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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

Complete History of Music: Lesson 8

Hello music history enthusiasts and welcome back.  I left you listening to the haunting Op.27 No. 1 Nocturne of Chopin and perhaps reflecting on his torturous life. The Romantic notion of Programme Music, music that is about something, and in the case of Chopin often about feelings of sadness and longing, was the central idea in Lesson 7. 

But how did Chopin and others express these feelings through music?

For instance in the Nocturne you listened to, you might have remarked on the initial upwards tendency of the melody and then its downward slide of resignation. You may even have noticed a moment where the melody seemed to stop abruptly before it finished, as if defeated. Maybe you were also struck by harmonies that weren't easy - consonant - but were rather jarring and full of friction -  dissonant. We had used those two words in relation to intervals (the distance between 2 notes) in Lesson 2 but here we're thinking of the effect of several notes all sounding at the same time.  Last lesson I mention the Diminished 7th. This chord involves 4 notes, all the same distance apart (a minor third). But more startlingly, these 4 notes produce two instances of a rather frightening interval. This interval is called a tritone and was actually prohibited by the Church in the Middle Ages as being the work of the Devil!  If you want to imagine what a tritone sounds like, sing Twinkle Twinkle and stop right there before you get to Little Star.  Then imagine how it would sound if the second Twinkle was just slightly (a semitone) lower.  That's a tritone!  The value of this disturbing chord, the diminished 7th is that it's a sort of ambiguous chord, a chameleon that allows you to slither into a new key without much fuss and bother. But no matter how many dissonances Chopin used in the Nocturne, you were probably aware of a sublime relief at their resolution, i.e. when they came to rest in a consonance.

I sometimes wonder if music's move away from the Church was equally about turning towards wanting to express other and sometimes more difficult aspects of the human condition.

But back to the role of dissonant harmony in the evolution of musical thought and...

Enter an extraordinary man by the name of Franz Liszt. 

Born in 1811, the year after Schumann and Chopin, in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary (now part of Austria), Liszt was not only one of the greatest pianists who ever lived but so amazingly handsome that he is sometimes thought of as the first superstar. Women really did faint and shriek at his concerts. The poet Heinrich Heine was actually moved to dub the phenomenon Lisztomania!

There was more to the man however than a beautiful face and amazing facility at the instrument; he had an incredibly original musical mind and early on began to experiment with trying to evoke aspects of nature and art through music.  He prefaces his 3 books of piano pieces,  Années de Pelerinage (Years of Wandering or Pilgrimage, the title having been inspired by Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novels) with the following inscription:

'Having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and other attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions.'

Listen to Il Penseroso (from Book 2), a beautiful, if funereal reflection on Michaelangelo's The Thinker:

What innovations did Liszt contribute to musical form?

Apart from your emotional reaction to the music, I'd be interested to know what you gleaned of the form or structure of Il Penseroso. You may have noticed an obsessive repetition of the short, short, long death knolls at the beginning which then gain momentum. In previous lessons we talked about the importance of repetition and in Lesson 4 we talked about the emergence in the latter part of the 18th century of sonata form.  In this structuring, repetitions of material are attached to specific keys, the keys of the tonic and the dominant.  (if you sing all of Twinkle Twinkle (tonic)  and then sing it again but start on the note you used for the second 'Twinkle', in other words 5 notes higher (dominant), you'll be singing in the key of the dominant). And the repetitions are introduced and reiterated in very specific ways. Liszt dispensed with these conventions and that was one of the main reasons for the musical war that ensued, The War of the Romantics.

What part did Brahms play in the War of the Romantics?

We have met Liszt who was experimenting in the 1830's with all kinds of musical innovations. Based in Paris, he was surrounded by Chopin and other musicians who were pushing musical boundaries (I wish I had time to tell you about the daredevil violinistic antics of Paganini or the emotional convolutions that Hector Berlioz wrote into his Symphonie Fantastique).  Little did Liszt know that 500 kilometres away in Hamburg a baby had been born who would live to raise the alarm against such musical shenanigans.  The baby's name was Johannes Brahms and it wasn't until 1853 that he really began to make his mark.  That year the 20 year old Brahms was introduced to Liszt at Weimar and then went on to Düsseldorf where he knocked on the door of the family home of Robert and Clara Schumann. He was admitted by their daughter Marie who later described him as being 'as beautiful as the day' (he was an exceptionally handsome young man in a very different way to Liszt).  When he sat down and played, Robert was so amazed and overcome that he ran to get Clara, shouting, 'A genius has arrived'. 

So what did Brahms play?  You guessed it, a sonata. Here is his Op.2, his Sonata in F sharp minor.

Brahms was no light-weight Romantic.  He promptly fell in love with Clara who was 17 years older than he was, and after Robert died the two considered making their life together.  That was not to be, although their devotion to one another lasted till the end of their days.  But Brahms grew into quite a staid old man.  And although his music is full of beauty and even passion, it is careful rather than audacious and always built on conventional forms. He wrote symphonies, sonatas, concertos and chamber music as well as beautiful short piano pieces which he called Intermezzos and Rhapsodies. But even these are based on the basic sandwich - or ternary - form (bread, filling, bread) of the Sonata structure.

Here is the enchanting Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2:

You will probably agree that it is hardly without passion but it is built on traditional lines.  By the time it was written in 1893, Liszt had died and Brahms' antipathy to his music was well-known.  Much had happened in Liszt's latter years. He had settled in Weimar and established the New German School of Radical Progressives that were so opposed to the conventional compositional methods of Brahms; he had eventually swapped an intense interest in women (he had had several longterm relationships) with an intense interest in religion; having lost two grown children, he sought solitude and entered the monastery Madonna del Rosario near Rome where he received ordination and became Abbé Liszt; and he developed a completely new genre of music, the symphonic poem or tone poem.

What is a tone poem?

It wasn't too much of a stretch for Liszt to take the idea of expressing his connection to Nature and the Arts through music, and elaborate it in larger orchestral works.  These pieces for orchestra were worked and reworked, almost workshopped through rehearsal and modification. They were also crowd-pleasers.  Liszt the performer was not shy of trying to gauge public demand, and as music had loosened its connection to the Church, the idea of larger scale public concerts had developed.  The tone poem grew out of the concert overture (think Rossini's William Tell Overture) which in turn had grown out of the overtures to operas.  But, as Liszt famously proclaimed, 'New wine demands new bottles'. 'Down with Sonata Form.  Down with that stuckist Brahms', he might well have been thinking. So instead of traditional ternary or sonata form, he developed a way of letting his initial theme return again and again or subtly transmute itself into a new theme. 

Listen to the last of his 13 tone poems, From the Cradle to the Grave. 

You may find it mesmerising in its slow development: Liszt had also become the champion, in the same fatherly way that Schumann had promoted Brahms, of an astonishing maverick named Richard Wagner.

Who was Richard Wagner and what did he contribute to the collective musical journey?

A revolutionary and socialist who lived in exile for nearly 10 years in the 1840's, Wagner was only two years Liszt's junior. But Liszt took a fatherly role towards him, in part because of his marriage in 1863 to Liszt's daughter Cosima (her mother, the Countess Marie d'Agoult had lived and travelled with Liszt for 4 years in the 1830's and though the two remained unmarried, Marie had produced three children by Liszt.) Wagner, who was 24 years older than Cosima had been previously married, as had Cosima herself. But this was a true love match. It was Cosima who helped Wagner to establish and run the Bayreuth Festival which was central to his development of the opera into something never seen or heard before. If you have ever been to see a Wagner opera, you know it's best to take provisions as they run hours past the normal time limit of a theatrical production. The thing is, Wagner had a lot to say and he needed to be in full control of every aspect of saying it. He wrote his own texts or libretti, in his own language, German and based them latterly on German folk myth. He borrowed the term Gesamtkunstwerk or 'total work of art' to describe his intention to fuse together music, drama and poetry into what are sometimes referred to as his 'music dramas' rather than operas. The orchestra too, was not merely an accompanist to the singers, but played a central role, contributing a series of leitmotifs, or assigned melodies whose appearance and continual return would signify a certain character or situation in the opera (a devise which has been used to some effect in film music but which in Wagner's hands was able to not only convey the appearance of certain characters but their psychological development and interaction with other characters and ideas). Imagine writing a novel, turning the novel into a play, then writing music to illustrate all the characters and situations, designing the performance space, choosing singers and instrumentalists, rehearsing them and finally conducting the performances. It was a Promethean enterprise and it did bring down the wrath of the musical Conservatives. And yet the music was at times heaven-sent.

You may be familiar with the sublime Siegfried Idyll, a tone poem that Wagner wrote for Cosima on her birthday, containing several themes that eventually found their way into his operas Siegried and Götterdämmerung:

And here is the 'Transformation music' from Wagner's last opera Parsifal, 25 years in the making and a deeply philosophical and spiritual work about the Arthurian knight Percival's search for the Holy Grail. Just before this orchestral interlude begins, Gurnemanz, eldest knight of the Grail, tells a young man (who is in fact Parsifal but doesn't yet remember his name) who has been apprehended for shooting a swan, that here at the home of the Grail and its Knights, 'Time becomes space', an idea that Wagner drew from his reading of Schopenhauer. The music has the quality of reverence and wonder that the text seems to conjure:

One aspect of Wagner's musical thought which was particularly difficult for the Conservatives to swallow was his use of dissonance. This lesson is drawing to a close and next week we will be talking about nationalism in music, but... SPOILER alert... in our last lesson a fortnight from now, we'll return to Wagner's use of dissonance and his role in spawning the extreme innovations of the mid-20th century. As for the winner of the War of the Romantics, I leave it to you to decide.

I very much looking forward to seeing you next week.

Musical Terms

Diminished 7th



Musical form

Ternary form

Symphonic or Tone Poem


Composers Mentioned

Frédérick Chopin (1810-1849)

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1896)

Robert Schumann (1810-1854)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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