After Romanticism: New Languages

On 21 & 24 January, François-Xavier Roth conducts two concerts that focus on the musical changes that took place as the Romantic era became the modern.

The series is called 'After Romanticism’, and in this, the first of two posts, we take a closer look at how and why the language of music was to undergo such a seismic shift during this era.

Whether in industry or art, the 19th century went big; industrialisation was in full swing, meaning 100 years of economic growth unlike anything anyone had ever known. And the optimism that came with such rapid growth, this belief in bigger and better things, also found its way into music, where composers spent the best part of a century pushing their language to its limits.

Part I: Music at the Limit


Take Wagner for example. His operas were longer, his plots were more elaborate, more ambitious, and the sheer number of musicians needed to fulfil his orchestral imagination was enormous. And more too about that imagination: not content with the existing arsenal of instruments at his disposal, Wagner even invented his own! His restless pursuit of his personal musical vision even moved into architecture, when he had an opera house built, dedicated solely to his work and made to his specification. You can still visit it today in Bayreuth.

Parsifal BellsImage: Parsifal Bells, a tam-tam with a wooden resonating chamber

But where Wagner most fulfilled the archetype of the Romantic genius – with its combined emphasis on individuality and inventiveness – was in his music. His vocal lines spin on endless threads and weave themselves seamlessly into the fabric of his score. The idea being a Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete musical work comprising a fusion of music and text (an idea he extrapolated from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and elaborated for himself in its own book-length essay). One consequence of this conception, was that the harmonies that supported this music were no longer subordinate to the drama, but were indeed the very soul of it.

Just listen to the unbearable tension in that infamous chord from the prelude to Tristan und Isolde (00:19 in the video below) It hardly makes any harmonic sense! From a musical and historical perspective it is completely perplexing but on the level of drama it is perfect. Contained in that one chord, a single sound that aches for resolution, is the kernel of the whole piece, the seed from which the whole opera grows. And so too in this one move had Wagner freed music from its self-imposed limitations, and opened up a new world of expressive potential for those that followed. By pushing the syntax of music to its limits in pursuit of pure drama, he gave courage and hope for a new generation to free themselves from the constraints of convention. And few took on this imperative with quite so much courage, conviction and creativity as Gustav Mahler.

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Listen: Wagner's Prelude to Act I from Tristan und Isolde



From the beginning he was bold. His Second Symphony deployed forces unrivalled (100+ musicians, a choir of up to 200, even an off-stage ensemble of percussion and brass), and its subtitle – the 'Resurrection' – implied that this composer’s work might become a musical renewal, a second coming. Some might even accuse the young man of egomania for such prophetic posturing. But it is important to understand that Mahler’s incessant curiosity was the driving force behind his work, not a deluded sense of his own importance (a trait he did not share with Wagner).

He had a voracious musical appetite and this was reflected in his work. He was a master of form, of harmony and of counterpoint because he knew the repertoire inside out. And his successful career as a conductor (which took him to helm of the Vienna State Opera and the New York Philharmonic) was in no small part due to the practical knowledge he acquired of each and every instrument in the orchestra. And far from high-brow, Mahler loved popular tunes as well. In every one his symphonies you can find a Ländler, a funeral march (like the first movement in Mahler's Symphony No 5), a Waltz, a drinking song or even Frère Jacques (from the first symphony). Unusual instruments, like cowbells or sleigh-bells, also managed to weave their way in to his all-embracing musical ambitions.
MahlerA cartoon showing Mahler with his instruments. The caption reads: 'My God, I forgot the horns! Now I will have to write another symphony!'

With so much packed into each one of his nine completed symphonies, Mahler brought into question the very concept of coherence. His critics were keen to accuse him of cramming in too much (Dirigentmusik, they called it – music for conductors) while his supporters viewed this trait more favourably, and saw in Mahler something of Prometheus or even Atlas – carrying a whole universe within his work and bringing down prophetic visions of the great beyond through his scores. Mahler was a little more practical in his descriptions, if not a little surprised at his accomplishments. On his Symphony No 3 he wrote that 'this is a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the world … in my symphony the whole of nature finds a voice'.

But where do you go from there? Once all of nature – the whole world – have found their place in your symphonies then what more is there to do? Where can you find the space for the genre to develop and grow? Mahler found two answers to satisfy this problem. The first was a change of direction: instead of more, do less, and consider the importance of silence as a structural element. All the way back to Schumann, and song XIII from Dichterliebe  ('Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet'), composers had been more interested in exploring the gaps between the sounds, a trajectory that found its apotheosis in the infamous 1952 composition by John Cage, 4’33”. Mahler himself may have caught on to this idea in his last completed work. The poignant string finale to the ninth symphony paves a steady retreat into silence, as the final sounds expire without a trace of a definitive conclusion. In that sense, the symphony never really ends, and who knows how Mahler might have developed his relationship to silence had he lived longer.

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Listen: Finale from Mahler's Symphony No 9 

The second answer was the one to set the course for music throughout the 20th century. Composers began to realise that, if the language of tonality had run its course, then what was needed was something entirely different, a fundamental change that would open up new perspectives and new possibilities that were previously unimaginable. In the second part of this post, we explore this alternative route in the music of the Second Viennese School and find out what happened when music went beyond its limits...

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.