A Short History | Late Romantic | Classical

The political structure of Europe changed greatly during the second half of the nineteenth century. Germany and Italy became united countries under supreme rulers. The Habsburgs’ Austrian Empire, ruled from Vienna, became fragmented into Austria-Hungary.

The borders of this new confederation contained the cauldron of difficulties that eventually developed into the confrontations which culminated in World War I in 1914.

The sense of a changing world gradually led to greater polarity between those bent on reforms and those wanting to resist and suppress change. The growing sense of political frustration in some cases led to more radical attempts to alter the status quo, which invited more stringent measures to suppress them. In other cases it led to an intellectual and artistic removal from world affairs, a personal withdrawal from reality to private dreams, self-absorption or despair. The presence of powerful, often repressive, centres of government led to increasing demands for self-determination by subjugated parts of Europe, often inspired by musical and other nationalist works of art. In the earlier part of the nineteenth century, Germany had been challenging for the intellectual leadership of Europe, in instrumental music as well as in other fields. Now, in the latter part of the century, Germany used its own intellectual development to help define and secure its identity, and eventual unification, by an exploration of, and admiration for, its national folk-tales, ancient sagas and peasant ballads.

German intellectual and artistic dominance led many other national groups to distance themselves and follow other paths. These included Russia, Bohemia, Hungary, Great Britain and, in particular, France and Italy. Ironically, many of these movements grew from an investigation of their national pasts, an interest that had stemmed from German ideas of the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of the most radical moves that appeared in this period, and which had so profound an effect on the twentieth century, sought to avoid tradition and break with the past by emphasizing their modernity.

Key Events

1861 Friedrich Wilhelm I becomes Prussian kaiser
1862 Bismarck made prime minister of Prussia
1865 American Civil War ends with surrender of Confederate Army
1868 The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is founded in Great Britain
1869 Leo Tolstoy finishes War and Peace, begun in 1864
1871 France loses Franco-Prussian war; riots and Commune follow in Paris
1874 First Impressionist exhibition is held in Paris; includes Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise
1876 Bayreuth Festspielhaus opens with the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring; the Franco-Prussian war breaks out
1879 The Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s realist play The Doll’s House first performed
1881 Tsar Alexander II assassinated; Dostoevsky completes The Brothers Karamazov
1885 The German philosopher Karl Marx finishes Das Kapital
1887 First performance of Verdi’s Otello, libretto by Arrigo Boito, after Shakespeare
1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish-French army officer, accused and tried for treason, and imprisoned on Devil’s Island
1898 In Paris, Pierre and Marie Curie discover radium and polonium
1900 In Vienna, Sigmund Freud...

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