespeare: Otello and Falstaff, the latter of which was both Verdi’s last opera and his only successful comedy. Verdi’s most successful non-operatic work is his Requiem, whose “Dies irae” movement has seen wide use in popular culture.
- Richard Wagner (1813—1883) was the most influential German opera composer of the 19th century. Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle—consisting of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)—tells the story of a magical ring forged by the Nibelung (dwarf) Alberich, which Alberich curses after it is stolen by Odin; the second of these operas includes the orchestral excerpt “Ride of the Valkyries.” Wagner’s other operas include Lohengrin, the tale of a knight who arrives in a boat pulled by a swan, and which includes a “Bridal Chorus” popularly known as “Here Comes the Bride”; and Tristan and Isolde, whose prelude begins with an iconic chord (which has become known as the “Tristan chord”) that is often cited as a break with common practice-era harmony. The annual Bayreuth Festival (in Bayreuth, Germany) showcases performances of Wagner’s works. Wagner was a virulent antisemite; Alberich, the villain of the Ring Cycle, is a racist caricature of a Jewish person.
- Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) is often described as one of the “Three B’s” of classical music, along with J. S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, and his output covered the entire gamut of genres. Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor is nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth” due to the final movement’s resemblance to the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth. Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in F major is based on a three-note F–A–F motto, representing the phrase “Frei aber froh,” or “Free but happy.” His Ein deutsches Requiem, or A German Requiem, is a non-liturgical concert work for chorus and orchestra. Brahms was also a prolific composer of chamber music, writing numerous sonatas and trios. His Op. 49 No. 4 “Wiegenlied” is commonly known as “Brahms’ Lullaby.” During his lifetime, Brahms was often viewed as the head of a more conservative school of music relative to composers like Wagner and Liszt.
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was a Russian composer of the Romantic era whose ballets The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty are all among the most performed works in the standard repertoire. Tchaikovsky completed six numbered symphonies and an unnumbered symphony based on Lord Byron’s poem Manfred. Although he was not a part of the group of nationalistic Russian composers known as “The Mighty Five,” it was Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with the Five’s leader Mily Balakirev that led to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, an “overture-fantasy” whose love theme has become ubiquitous in popular culture. His 1812 Overture, a programmatic work depicting Napoleon’s army being driven out of Russia, quotes the melodies of “God Save the Tsar” and “La Marseillaise,” and calls for cannons to be fired in the score. Tchaikovsky was gay, and many have speculated that his death shortly after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique,” was effectively suicide.
- Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) was a Czech composer who, ironically, wrote his two best-known works while living in America. From 1892 to 1895, Dvořák was the director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music; while living in the U.S., he wrote his Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) and his “American” String Quartet (No. 12). The “New World” symphony is among the most popular and oft-performed works in the standard repertoire; its Largo second movement begins with an iconic English horn solo that was later adapted into the song “Goin’ Home.” Dvořák claimed that the material of the symphony was inspired by the styles of both African-American and Native American melodies, though all of the actual music is Dvořák’s own. Dvořák’s other works include two sets of Slavonic Dances, which are based on various styles of folk music—but no actual folk melodies—from Dvořák’s native Bohemia, including the dumka and the furiant.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.