Styles & Forms | Late Romantic | Classical Music
Composers at the end of the nineteenth century were awestruck by the music dramas of Richard Wagner. His colossal achievements could not be followed, and yet the challenge his music laid down, particularly in the realms of harmony, had to be reckoned with – either developed or rejected – by any European composer of the next generation.
Music was more international than ever. By the end of the nineteenth century, Russia developed a distinctive tradition and, across the continent, smaller, emerging nations such as Norway, Denmark, Finland and Czechoslovakia, together with a resurgent Great Britain, added composers of some stature to the French, Italian and German/Viennese traditions.
The Great Conductors
To the great virtuoso in the Late Romantic period we can add a new kind of musical star. Many of the world’s great orchestras were founded in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and along with them came the great conductors – the ‘maestros’, who could draw crowds more easily than the composers whose music they performed. Above all, the Late Romantic period was an age of orchestral music in which, as a matter of course, composers wrote scores requiring more than 100 players, and often hundreds of choral singers. The common musical language ripened, to the point where the key of a work was either in flux or barely recognizable.
This inflation of musical forces was played out against the political backdrop of imperial land grabbing in Africa, as well as the tense stand off between the political powers that led to the First World War. But even when the war had ended, and the radical innovations of twentieth-century music made the post-Wagnerian idiom seem irrelevant, many composers, like old soldiers still proudly wearing their medals, persisted with a Late Romantic style. In many ways, it had become the swan song for an era of European civilization.
Internationally fêted as both a conductor and composer from the late-1880s onwards, Richard Strauss (1864–1949) was the central figure in German music after Wagner. His musical language is founded on Wagner’s chromaticism, but his sense of structure drew more on traditional models. In a series of symphonic poems written before 1900, he developed an orchestral virtuosity and a deliberately emotional musical rhetoric, illustrating the diverse programmes that lay behind these pieces. The most mercurial of these works was Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895), an exuberant, orchestral showpiece that remains a favourite with concert audiences.
After 1900, Strauss increasingly turned to opera. In first Salome (1905), then Elektra (1909), he treated melodramatic subjects with a histrionic musical language that verged on the atonal. These works of musical expressionism are contemporaneous with the radical, atonal experiments of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), but in his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier (1911), and in his music of the following 37 years, Strauss retreated from the precipice into an intentionally old-fashioned, nostalgic-sounding musical idiom. And yet, almost certainly as a result of this, Der Rosenkavalier, which...
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