Part three – Music of the nineteenth century – reflective account

Posted on August 5, 2013


The nineteenth century was an era that introduced the cult of the extraordinary in arts. Getting bored of the neat, symmetrical, formal gardens of their royal and clerical masters, artists liberated themselves through the power of self-expression, leaping right to the top of the highest mountains and into the wildest forests, embracing the deepest mysteries. I often feel that in our age, which values the orderly, calculated attitude in weekdays and the bombastic and explicit entertainment in the weekends we often miss the true passion and subtlety of the Romantic age.

First I studied the development of musical instruments, realising that manufacturers arrived to a level of craftsmanship equivalent with the virtuosity of concert musicians. This development was thoroughly exploited by orchestral composers like Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler. A great example is the Symphonie Fantastique, where Berlioz employs an extended orchestra to create a variety of settings (ballroom, field, urban gathering, cemetery) and a poetic narrative using a wide range of tone colours.

My assignment was also related to this topic, studying the development of the pianoforte instrument and different pianistic styles. I have chosen this topic as I have been in love with Romantic piano music since I first heard Schubert’s Impromptu no. 2 op.142 as a teenager, and this assignment gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in this type of music for a while. It was with great fascination that I discovered the same emotional intensity in the great German songs. Another discovery was the presence of great female composers in the nineteenth century repertoire, most notably Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Clara Schumann. I also found myself absorbed in studying the musical development and the personality of Beethoven, I can only hope that this is reflected to some extent in my blog.

Building on ethnic characteristics led to the creation of some of the greatest music of all time. I was listening for weeks the music of Vaughan Williams, Grieg, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Albinéz, Liszt, Erkel, among others. Regarding national music, perhaps the most important realisation was the immense difference and contradiction between cultural and political nationalism. While the first unifies different cohabiting populations (e.g. Flamenco, Hungarian Gypsy music, Jewish music in Germany and Russia) reflecting the complex beauty and genuine flavour of the area, the latter excludes certain groups in the name of some arbitrarily defined “pure ethnic unity”. The Wagner-anti-Semitism controversy provides the best known example of how the elaborate and poetical work of a creative genius can serve the interests of the most destructive forces, if it meets the ideology of hatred.

In my blog I gave a couple of examples of the way live concert experiences can amplify the shine of the most beautiful moments in life (P.J. Gonzales concert in Barcelona) or can bring out a day from the grey monotony of everyday life, making it memorable for many years. Finally, I admired the astrological complexity of Gustav Mahler’s music, listening his fifth symphony. I felt I could make an overall impression of the whole, but I would be thrilled to be able to look more in depth into the intricate structure of his works, perhaps after I learned more about the basic components of musical compositions.

Tibor Kovacs, June 2013

Open College of the Arts assignment, Music 1,

Posted in: Part 3