Radical Romantics

Radical Romantics created new ways to organize their music.  They believed that Classical forms were not appropriate to the nature of Romanticism.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Franz Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary.   He had a prodigious talent and was concertizing by the time he was a teenager.  However, he felt that he needed better instruction in order to be an artist of the highest caliber.  The city fathers raised money for Liszt to study in Vienna.  Liszt studied with Czernywho had been a student of Beethoven.  While with Czerny, he ceased performing in order to build his musicianship and technique.

During his teenage years, Liszt entertained the thought of becoming a priest.  His mother discouraged this idea because she knew that Liszt would become a great concert pianist.  It was also around this time that Liszt attended a concert of Niccolo Paganini. Paganini was a super-virtuoso, and Liszt was amazed at his technique and artistry.  Liszt decided to develop his technique to the point that he could become the Paganini of the piano.  The result was that Liszt became possibly the best pianist who has ever lived.  He was also unparalleled in his popularity and charisma.

Liszt never married.  He had several affairs, including one with George Sand.  He and the Countess Marie d’Agoult lived together for a number of years and had three children.  Countess d’Agoult was a married woman.  Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, married Hans von Bulow, a conductor, and then later left him to marry Richard Wagner.  Liszt and Countess d’Agoult later parted ways, rather bitterly.

In 1848, Liszt became director of music in Weimar. Liszt served as composer, performer, and organizer of musical events.  He influenced the musical taste of the public.  He worked with Wagner on “The Music of the Future.”  Liszt premiered works of Wagner, Berlioz, and other current composers.  He used his money and influence to assist promising composers.  It was at this time that Liszt had another affair with Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.  The princess was a writer, and she assisted Liszt with his books, the most well-known of which was “The Life of Chopin.”

Liszt eventually became a priest.  He had thought about becoming a clergyman as far back as his teenage years.  He took four orders.  They were:  lector, porter, acolyte, and exorcist.  Lectors were people who were teachers, porters moved equipment, acolytes assisted with Mass, and exorcists could rid the soul of the devil.  These orders allowed Liszt to focus on composing, teaching, and assisting other composers.

Liszt had three children.  Liszt was deeply saddened when two of his three children died within a year of each other.  It is believed that his children’s deaths were a motivating factor for him to finally join the church.  Cosima went on to marry Hans von Bulow and then to marry Richard Wagner.  Cosima was talented.

About five years before Liszt’s death, he fell down the stairs in a hotel.  Liszt may have experienced a stroke.   After this point, Liszt’s work diminished.  His health deteriorated and he died at the age of 75.

Liszt wrote a huge amount of music in every form.  Some of it was not good, but many of his pieces are considered masterworks.  As Liszt grew in his musicianship, he edited some of his piano pieces to make them easier and more direct.  In his younger years, some of Liszt’s music was so difficult that it was unplayable by average concert pianists.  Sometimes he removed whole pages of music.

Liszt was arguably the greatest pianist of all time.  His recitals could be long, with many encores.  Liszt originated the idea of placing the piano sideways on the stage.  Liszt originated the idea of the solo recital.

Liszt originated the compositional technique called thematic transformation.  Liszt used a motive (a few notes) or several motives, and varied them throughout the piece. Vallee d’Obermann is one of Liszt’s piano masterpieces.  It uses three motives that are presented in the first four measures.  These motives are then transformed by through changing registers, rhythms, accompaniment, and tempo.  The motives can be presented in inversion.

Wagner and Berlioz used variants of this technique, as well.  Liszt called it “The Music of the Future.”  The Schumanns hated Liszt.  They wrote scathing articles in The Neue Zeitschrift about Liszt.  Liszt influenced many composers after him, including Debussy, who utilized the upper registers of the piano as Liszt had done.  His music is usually programmatic and usually employs descriptive titles.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Born in Southern France, near Grenoble, Berlioz came from a well-to-do family.  His father was a physician, and Berlioz himself was sent to Paris to study medicine.  He neglected his medical studies, and managed to enter the Conservatoire in spite of the fact that he was almost completely self-taught.  This angered his father, and Berlioz was disowned.  In 1830, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome after many attempts.

Berlioz had difficulty in having his music performed.  It was difficult and unusual.  Berlioz found new ways to write for the orchestra.  He became a music critic in 1835, and he was on the staff of the library at the Conservatoire until his death.  Berlioz wrote a book on orchestration in 1844.

Berlioz wrote chiefly in the symphonic medium and he composed generally large-scale works.  His most well-known work was Symphonie Fantastique, first performed in 1830.  The work is in five movements.

1. Visions and Passions

2. A Ball

3. Scenes in the Country

4. March to the Gallows

5.  Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath

Berlioz threaded these movements together with an “idée fixe”.  This means “fixed idea”.  He created an unusual melody, which he varied to accommodate the different moods in the five movements.

There is a program associated with this symphony.  The story revolves around a man who is in love with a woman.  She refuses to love him, and he commits suicide by taking opium.  He does not take a lethal dose, and has vivid dreams, all revolving around the woman.  Berlioz at this time had fallen in love with Harriet Smithson, a singer.  The theme is sometimes referred to as “Harriet’s Theme.”  The final movement uses the Dies Irae as one of its themes.

Berlioz composed most of his well-known works when he was young.  He supported himself through music criticism and working in the library at the Conservatoire.  He was one of the bold innovators of the 19th Century.   He wrote large works, many of which are not performed today.  He composed what amounts to a viola concerto called “Harold in Italy.”   While not fully appreciated in his own day, Berlioz has been recognized as one of the great composers of the Romantic Period.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Wagner was in many ways.  He pioneered many new and unusual musical and theatrical ideas.  He had a huge influence on other composers, even into the later 20th Century.

Wagner was born in Leipzig.  His father died when Richard was a baby.  His mother then married an actor, painter, and playwright, Ludwig Geyer. Geyer encouraged Richard’s artistic inclinations.  Wagner was almost entirely self-taught.  In all, he had six months of instruction in music theory.  He went to the University of Leipzig, but dropped out.  At age 20, he became music director of a small opera house.  At age 23, he married Minna Planer.  At this time he produced his first operas.  As always, Wagner wrote his own libretto.

After this time, Wagner achieved his musical maturity.  He found a book called Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes.  The story is about a heroic figure of the 14th century.  This paved the way for Wagner’s general style in his operas.  Wagner tried to produce it in Paris, but was not successful.  These were years of poverty.  In 1841, he wrote and composed The Flying Dutchman.  Finally, Rienzi was accepted by the Dresden Opera.  It was very successful.  As a result, at age 30, Wagner was appointed conductor to the King of Saxony.  He continues the Dresden success with Tannhäuser (1843-45) and Lohengrin (1846-48).

Wagner wanted to reform opera.  He proposed his idea of The Music of the Future.  He wanted to turn opera into music dramas.  He was disappointed in the business of opera and theater.  He started working to achieve utopian art.  Minna, who was very pleased with being part of Dresden society, had no patience with it.

In 1848, Wagner got into trouble.  He became part of the German unification movement and be spokesman for a radical worker’s union.  He also published two articles:  “Man and Existing Society” and “The Revolution.”  A revolution broke out in Dresden in 1849, and the King of Prussia crushed the rebellion.  Wagner asked Liszt in Weimar for help.  He found out there was a warrant for his arrest.  He and Liszt travelled to Switzerland, where Wagner remained for a while until things had cooled off.  He settles in Zurich.  Minna is not amused.  Wagner felt more free than ever.

Wagner did not create opera for four years, but instead wrote political essays.  Wagner was anti-Semitic.  He wrote anti-Semitic essays, one of which is very pointed and expresses disgust and hatred. He also worked to further develop his style.  He writes Art and Revolution, The Work of the Future, and Opera and Drama. He proceeds to begin work on The Ring of the Nibelung.  He starts with Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods).  After he finished this opera, he realized that he needed an introductory opera, which he named SiegfriedDie Walkure was next, and last was Das Rheingold.  The operas are generally presented over four days and the total length is about 20 hours.  The whole story revolved around a gold ring.  He writes the librettos out of order, but after they are finished, he composes the operas in sequence.

He composed Tristan und Isolde (1857-59), Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (1862-67).  During this time period Minna left Wagner.  This was the darkest time in Wagner’s life.  He contemplated suicide.  Then, there was a miraculous turn of events.  Ludwig II of Bavaria came into power.  He was an admirer of Wagner’s music, and he summoned Wagner to Munich.  The king requested Wagner to complete the Ring.  Ludwig financed the building of a theater especially built to accommodate Wagner’s operas.  The result was the festival playhouse at Bayreuth.  The final piece of the puzzle came into place when Cosima von Bulow, nee Liszt, came to live with him. They were married years later, after Minna’s death.

Wagner’s fame spread across Europe by 1848.  It was almost a religion for some.  First Bayreuth Festival was in 1876.  The Ring cycle was completed in 1874, 26 years after Wagner began writing it.  It was presented at the first Bayreuth Festival.  Wagner was still in serious debt as a result of Bayreuth, and wrote Parsifal (1877-82) to make some money.  Wagner died a short while later and is buried at Bayreuth.

Wagner was responsible for many changes in theatrical presentations.  He originated the idea of darkening the theater.  He originated the idea for the orchestra pit.  He offered technical advancements to theaters.

Wagner used what was called The Leitmotif. Wagner composed a melody for each character and sometimes for inanimate objects.  This helped the audience remember the character.  Wagner would transform each melody as the opera progressed.

Quiz Questions:

  1. Compare and contrast idee fixe, Leitmotif, and thematic transformation. (3,3)
  2. How did the philosophy of the Radical Romantics differ from the philosphy of the Conservative Romantics?  How were they the same?
  3. What were the legacies of Liszt, Wagner, and Berloiz?  (6)