A Short History | Early Romantic | Classical

The first half of the nineteenth century was essentially a period of insurgence in Europe, from the French Revolution in 1789 to the series of uprisings that rocked the continent around 1848. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was also underway, beginning in Britain, then spreading south through the rest of Europe.

With these two strands of revolution came transformations in society, including the growing awareness of national identity, social development, the growth of cities and important advances in technology, all of which were reflected by and embodied in the arts.

Culturally, the first two decades of the nineteenth century marked the rejection of the scientific certainty that had characterized the Enlightenment: classical balance, symmetry and simplicity were gradually replaced by Romantic expressivity, individualism and grand gestures. Distinctive traits (many of which derived from the writings of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau) included an interest in Nature, the supernatural, the relatively recent past (particularly the Middle Ages) and national and individual identity. Closer links were forged between the arts and social and political reality. In literature, Goethe’s Faust and the chivalric novels of Walter Scott were seen as embodying the sentiments of the age. Of all the arts, however, it was music, particularly absolute music, that came to be seen as the ideal means of expression, partly because of its wonderful ambiguous and indefinable quality.

Although classical structures were retained in music, they were expanded, and new ways to shock or move were sought. Thus opera increasingly used realistic settings and historical events for its subjects; orchestral music found itself inspired by varied literary or historical themes; and virtuoso concertos and intimate mood pieces focused on the expression of the individual. The most influential developments in opera took place in France and Italy, while instrumental music flourished in the German-speaking lands.

Key Events

1808 Part I of Goethe’s Faust published
1812 French invasion of Russia
1815 French defeated at Waterloo; Napoleon is exiled, the Bourbon monarchy is restored in France, and the Vienna Peace Settlement is signed; Johann Nepomuk Maelzel patents his metronome
1820 Revolts crushed in Naples, Spain and Portugal
1822 Start of Greek War of Independence, following uprising against the Turks the previous year
1824 Death of Byron at Missolonghi, fighting for the Greeks
1829 Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive built
1830 July Revolution in France: Louis-Philippe comes to the throne; Belgian revolt, reputedly sparked by a performance of Auber’s La muette de Portici; foundation of the Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire
1831 Michael Faraday discovers electromagnetic induction; circumnavigation by Charles Darwin
1832 Reform Bill in Britain; Metternich issues repressive decrees in Germany; Giuseppe Mazzini founds ‘La Giovane Italia’ with the aim of national independence for Italy; completion of first continental railway, from Budweis to Linz
1837 Death of William IV, succession of Victoria in Britain; Louis Daguerre invents the daguerreotype, the first practicable process of photography
1840 Death of Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, succession of Friedrich Wilhelm IV
1842 Verdi’s Nabucco performed; the chorus...

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