On 21 & 24 January, François-Xavier Roth will lead the Orchestra through two concerts exploring the legacy of one of the most influential 19th century artistic movements: Romanticism.
This period marked the beginning of new perspectives and new ways in music, a reaction to the harsh realities of the industrial age and a return to the power of nature. But it was also a movement defined by drama, and the Medieval-inspired concepts of mysticism and the isolated masculine hero.
The five composers presented in this series all illustrate the changes that would occur in the era that followed. From Wagner the Romantic, to Mahler and Strauss at the very end of the era, carrying the legacy forward, we arrive at Webern and Berg who would emerge as the founders of the new modernist aesthetic for the 20th century. But it was not only the wider influence of Romanticism that would have such an impact on our five composers’ styles. We explore how musical styles of the time would combine with pivotal moments in their own lives to play a crucial role in the creation of some of their most iconic works, some of which are explored in this series.
The first concert in the series explores Wagner’s Prelude to Act I from Parsifal (1880), Berg’s Seven Early Songs (1905-05), and Mahler’s Symphony No 5 (1901-02). Each piece has a firm grounding in the Romantic tradition. Wagner’s sweeping strings have a mystic, supernatural feel, a profound impression of redemption through faith and ‘the awe of solitude’, as Wagner wrote in his own commentary of the work. The lush orchestration and chromatic melodies are mirrored in Mahler’s Symphony No 5, the fourth movement of which brims over with love for his future wife, Alma. So too do Berg’s early songs seem to present typically Romantic themes, like the contrast of day and night (Nacht (Night), Traumgekrönt (Crowned in dream)), and a focus on the beauty of nature (Schilflied (Song amid the reeds), Die Nachtigall (The Nightingale)).
The second concert of the series continues to explore works that display clear Romantic influences, starting with Webern’s Im Sommerwind (1904). This tone-poem was based on a hymn-to-nature poem of the same name by Bruno Wille, a German politician who admired nature and advocated harmony amongst humankind. Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto was influenced by Schoenberg’s thoroughly modern twelve-tone theory, in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale must be sounded as often as each other, whilst still maintaining fleeting moments of stable tonality in an ode to typical 19th century orchestration. Finally, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (1898), an epic semi-autobiographical tone poem, places the composer as the Romantic hero, quoting 30 motifs from his earlier works.
Picture: End of Act III in the original 1882 production of Wagner's Parsifal, design by Paul von Joukowsky
Webern and Berg
It is not only the Romantic influence that would come to mark these pieces. When looking beyond the impact of 19th century artistic trends, it becomes clear that developments in the composers’ personal lives played a role that was just as important. This is particularly true of Berg, whose Seven Songs bear the mark of the style of his youth and the clear influence of Strauss and Mahler. The songs owe their form to the German lieder, the form of song for voice and piano that was such a typical vehicle of expression in the 19th century. Yet these pieces were written during a crucial stage of Berg’s development as a young composer. 1904 to 1908 was the period that Berg undertook studies with Schoenberg, and his Seven Songs composed during this time therefore stand as an example of the tensions between Romantic influence and freer use of chromaticism. Webern, also a pupil of Schoenberg, underwent a similar transformation in the years that followed Im Sommerwind, the tone poem standing as a rare testimony to pre-Schoenberg compositional techniques.
Berg’s Violin Concerto is also marked by the profoundly personal event of a tragedy occurring in the composer’s circle of friends. The piece was inspired by the untimely death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Mahler’s former wife Alma, who had remarried after the composer’s death. This event had such a profound impact on Berg that he raced to complete the concerto, a commission that he had not properly started working on until spurred into action by the death. The personal element of tragedy lies at the core of the piece, affecting the very structure of it; the shape of the work reflects Manon’s death, the first two movements describing the grace of the young girl, the latter movements depicting suffering and her eventual transfiguration. Berg dedicated the concerto ‘to the memory of an angel’.
The same rings true for Mahler’s Symphony No 5, his first purely instrumental symphony since the first, which was written at an important stage of recovery in the composer’s life. The Fifth Symphony was mostly written during the summer months spent in a lakeside villa in Austria in 1901 and 1902. During this period, Mahler was recovering from a brush with death in February 1901, as well as celebrating Alma’s pregnancy with their first child in 1902. It would be hard for the Fifth Symphony to not mirror the composer’s personal life when composing at such an important moment, and the move through the funeral march of the first movement to the intense love of the finale represents not just a Romantic sense of awe, but the composer’s new-found appreciation of his own life.
Picture: Alma Mahler
Like the lone Romantic hero, in his autobiographical tone-poem Ein Heldenleben Strauss presents himself as the solitary centre of his own universe, and the structure of the piece follows the protagonist’s withdrawal from society. He moves from the dramatic fighting of his enemies in the second movement, Des Helden Widersacher (The Hero’s Adversaries), to introspectively examining his musical output in the fifth movement, Des Helden Friedenswerke (The Hero’s Works of Peace), where he extensively quotes his previous works. Finally, as we arrive at Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung (The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation), the peaceful E-flat major conclusion implies that the Straussian hero has found contentment in solitude.
But despite following the movement’s ideals, this formula is not simply a product of Romanticism. 1898 was the opportune moment to produce an autobiographical work, and Strauss’ decision to present himself as ‘hero’ is in fact the culmination of his successes up to that point. Despite the composer being only 34 years of age, he had already held positions at the Munich Court Opera, the Bayreuth Opera House, and the Court of the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenstadt. He was greatly in demand and on the verge of signing a contract to become music director of the Berlin Court Opera. Strauss’ tone poem is more than a Romantic effigy – it’s a retrospective inspired by the moment at which his career was to reach even greater heights.
Almost like the Romantic hero, the great post-Romantic composers still engaged in a process of introspection that would come to characterise their style. Each of these pieces not only reflects the Romantic heritage of the early 19th century, but defining moments in each composer’s life; moments that we would come to recognise as iconic in their musical career.
After Romanticism comes to the Barbican Hall on 21 and 24 January, conducted by François-Xavier Roth and featuring soprano Camilla Tilling and violinist Renaud Capuçon. And on 24 January delve deeper into this era at our LSO Discovery Day.