Saturday, November 10, 2007

1850 – 1870 Liszt and Wagner

1848-52 French Second Republic
1852-70 Napoleon III
1861-65 American Civil War

This is the generation of Verdi and Brahms, not just Liszt and Wagner. Liszt introduces the symphonic poem and Wagner the music drama.

Vocal Music

Music Drama

The logical extreme of the program symphony, traits of Wagner's late operas were

(a) his own librettos on medieval German myths (first used in Dutchman),
(b) continuous music through continual modulation and avoidance of perfect cadences,
(c) no clear-cut arias and expanded recitative (first in Rheingold),
(d) thick romantic orchestration,
(e) a system of themes, called leitmotifs, connected to persons, objects or ideas in the drama (also first in Dutchman), and
(f) equal importance of visual and dramatic arts in the Gesamtkunstwerk.
Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850) were still number operas. Though he began composing the Ring in 1853, Tristan und Isolde (1865) was the first music drama to be produced, followed by Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868). The four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen, 1. Das Rheingold (1869), 2. Die Walküre (1870), 3. Siegfried, and 4. Die Götterdämmerung were produced together in Bayreuth in 1876.

Italian Opera

Italian opera was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) who capitalized on the strengths of Grand Opera in melodramatic plots, popular melodies and effective vocal display pieces. His mature operas began with Rigoletto (1851) and included Il Trovatore (1853), La Traviata (1853), Un Ballo in Maschera (1859), Don Carlos (1867) and Aida (1871).

French Opera

Grand Opera continued in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine (1865). Popular sentimental operas were Mignon (1866) by Ambroise Thomas (1811-96) and Faust (1859) and Roméo et Juliette (1867) by Charles Gounod (1818-93). Berlioz' Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) and Les Troyens (Part II 1863, Part I 1890) failed to establish him as an opera composer.

Opéra Bouffe

Jacques Offenbach (1819-80) created the prototype for the operetta in his Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) and La Belle Hélène (1864).

Czech Opera

The Bartered Bride (1866) by Bedrich Smetana (1824-84) began the second nationalist school in Czechoslovakia.


The most important oratorios were Berlioz' L'Enfance du Christ (1854) and Franz Liszt's (1811-86) Christus (1856) and Legend of St. Elizabeth (1857-62). Ein deutsches Requiem (1868) by Johannes Brahms (1833-97) can also be considered an oratorio.

Liturgical Music

Orchestral masses were Mass in D minor (1864), Mass in E minor (1866) and Mass in F minor (1867) by Anton Bruckner (1824-96), and Liszt's Festival Mass (1855). Berlioz' Te Deum (1855) was in his massive style.


Lieder were by Liszt, Peter Cornelius (1824-74), Adolf Jensen (1837-79), Robert Franz (1815-92) and Brahms, especially his Magelone (1861) cycle. Wagner's cycle, Wesendonck Lieder (1857-8), was composed in both piano and orchestral versions.

Instrumental Music


Brahms added to the tradition of Schumann an intensive study of Beethoven and Bach. His earliest piano compositions included three sonatas: Op. 1 (1853), Op. 2 (1853) and Op. 5 (1854). Of the classical forms, he preferred the variation, including Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (1862) and Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1863). He retained only the structural outline in his character variations. His early piano pieces also included four Ballades (1854).

Liszt began as a virtuoso and developed piano technique in his compositions, including the character pieces in Années de pèlerinage (1850, '67-77), imitations of gypsy music in Hungarian Rhapsodies (1856), and dance rhythms in Mephisto Waltz (1859). His most important etudes were Etudes d'execution transcendante (1852). Throughout his career, 1831-85, Liszt wrote transcriptions for piano of such works as Beethoven's symphonies, Bach's organ works, Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, and Schubert's songs, and composed fantasias on operas by Bellini, Meyerbeer, Verdi and Wagner. They are rarely played today.

Chamber Music

Brahms carried on the German tradition in his early chamber works, including a piano trio, two piano quartets, a piano quintet, and two string sextets.


Brahms and Liszt represented opposite extremes of romantic style with Brahms' No. 1 in D minor (1861) in the traditional form and Liszt's No. 1 (1849) in a cyclic, singles-movement form.

Symphonic Poem

The twelve symphonic poems of Liszt were descendants of the concert overture; in fact, five of them, including Tasso (1849), Les Preludes (1848) and Hamlet (1858), were composed as overtures to plays or musical works. In the case of Les Preludes the obligatory program, a poem by Lamartine, was fitted to the already existing music. Influenced by Berlioz' program symphonies, the titles and poems referred to and suggested literary content for the music, but did not determine its structure, which derived from the sonata form. Other examples were Mazeppa (1851) an Die Ideale (1857).


Liszt's Faust Symphony (1854) consisted of three character pieces on Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles with a finale for tenor and male chorus on Goethe's Chorus mysticus. The same themes appeared in all movements.


Wagner's orchestra benefited from the newly improved woodwinds with the Böhm key system and the recently perfected valve horns and valve trumpets first used in Halévy's La Juive (1835). Wagner's standard orchestra was three of each woodwind (with the third player doubling on piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet or double bassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings. For the Ring he added another flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet and trombone along with four more horns which doubled on Wagner tubas, another pair of timpani and other percussion, six harps and augmented strings.

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