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What is Classical Music?

The term “classical music” has been applied to a range of music from different cultures, and gradually came to mean “authentic” or “principal.” In Western European music, it is distinguished from “popular” music, although history has shown that popular and classical forms were once closely woven together and to some extent, still are.

Classical music has also developed its own conventional history, which unfolds over a series of periods including the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Enlightenment or Classical (with a capital “C”), and the Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary eras, each of which evolved characteristic styles and forms. Whichever way we approach them, each of these periods also reveals its own particular beauty. This series of compilations invites the listener to savour salient examples of works penned by composers from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras and gleaned from Analekta’s impressive roster of performers.

What is romantic music?

The first volume of Jewels of the Romantic Era focused on one of the defining themes of the Romantic period. This was the idea that “pure” instrumental music (i.e., self-contained music that disregarded all reference to words and images) was superior to all other music because it allowed the worthy listener to come into contact with the “infinite” and the “unutterable” – to reach the “realm of the extraordinary and the immeasurable” beyond that which words and images can express.

In 1854, however, when Édouard Hanslick coined the term “absolute music” for this notion, he was countering not only Richard Wagner’s conception of opera as a “total work of art,” but also the increasing popularity of descriptive instrumental music. As early as 1830, Berlioz had introduced the idea of the “program symphony” with his Symphonie fantastique, a work that literally told a story, the ups and downs of which listeners could follow by reading an outline in the concert program. In the decades that followed, Liszt wrote numerous piano interpretations of literary works, with Schumann and many others following his example. Then, beginning in 1848, Liszt moved over to the orchestra, “inventing” what he called the “symphonic poem” – a work of generally one movement that suggested certain aspects of a literary work: the striking images of a poem, the psychological traits of a character, or scenes from a well-known novel or play.

The course of the Romantic period was thus largely shaped by the century-long clash between those who considered purely instrumental music as the “absolute” and those who felt that pieces, whether instrumental or vocal, which combined music and “poetry” (in its generic sense of any image-based literary form) were an even greater “absolute.” That said, many composers found the debate somewhat inane, moving easily from one concept to the other without a care for what others might think. First among them, and the composer who started all the fuss, was Beethoven.

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral,” Op. 68
1. Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande
(Awakening of happy feelings on arrival in the country) Allegro ma non troppo (mouv. 1)
Tafelmusik Orchestra
Jeanne Lamon, direction

In light of the role played by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in the emergence of the concept of absolute music – thanks largely to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s supremely romantic literary commentary on the piece (see inset in Jewels of the Romantic Era, vol. 1) – it is especially amusing to discover that Symphony No. 6 was composed at exactly the same time as the Fifth. Along with the subtitle “Pastoral,” Beethoven himself gave each movement of the symphony a descriptive title, evocative of various impressions and scenes of a day in the country. The Sixth is therefore a “program symphony” in the truest sense of the word, one that was composed long before Berlioz loudly laid claim to its invention. Undoubtedly, Hoffmann had not known this before writing his article on the Fifth. Thus Beethoven – in one of history’s great ironies, and much to the exasperation of aesthetic reductionists – originated both sides of the argument that would rage on heatedly throughout the Romantic period.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
String Quartet in D minor (D. 810)
“Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden)
2. Andante con moto (mouv. 2)
Quatuor Alcan

Twenty-seven years Beethoven’s junior, Schubert lived his entire life in Vienna in the shadow of the living legend Beethoven had become in his later years. When the latter died in 1827, finally leaving the field clear, Schubert (in bitter irony this time) learned that he too did not have long to live, and he died the next year at the tender age of 30. His second to last string quartet is a beautiful example of the varying degrees with which music and poetry may be linked. In 1817, Schubert had composed a lied for voice and piano on the poem “Death and the Maiden.” In 1824, he based the set of variations that make up the slow movement of the quartet on this same theme. In keeping with the text of the poem, the music has the character of a funeral march, though since the poem is about a young girl, it is completely without ostentation. The change from minor to major at the end brings the listener gently from grief to consolation.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
3. Sonetto del Petrarca 104
André Laplante, piano

Liszt was an awe-inspiring pianist, but he was also passionate about literature, whether it is the great classics of the past or the romantic works of his own time. In fact, he developed friendships with a number of romantic-period writers. He composed many piano interpretations of the works that affected him most deeply, such as this meditation on the 104th sonnet of Petrarch’s famous Canzoniere, a poetic masterpiece of the Renaissance in which the author attempted to make a symbolic inventory of the “shadows and torments of desire.”

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Zwei Gesänge (Two Songs) Op. 91
4. Geistillte Sehnsucht (Longing Eased)
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto
Michael McMahon, piano
Nicolo Eugelmi, viola

If there was one genre where the romantics excelled at combining music and poetry, it was the lied for voice and piano. And while Schubert, who wrote some 600 of them, would be its uncontested master from the start, many composers who came after him also shone in the genre. Mahler and Richard Strauss would expand it by replacing the piano with orchestra. The diptych by Brahms on this disc is particular in that a viola part accompanies the voice and piano. Nearly twenty years separate the composition of these two pieces. The older one, Geistliches Wiegenlied (No. 2, Sacred Lullaby), is set to a poem by Lope de Vega, translated by Emmanuel Geibel. Brahms composed the song in 1864 for the baptism of the son of his best friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, whose wife’s beautiful contralto voice inspired the idea of a lied that united the “voices” of both parents. Some twenty years later, Brahms found another text that lent itself to this game, a poem by Rückert, Geistillte Sehnsucht (No. 1, “Longing Eased”), in which “the whispering wind lulls the world to sleep,” but also appeases the narrator’s longing. In this piece, viola converses with voice, at times wrapping it like a soft breeze in a wreath of delicate ornamentation.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
6. Promenade Moderato commodo assai e con delicatezza
7. Il vecchio castello

Alain Lefèvre, piano

While musical settings of literary works were common among the romantics, settings of visual art were quite rare. The most famous example is without a doubt Mussorgsky’s aptly titled cycle Pictures at an Exhibition. Maurice Ravel later made a superb orchestration of this masterpiece of the piano repertoire.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
8. Rêverie Op. 15 No.7
Louise-Andrée Baril, piano
Thérèse Motard, cello

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
9. Rêverie et Caprice
Orchestre symphonique de Québec
Yoav Talmi, conductor

The French word rêverie and the idea it suggests return so often in romantic music that the body of works it covers could almost be thought of as a genre in itself. The phenomenon is less surprising, however, if one remembers that, as stated in the notes to the first volume of Jewels of the Romantic Era, the work which brought the word “romantic” into fashion in the first place was Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

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Romanticism in music: how many generations?

According to Charles Rosen (The Romantic Generation), only the generation immediately after Beethoven’s was truly romantic (ca. 1820 – ca. 1860). But according to Carl Dahlhaus (Nineteenth-Century Music), the Romantic period was much longer and more diffuse and can be divided into four generations. The first emerged in the very early 19th century with the composition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” the length and audacity of which shook the very foundations of Classicism. The second generation began in 1830, the year in which the young Hector Berlioz composed his Symphonie fantastique and the even younger Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Reformation Symphony, while in the operatic world, Bellini and Donizetti became established in Europe after Rossini’s retirement. The third generation appeared in the early 1850s, with the debate in which musicologist Édouard Hanslick hailed young Johannes Brahms as the champion of absolute music in the battle against Richard Wagner’s conception of opera as total art. Finally, with the death of Wagner in the early 1880s, the last generation of romantics and the symphonic and operatic heirs to Wagner’s legacy (Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss) was active far into the 20th century (Strauss died in 1949).

In fact, Dahlhaus also felt that, despite the break attempted by Schoenberg’s atonalism in the early 20th century and continued today by emulators such as Boulez, the Romantic period never really ended. Think, for example, of the symphonic music that still often appears on movie soundtracks – music that a large audience purchases on disc and which increasingly appears on concert programs as pure music. This gives rise to a curious misapprehension: the modern listener often finds that Romantic symphonies sound like movie music, when in fact the very opposite is true. Simply call to mind the Wagnerian soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s monumental trilogy whose subject was directly inspired by Der Ring des Nibelungen, an even more monumental “tetralogy,” by whom? None other than Richard Wagner. Or think of François Girard’s The Red Violin. The great Romantic concertos of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius are not so far away. And so, if Romanticism never really ended, perhaps a return to the great masterworks that are the Romantic period’s source is in order.

©Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen

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Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
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AN 2 8833

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