My archetype for the Romantic era is Hector Berlioz, and there hasn’t been a work of his I’ve encountered that I ever liked. One night I tuned to the local classical station during a workout, and the piece playing over the speakers alternately bored and annoyed me. The announcer came on and identified the offending work as Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet suite. Figures.
I’m a big fan of the Classical era — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven — and of course, I listen to a lot of music written after 1900. But the 19th Century? Big gap in my listening, and for many years, intentionally so.
But at some point in 2008, I reached a point where a steady diet of serialism, minimalism, expressionism and other latter-day -ism got … tiring. So I reached out to the Internets to explore a century for which I still have a chip on my shoulder.
I concentrated on chamber music because orchestral forms give composers license to be bloated. (I really have to examine why I dislike the orchestra so much these days.) That Berlioz archetype that skewed my perception of the Romantic era? Not so much applicable on a smaller scale.
I hit up eMusic for works by Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Antonín Dvořák, suspecting that the closer a composer was to Beethoven chronologically or stylistically, the more receptive I’d be. I was not mistaken.
Beethoven links the Classical era to the Romantic era. Despite the rigorous structure of his works, emotion charged through them with a temperament that cast a shadow over everyone who came after. Dylan Evans over at the Guardian blames Beethoven for eventually ushering the atonality of the 20th Century.
Schubert and Beethoven were contemporaries, the latter passing away a year before the former. (Beethoven was 57; Schubert, 31.) Mendelssohn and Schumann advocated styles more aligned with Beethoven, thus casting them as conservative next to progressiveness of Richard Wagner or Franz Listz.
I guess that makes me classically conservative — I enjoyed the chamber works I listened to far more than I expected.
Franz Schubert, String Quartets: "Death and the Maiden" D. 810 / "Quartettsatz" D. 703 (The Tokyo String Quartet)
Franz Schubert, Trout Quintet and Quartet In A Minor (Cleveland Quartet)
The Tokyo String Quartet recording of Death and the Maiden is marred by an engineer who thought using a disco smile in the equalization was a good idea. The middle frequencies of Tokyo’s performances were gutted to favor the lows and highs. Not a good idea for a classical recording. Cleveland Quartet’s recording of the Trout Quintet, by contrast, sounds full.
On the surface, little separates Schubert from Mendelssohn, Schumann and Dvořák. Subconsciously, I sense a bit more refinement and much more structure in Schubert’s work than the others, and I came away preferring Schubert, with Mendelssohn a close second.
George Crumb quoted Death and the Maiden in Black Angels, and I almost wanted to hear the first violin gliss and tremolo throughout the start of the second movement.
Felix Mendelssohn, Sextet for Piano and Strings in D major / String Octet in E-flat major (Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center)
Felix Mendelssohn is credited with reawakening an interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in the 19th Century, and Bach served as an important influence on Mendelssohn’s own music.
A certain coolness threads through both of the works on this 2002 recording from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It’s almost too easy to imagine a harpsichord playing a basso continuo in the first movement of the String Octet. The Sextet for piano and strings has such a clear sense of form, it could have come from the previous century.
Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday happened in 2009, and while ensembles worldwide commemorated the event, it didn’t gain quite the attention (at least locally in Austin) as the Shostakovich anniversary in 2006. Mendelssohn’s reputation has seen better days, and an anti-Semetic patina still burnishes how his German countrymen perceive him today.
The geniality of such works as the String Octet and the Sextet probably gets in the way. They’re refined without getting too fiery. "Cerebral" would probably be the unflattering description, but it’s a measured style that appeals to me.
Antonín Dvořák, String Quartets Op. 96, "American" and Op. 106 (Vlach Quartet Prague)
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 is one of the few pieces from the 19th Century that I listened to in college, and it’s a work I’ll put on now and again.
Dvořák incorporated melodies reminiscent of American hymns and folk tunes in that symphony, subtitled "From the New World". He does the same thing with his 12th string quartet, nicknamed "American".
Unlike Béla Bartók, who sought to capture the spirit of folk music, Dvořák casts his folk material in the context of the prevailing style at the time. The more politically-corrective listener would call that "colonizing".
But I give Dvořák credit for making his influences known. He sets himself apart from the purely absolute pursuits of Mendelssohn or Schubert.
Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet Op. 44 and Piano Quartet Op. 47 (The Alberni String Quartet)
Not sure what it is about Robert Schumann that didn’t sink in. He situated himself on the more conservative end of the Romantic era spectrum, and the pieces on this Alberni String Quartet recording from 2007 are … nice enough.
And that’s probably the problem. Schumann’s music sank too far into the background to rise above my subconscious, and there wasn’t anything I could really take away from it.
I may try something else from his catalog, but those prospects look slim.