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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

72. Listening Recommendations – The Last of the Romantics

Gustav Mahler, one of the most significant late Romantics

Over the past two months, my listening has centered on the group of composers who brought the Romantic Era to its conclusion – those composers who I call THE LAST OF THE ROMANTICS. The Romantic Era which had begun in the shadows of the Napoleonic Wars with composers like Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Étienne Méhul, and the rest now concludes upon the eve of World War I a century later. Albeit, several of the most important composers in this conclusion have already been covered in my previous article A Survey of Nineteenth-Century Nationalism. These include Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Jean Sibelius – Rimsky-Korsakov for his profound influence on several of the great Modernists, Rachmaninoff for his unwavering devotion to Romanticism, and Sibelius as one of the chief representatives in the last flowering of the Romantic-Era symphony. Additionally, no one can deny the impact of either Richard Wagner or Franz Liszt on this last group of Romantics – in some sense, the composers I will discuss momentarily were almost all acting out some consequence of Wagner or Liszt’s radical innovations. Johannes Brahms as well had a crucial influence on several of these final Romantics – one which is sometimes overlooked since it is more difficult to trace than that of Wagner or Liszt.

Before we go any further, we must first define two important terms. The first is FUNCTIONAL TONALITY, a term referring to the set of practices that guided composers from the late seventeenth century until the opening of the twentieth century. This system evolved naturally with the central premise that certain chords would – in fact, should – resolve to other chords and eventually to a home chord – or “tonic chord,” as it was called. By the late nineteenth century, the chordal hierarchy had become increasingly complex, thanks in large part to Wagner and his intensified use of chromaticism to setup more complex associations between chords than had existed previously. Our second term – CHROMATICISM – occurs when a composer utilizes pitches which do not belong to the given scale. For example, the seven pitches belonging to the C major scale are the seven white keys within one octave on the piano; these seven are “diatonic” to C major while the five black keys are “chromatic.” Know, however, that the use of chromaticism is an essential feature to functional tonality and that composers including Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven all employed chromatic pitches in their music. By the late nineteenth century though, music had become increasingly chromatic, allowing many composers to create larger structures than ever before and leading others to question the very value of functional tonality. Although these two concepts underlie each of the four parts in this unit, they become especially important to the third and fourth when we arrive in France and central Europe, respectively.

PART I – ITALIAN OPERA: PUCCINI AND VERISMO. Following the premiere of his Aida in 1871, Giuseppe Verdi essentially went into retirement, writing significantly less new music over the remaining thirty years of his life. Interestingly, 1871 was also the year that Rome officially became the capitol of the Kingdom of Italy, completing the reunification process that Verdi himself had long supported through his music. Verdi’s famous Requiem Mass and the two Shakespeare operas – Otello and Falstaff – were, of course, still to come in these later years, but Italian opera largely moved on without him. Under the new leadership of Giacomo Puccini and other members of the younger generation, Italian opera became more concerned with everyday people and their everyday problems. This new emphasis in Italian opera has been labeled with the term verismo – Italian, for “true” – and is in contrast to much of the previous history of opera where plots revolve around monarchs, nobles, or other members of the wealthy class. Instead, an opera like Puccini’s La bohème centers on four starving artists all living under one roof while Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is about a comic troupe. The new operas also differed in terms of their musical language, and Puccini at least was a self-described Wagnerite. He used leitmotivs to represent different characters and ideas; he also blurred the distinctions between arias and recitatives, echoing Wagner’s concept of continuous melody. Despite his appropriation of Wagner’s structural elements, Puccini never compromised the longstanding tradition of Italian lyricism.

Listening Recommendations:

Leoncavallo, Ruggero (1857-1919): Pagliacci (Clowns) Listen Here!

Puccini, Giacomo (1858-1924): La bohème Listen Here!

Puccini, Giacomo (1858-1924): Tosca Listen Here!

Puccini, Giacomo (1858-1924): Turandot Listen Here!

PART II – THE BEGINNINGS OF GREAT BRITAIN’S MUSICAL RENAISSANCE. Not since the days of Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695) had there been any native-born British composers of international stature. For nearly two-hundred years until the opening of the twentieth century, Great Britain largely imported its music whether the composer of choice be George Frideric Handel, Johann Christian Bach, Joseph Haydn, Muzio Clementi, or Felix Mendelssohn. As the nineteenth century progressed, domestic composers like Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford began to rise in prominence at home, but not until Edward Elgar and the successful premiere of his Enigma Variations in 1899 could a British composer boast of an international reputation once more. Although the music’s language would change, the line of great British composers that began with Elgar would continue into the twentieth century and even to today. While Edward Elgar is the key figure in the Romantic facet of this renaissance, I also find myself considering other composers including the young Gustav Holst whose earliest music demonstrates a youthful admiration for Wagner. The unit also considers the various contributions made to British opera by William Vincent Wallace, George Alexander Macfarren, and most importantly the great comedies of that dynamic duo W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Listening Recommendations:

Sullivan, Arthur (1842-1900): The Pirates of Penzance Listen Here!

Sullivan, Arthur (1842-1900): The Mikado Listen Here!

Elgar, Edward (1857-1934): Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 Listen Here!

Elgar, Edward (1857-1934): Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 Listen Here!

Holst, Gustav (1874-1934): A Winter Idyll Listen Here!

PART III – FRANCE: PRELUDE TO IMPRESSIONISM. The composers active in France in the last two decades of the nineteenth century provide us with an interesting cross-section: while some of their compositions are still very much rooted in the languages of Wagner and Liszt, other works are beginning to foreshadow the harmonies of Claude Debussy. Even those that do sound more like Debussy though sound so because they are drenched in chromaticism unlike in the works of Debussy where harmonies are chosen for their color and not their place in the hierarchy of functional tonality. César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, and Paul Dukas are the main composers I consider in Part III. Franck alone captures the diversity of the era with works like his Symphony in D minor (a late work) echoing Liszt, his Violin Sonata in A major foreshadowing Debussy, and the organ compositions launching the great tradition of French symphonic organ music. As part of his contribution to the innovations in organ music at this time, Franck composed the very first symphony for solo organ – his Grande Pièce Symphonique modeled after the Symphony for solo piano created by Charles-Valentin Alkan. Charles-Marie Widor and other organist-composers would continue to create works in the new genre of the organ symphony. Fauré – like Franck before him – was on faculty at the Paris Conservatoire, and between them these two taught many of the most influential composers of the next generation, all the while solidifying the French Romantic tradition as a primarily academic one progressive in its harmonies but rooted in time-honored values like poetics, counterpoint, and form. At the very same time – and largely away from the Conservatoire – Debussy was beginning to make a mark of his own: it must not be forgotten that by the late 1880s Debussy was already heading in a different direction from the Romantics, a direction to be discussed in my next unit.

Listening Recommendations:

Franck, César (1822-1890): Grande Pièce Symphonique for organ Listen Here!

Franck, César (1822-1890): Prélude, chorale, et fugue for solo piano Listen Here!

Franck, César (1822-1890): Violin Sonata in A major Listen Here!

Franck, César (1822-1890): Symphony in D minor Listen Here!

Saint-Saëns, Camille (1835-1921): Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103 ‘Egyptian’ Listen Here!

Widor, Charles-Marie (1844-1937): Organ Symphony No. 6 in G minor, Op. 42 No. 2 Listen Here!

Fauré, Gabriel (1845-1924): Après un rêve (After a dream), Op. 7 No. 1 Listen Here!

Fauré, Gabriel (1845-1924): Pavane in F# minor, Op. 50 Listen Here!

Dukas, Paul (1865-1935): Symphony in C major Listen Here!

Dukas, Paul (1865-1935): Piano Sonata in Eb minor Listen Here!

Left to Right: Giacomo Puccini, Edward Elgar, and César Franck

PART IV – CENTRAL EUROPE: THE CULMINATION OF THE TONAL TRADITION. The influence of Wagner and Liszt was strongest in the central European countries of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. It was here, of course, that functional tonality had first emerged two hundred years earlier and – now propelled by the advances in chromaticism of Wagner and Liszt – the latest generation of central European composers were pushing tonality to its very bounds. Richard Strauss carried on Liszt’s legacy through his series of influential tone poems composed throughout the late 1880s and 1890s; later, opera occupied the majority of his time in the first decade of the 1900s and those which followed. Strauss’s tone poems and operas made use of heavy chromaticism, leitmotivs, and lush orchestration – all hallmarks of Wagner’s music, although Strauss pushed each of these elements even further in his works. The young Béla Bartók – although Hungarian – was deeply affected by the Germanic sound of Strauss, and one of his crucial works from this early stage is his tone poem Kossuth. Besides his interest in this Lisztian genre, Bartók also saw himself as a virtuoso pianist in the Lisztian mold and his interest in Hungarian folk music gives him even further ties to Liszt. The Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni also contributed to this last flourishing of the tonal tradition, creating a Piano Concerto on the same scale as Liszt’s Faust Symphony with a similar choral finale. Others active at the time included the organist-composer Max Reger who was based in Leipzig for much of his career as well as the young Paul Hindemith who eagerly embraced the chromaticism of Reger in his earliest works. In Vienna worked Gustav Mahler who was known in his day more as a conductor than as a composer, although his compositions definitely had their devotees. Despite that Mahler’s music always remained tonal, he greatly expanded the scale upon which tonal events could occur, writing symphonies that were often an hour or more in length and which could traverse huge distances without crumbling under their own weight. Besides Mahler, Vienna was also home to Alexander von Zemlinksy and his student, the precocious Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern were also getting their starts in Vienna at this time. Schoenberg would go even further than Strauss, Mahler, or the others in pushing tonality to its absolute breaking point. Before long, Schoenberg would declare that tonality could be developed no further than Mahler had in his Ninth Symphony of 1909, and afterwards Schoenberg would seek to create works that were totally chromatic in which no one pitch could have dominance over any other – finally doing away with the established rules of functional tonality.

Listening Recommendations:

Wolf, Hugo (1860-1903): Italian Serenade for string quartet Listen Here!

Mahler, Gustav (1860-1911): Symphony No. 1 in D major ‘Titan’ Listen Here!

Mahler, Gustav (1860-1911): Symphony No. 3 in D minor Listen Here!

Mahler, Gustav (1860-1911): Symphony No. 5 in C# minor Listen Here!

Mahler, Gustav (1860-1911): Symphony No. 6 in A minor ‘Tragic’ Listen Here!

Strauss, Richard (1864-1949): Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Op. 30 Listen Here!

Strauss, Richard (1864-1949): Ein Heldenleben (The Hero’s Life), Op. 40 Listen Here!

Busoni, Ferruccio (1866-1924): Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 39 Listen Here!

Reger, Max (1873-1916): Symphonic Fantasia and Fugue, Op. 57 for organ Listen Here!

Schoenberg, Arnold (1874-1951): Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 Listen Here!

Schoenberg, Arnold (1874-1951): Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, original version Listen Here!

Bartók, Béla (1881-1945): Kossuth, Sz. 21 Listen Here!

Berg, Alban (1885-1935): Piano Sonata, Op. 1 Listen Here!

Korngold, Erich Wolfgang (1897-1957): Piano Trio in D major, Op. 1 Listen Here!

WHAT’S NEXT? Although we have now reached the end of the Romantic Era, if we interpret the term “Romantic” in a broad sense, then Romanticism never truly ended: even today, many composers still employ its primary tenet that music is a personal expression of its creator’s thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, the composer as hero – as a representative of his times and his culture – necessarily ensues. Less obligatory is an adherence to the nineteenth-century musical vocabulary – namely, functional tonality – yet many of today’s Romantics also attempt to recreate the sound of that era. Although my next listening unit will begin the music of the twentieth century and Modernism, know that the idea of the Romantic artist-hero still pervaded much of Modern music – in fact, until after World War II when composers like John Cage and Pierre Boulez consciously challenged this notion, most of the century’s great innovators thought of themselves as the heroes of their new vocabularies. And, although my emphasis will be on the innovators, there were many composers who never truly broke with the old, tonal vocabulary of the nineteenth century or the era we identify as Romantic.

JSH 16.04.20

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a composer, music scholar, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across Central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson will remain active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. Jackson has in fact written program notes for many of Central Louisiana’s key music presenters, including the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, Arts Council of Central Louisiana, and Northwestern State University. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. Jackson has followed classical music around the world, including trips to Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival and the BachFest Leipzig in Germany. As a composer, he has worked to integrate a modern vocabulary into established classical forms in ways that are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. His four-movement Suite for solo guitar, Op. 21 received its world premiere on November 5, 2015 and has also been aired on public radio. In fall 2016, Jackson will begin graduate studies at the University of Louisville with the ultimate goal of earning his doctorate in musicology. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at

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