THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (1825-4900)
The Romantic period began with the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It should be noted, however, that throughout the history of music there has been a tension between the Classical and Romantic views of life and art. Objectivity versus subjectivity, form versus freedom, and individuality versus universality are issues that composers and other artists have confronted in every age. Romantic tendencies were evident in the music of all three of the preeminent Viennese classical composers (particularly Mozart and Beethoven), and by the end of Beethoven's career, the romantic spirit was firmly entrenched in Europe, remaining the dominant force in music until the beginning of the twentieth century.
There are some fundamental Romantic characteristics that should be noted to begin this discussion. Classicism and romanticism represent two opposing views of life and art. Whereas classicism is objective, romanticism is subjective. Control of harmonic tension, balance between dissonance and consonance, and the careful and complete exploitation of thematic development give Classical music a definite and distinct formal structure. Conversely, the Romantic spirit requires the loosening of formal constraints and the uninhibited expression of the individual composer's ideas and emotions.
One way in which the Romantic spirit was expressed in the nineteenth century was through nationalism. Whereas classical music tended to be universal in character, during the nineteenth century certain composers and compositions paid tribute to their country of origin through the use of folk melodies, dances, or instruments, or through the musical depiction of some locale in the homeland.
Just as nationalism reflected a preoccupation with the composer's own national heritage, exoticism was a Romantic fascination with music from other lands. An often cited example of this tendency was Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade, depicting scenes from the Arabian Nights. In fact, anything mysterious or exotic appealed to the Romantic mind. The writing of Poe exemplifies this preoccupation with the mysterious or morbid.
Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique tells of a young man's opium-induced visions of his beloved. Berlioz wrote a commentary, or program, describing the extramusical scenes depicted by each of the work's five movements. The idea of program music, intended by the composer to depict specific nonmusical ideas, was another important aspect of nineteenth-century Romantic style.
Although the forms of the Classic period continued to be used by Romantic composers, they took many more liberties with them, expanding and contracting them to suit their individual tastes. During the Romantic period, both miniature and heroic forms became popular. The lieder of Schubert exemplify the romantic spirit in a small and intimate form, just as Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand does so by involving two four-part choirs, a boys' choir, seven soloists, and a large orchestra in an undertaking so massive that it limits the opportunities to hear it performed.
During the Romantic period, the resources of tonality were completely exhausted, and chromaticism too was fully exploited. The highly chromatic works of Wagner and other late-nineteenth-century composers represented the final stage of this process, which led to a variety of alternative harmonic organizational structures that signaled the end of the Romantic era, around the beginning of the twentieth century.
Romantic composers were anxious to exploit to the fullest the potential of the orchestra in terms of tone color, as well as pitch and dynamic range, making unprecedented demands on players. The orchestra increased in size during the nineteenth century to the point where it sometimes numbered in the hundreds. BY the late nineteenth century, dynamic markings such as pppp or ffff were common, and extensive use of crescendo and decrescendo added to the expressive resources available to composers.
Much of the writing for chorus from this period also seeks to fully exploit the possibilities of the human voice. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis makes great demands on the singers, and the performance of choral-orchestral masterworks composed later in the century also requires singers with solid vocal technique for a successful performance. This fascination with tone color and the use of augmented instrumental forces helps explain the dominance of instrumental music in this era. Without exception, the musical giants of the era were primarily composers of instrumental music. Most of the great choral masterworks of the period were choral/ orchestral works.
Three hundred years earlier, during the Renaissance, choral music had been predominant, with instrumental parts added occasionally that reinforced (doubled) the choral lines. Through the ensuing centuries, the balance in importance between choral and instrumental music as the setting for stylistic change shifted steadily from choral to instrumental forms.
Romantic Composers and Style
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), though noted primarily for his operas, wrote several choral works in his later years. The two most important works were his mass, which he called Petite Messe Solenelle (Little Solemn Mass), and his setting of the Stabat Mater. Despite its title, the mass is a major work involving choir, quartet of soloists, and orchestra (originally, it was scored for two pianos and the orchestration was added later).
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote six masses and several shorter choral works on both sacred and secular texts. Schubert's last two masses are considered his most important choral pieces, although it should be noted that his Mass in C and the shorter works (sacred settings and choral lieder) provide some excellent performance possibilities for school choral ensembles.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote three oratorios: St. Paul (1837), Elijah (1846), and Christus (unfinished at the time of his death). In addition, he wrote some choral lieder, motets, and psalm settings. His fame as a choral composer is based primarily on his oratorios, of which Elijah is the most frequently performed. Mendelssohn's Lobegesang (Hymn of Praise) is a choral orchestral piece including chorus, tenor, and two soprano soloists in the last and longest movement.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote three masses (one for men's voices and organ, one for mixed choir and orchestra, and one for mixed choir with organ), two oratorios, a psalm setting, and two choral symphonies. In addition to his Requiem setting, mentioned earlier, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote a Te Deum, an oratorio, and a choral symphony. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote an oratorio entitled Paradise and the Peri, which is still occasionally performed, and several sets of part songs, many of which are performable by a well-established high school choir (an excellent example is Zigeunerleben-Gypsy Life). The choral legacy of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) consists of his three choral symphonies.
Brahms, in addition to the German Requiem, wrote choral settings of folksongs, other choral lieder, and several choral/ orchestral works, including a cantata. The Brahms settings of folk songs are feasible repertoire for a high school or even a well-established junior high choir (or any choir interested in some delightful pieces).
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) composed three masses, a Te Deum, and a setting of Psalm 150, as well as several shorter sacred and secular choral works. Bruckner was a devout Catholic and his sacred music reflects his profound faith. Some of his shorter works are approachable by a high school choir (an excellent example is the motet Locus Iste), but others are too demanding for young singers in terms of pitch and dynamic range. All are notably beautiful in their depth of emotion, harmonic ingenuity, and dynamic contrast.
The general characteristics of Romantic style were discussed earlier. With regard to the performance of choral music, a few points should be noted. The Romantic composers tended to write out exactly what they wanted in the way of dynamics, tempo, and expression. A problem in performance practice related to the Romantic period is found in Romantic editions of earlier music. Such editions tend to include many expressive markings that were never intended by the composer. Any edition of music written before 1750 that contains dynamic, tempo, and expressive markings not clearly identified as editorial is suspect.
In performing music of the Romantic period, the tempo should be elastic, reflecting the expressive nuances of text. The idea of rubato (mentioned earlier) wherein the tempo varies is an important aspect of Romantic style.
The tone to be used for Romantic music should be full and rich. Singers should never push the tone or make it strident, and great care must be exercised in selecting music from this era for performance by a school choir. To perform many of the great choral/orchestral masterworks effectively requires mature voices, capable of producing a wide range of pitch, dynamics, and expression.
The Romantic era was a period in which individual expression was of critical importance in the interpretation of music. Romantic composers used standard notation and indicated in relatively specific terms the way they wished for their music to be performed. In performing the choral music of the period, study the text and the markings of the composer in the score. These indications provide the basis for an effective performance.