In my first post, I discussed the role Beethoven played in somewhat bridging the gap between pure classical musical form to the Romantic Era which dominated the musical and social arts scene of the world for most of the 19th Century. Today’s post will continue our journey of musical exploration as we dive into the evolution of music through the Romantic Era.
As pointed out in the course text book, Music Then and Now, the term “romantic” was originally associated with literature. Some of the more prominent literary authors who shaped the landscape of the era included Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But the romantic movement quickly moved from the pages of books into the broad spectrum of society becoming a conduit for social and artistic growth. The Romantic Era was an expression or a yearning to break free from the boundaries of society and explore new emotions and feelings. And as stated earlier, while Beethoven laid the foundation for the era, several composers took the mantle and drove the development even further. Today, we will discuss one of the forefathers of musical romanticism, Hector Berlioz.
Berlioz was a French composer who in 1830 introduced the world to a novel concept via his Symphonie Fantastique: program music. Prior to Berlioz, music and words had worked extremely well together to create a story. For example operas like Beethoven’s Don Giovanni or Franz Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade were very popular pieces during the Romantic Era. But Symphonie Fantastique was unique in the fact that the piece has no words, but rather audiences were provided a written program upon entering the venue, which provides the story or backdrop. The reception of Berlioz piece at the time was mixed. Some audiences felt it was a novel and progressive idea. Without words, the music and the instrumentation were allowed to shine. To others more accustomed to the traditional voices and words in the opera, the piece was unappealing and distasteful. These two opinions were shared by Tom Service in an article posted to the Guardian online in August of 2014. Service quotes a distasteful comment made by a contemporary of Berlioz, Friedrich Zelter, upon attending the performance. Zelter states that “here are some people who can only make their presence felt and call attention to their activities by means of noisy puffing, coughing, croaking, and spitting. One such appears to be Herr Hector Berlioz.” While Zelter clearly was not a fan of the piece, some in the audience felt otherwise. Service provides the following quote from an anonymous audience member who clearly enjoyed the piece:
But for anyone who isn’t too concerned about the rules I believe that M. Berlioz, if he carries on in the way he has begun, will one day be worthy to take his place beside Beethoven.”
While the Berlioz’s piece was polarizing to audiences and critics at time, there is no doubt that his vision was clearly a stepping stone toward modern music! In our next post, we will continue unearthing these stepping stones!