Styles & Forms | Late Romantic | Classical

That music has a double history – a social and a stylistic one – is amply proven by its development in the second half of the nineteenth century. Its progress was marked, though not entirely determined, by the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848.

There were perceptible changes of emphasis, not only in concert and operatic life from the salon to the public recital, and from loosely planned operas on commission to rigorously worked-out masterpieces in which the composer did exactly what he or she wanted, but also in styles and forms that make them far less straight­forward to define than in previous epochs. At mid-century, new creative directions in music multiplied and the idea of the ‘new’, already a watchword among artists such as Robert Schumann who saw themselves at the forefront of progress, was aggressively promoted.

In February 1848, when Louis-Philippe was overthrown in France, Liszt left behind his career as a world-famous piano virtuoso and eventually settled in Weimar where, among other things, he invented a new kind of orchestral work he called the symphonic poem. Soon after the Paris uprising and the revolutions in Vienna and Berlin, Wagner began to plan an epoch-making work that eventually became the Ring and changed the nature of opera for ever. Even Schumann, a shy and outwardly conservative man, struck out on new paths that, often to the puzzlement of his admirers, lent a quite different tone to his late works.

Sound Worlds

Broadly speaking, the new musical aesthetic that emerged after 1848 placed a much stronger emphasis on the individuality of each work, its unique ‘sound world’. The idea of music belonging to a genre in which forms and styles traditionally differed from one work to another, was fading fast. Not the least significant feature of Verdi’s three great operas Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, which marked his emergence in the early 1850s from his ‘years in the galleys’ (as Verdi himself put it) with a new operatic realism and intensity of expression, was the fact that they were so different from one another. Each opera had its own highly individual vocal, instrumental and dramatic style. It is far from a coincidence, too, that in exactly the same period, Wagner publicly announced that he was going ‘to write no more operas’, by which he meant that the new works for the stage he was planning to compose were finally to be cut loose from opera’s traditional moorings. Liszt’s invention of the new ‘genre’ of the symphonic poem had the same ambition: each work turned out to have not just its own extramusical programme, but also its own form, thematic character, instrumentation and time-scale.

Serious and Popular Music

The reaction against this pronounced rejection of traditional style and form was twofold. First, the new generation of composers that began to emerge after mid-century, including Brahms, took the more conservative view that chamber music and the symphony were not as moribund as the New...

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