Conservative Romantics

Romanticism in occurred in music between the years 1810-1900, although there are arguments that Romanticism lasted into the first half of the 20th Century.

Romanticism began to take hold in the 1700’s for visual art and literature.  Composers often must develop new compositional styles to accommodate a new philosophy.  Romantic composers approached dissonance – sound that needs resolution — more freely and with less emphasis on the resolution and more emphasis on the drama contained in dissonant harmonies.  Melodically, composer gave the melody to one instrument or groups of instruments, rather than the shared melodies that were characteristic of the Classical Period.

The size of the orchestra grew to allow for more intensity and tone color.  New formal approaches were adopted, especially by the Radical Romantics.

Here are a few characteristics of Romanticism:

Rise in interest in the common man

Conflict between man and nature

Conflict between man and man

Interest in the supernatural

Inner conflict


Musical Romanticism

There were two groups of composers:

Conservative Romantics wanted to preserve old forms that were used in the Classical period.  This included symphony, sonata, chamber music, concerto.  The major composers of this group were Schumann, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.

Radical Romantics believed that the old forms did not lend themselves to the Romantic style, so they invented new ways to organize their music.   The major composers of this group were Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz.  Chopin can be included in this group, also, although much of his music uses traditional dance forms and his adaptions of Classical forms.

The rivalry between the two groups was promoted by the concert-going public.  Composers and critics would cause a fuss at concerts and would write negative reviews in publications.  It was a truly exciting time for music.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Schumann chose a musical path later in life than most of the great composers.  As a teenager he went to study piano with Frederick Wieck.  Wieck was an important teacher, and Schumann lived in the Wieck household while he studied.  Wieck had a daughter named Clara.  Robert and Clara fell in love.  They ask Frederick to get married.  Frederick would not allow the marriage. Frederick wanted Clara to have a career, and marriage was not what he wanted for Clara.  Also, Frederick didn’t think Robert would be a good provider.  Frederick was very opposed to the marriage, to the point of going to court to fight it.  The two were married the day after Clara turned 21.

Schumann had made a machine to help strengthen his fourth finger.  Instead, the machine hurt his hand to the point he couldn’t play.  So, he did what he had planned on doing anyway, and devoted his life to composition.

Schumann’s early works were his best works.  They showed imagination and creativity.  They were generally collections of shorter pieces.  As Schumann aged, his work became less imaginative.  There were two reasons for this.  First, Schumann’s intellectual powers were reduced by syphilis.  Second, Clara was more interested in larger works like sonatas and symphonies.

Schumann also founded a newspaper, the  Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, or The New Newspaper for Music.  In it, he used characters who were the “authors”.  Florestan was a male fictitious character.  Eusebius was a female fictitious character. He also had articles published under his own name, Clara’s name, and had other writers who contributed.  The Neue Zeitschrift still is published today.

After Schumann became ill, Johannes Brahms came to Clara’s rescue.  Brahms was a close friend of the family.  The relationship between Brahms and Clara is assumed to be platonic.  Clara was forced to go back to concertizing, and Brahms would take care of the household.   Clara was a virtuoso performer, and very famous.

In 1856, Schumann died of complications of syphilis.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg.  His childhood was poor.  Brahms’ father was a string bass player. He was the one who gave Brahms his first piano lessons. By age 10, Brahms was supplementing the poor family’s incomeby making money playing in the dance halls in the slum district where he grew up.

In 1853, Brahms went on a concert tour with the violinist, Remenyi.  It was during this tour that Brahms met Joseph Joachim, who we the premiere violinist in Europe at the time.  On this tour, he also met Liszt.

Joachim gave Brahms a letter of introduction to Robert and Clara Schumann. Schumann was immediately impressed by Brahms’ music, and he wrote an article in the Neue Zeitschrift that was a major stepping stone to Brahms’ career as a composer.  The Schumann’s invited Brahms to stay in their home during this time.   Five months later, Schumann suffered the mental collapse that resulted with his placement in an asylum near Bonn. Brahms helped Clara and her children during this difficult time.  Schumann lingered for two more years.  There are indications by letters that Brahms and Clara may have been in love.  This subsided and they became best friends.

Brahms left the Schumann’s home shortly after Robert’s death.  However, he and Clara remained close.  They did tours together, and Clara was a foremost proponent of Brahm’s music.  Brahms attempted to get an appointment as an official musician in Hamburg, but was denied the position.  Apparently, the city fathers never forgot that he grew up in the slums.

Brahms was moody.  Remained a bachelor his whole life.  His motto was “Free, but happy!”  Clara Schumann died in 1896 and Brahms wrote “Four Serious Songs” as a tribute.  Her death profoundly affected Brahms, who was already sick with cancer.  Brahms died 10 months later at the age of 64.  He was buried not far from Beethoven and Schubert.

Brahms did not compose opera.  He composed symphonies, concertos, chamber music, choral, and music piano and other solo instruments.  Since the piano was the most important instrument of this period, Brahms composed several pieces, including three sonatas, two concertos, several groups of solo pieces.  Brahms’ strongest suit was his use of harmony.  He was a traditionalist.  He didn’t write his first symphony until fairly late in his life.  The reason for this was that he existed in the shadow of Beethoven.

Brahms’ melodies have been criticized.  His skill with harmony, however, was unparalleled.  Brahms’ music is often dark.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Felix’s grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn.  Moses was a Jewish philosopher. Father Abraham Mendelssohn was successful, art-loving banker.  Lots of culture was in the household.  The family was Jewish, but converted to Christianity (Lutheran).  The family was not very devout.  Family took name of Bartholdy.  Sometimes you’ll see his name as Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.  The home was a meeting place for the wit and intellect of Berlin.  When Felix was a child, he began composing. His first pieces were called String Symphonies.  They are considered to be youthful works and are not considered when looking at Mendelssohn’s mature output.  Felix needed an orchestra, so his father hired one.  The String Symphonies are still performed today.  When he was 17, he composed overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  This is considered to be a mature work.

Thorough education.  Studied at the University of Berlin.  Devotee of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  In 1829, Mendelssohn financed and staged a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  A passion is the story of the death of Jesus Christ.  Turning point in the revival Bach’s music.  Bach became popular again because he was dramatic and intense like Romanticism was dramatic and intense.  Bach again achieved a popularity that has never gone away.

Mendelssohn excelled in several roles.  He was a pianist, conductor, composer, educator, and an organizer of events.  He had a huge public career and overworked himself, which led to his early death.  At 26, he became conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.  The Gewandhaus was an old orchestra in Leipzig.  It had operated in taverns, but the city father thought that taverns weren’t respectful enough places to be performing good music, so they were given a performance space in an old public building.  He transformed the orchestra into the finest in Europe.  The orchestra still exists today.

He founded an Academy of Music at the request of Frederick Wilhelm IV of Berlin.  He also founded the Conservatory of Leipzig.  He made 10 visits to England, where he was a great success.  He composed quickly, like Mozart.  Last major composition was the oratorio, Elijah.  An oratorio is an opera without scenery, sets, acting, or costumes.  His sister, Fanny, died six months before Felix died.  Felix died at the age of 38.

Test Questions:

  1. Discuss Florestan and Eusebius. (5)
  2. Discuss Robert and Clara Schumann’s marriage.  (5)
  3. Discuss Neue Zietschrift fur Musik. (3)
  4. Discuss the Schumann’s relationship with Brahms, (4)
  5. Discuss Mendelssohn’s revival of The St. Matthew Passion. (5)