Romanticism in Europe

Most Romanticism pianists were born around the same time. –Felix Mendelssohn in 1809, Chopin 1810, Liszt 1811, Thalberg 1812 and Henselt in 1814. Musicologist have done extensive work studying the baroque and pre-baroque music to the extent that they ignored the nineteenth century. Hence, musicians today are beginning to understand the eighteenth century value and have learned not to approach Bach and Mozart with a nineteenth century in mindset. On the other hand, they have also not learned to approach nineteenth century music with a twentieth century music in mindset.

By around 1830, in Paris, the piano such as Steinway’s cross-stringing innovation with a few modifications was substantially the instrument that we know today. It was a social instrument, and young ladies of aristocratic society were required to play and sing to it, and be on familiar terms with it.

As soon as a composer wrote symphony, chamber or operatic music, the music was immediately made available for piano reduction scores for one of more pianos including piano duets. That was the only way for professionals, and the public too, to become familiar with music old and new.

Pianists were sprouting out at every corner in Europe all were hastening to Paris. Liszt, Talberg and Chopin, Clara Schumann, Han von Bülow and the like emerged from the concert scene and never settled in one place, always touring, always busy preparing programs for concerts never having the time to studying anything new. As a result, repertoires were mostly repetitions of earlier programs, except that they appeared in different order.

Paganini was the first to serve stage idol virtuosos, who transcended the concert scene to the audience and listeners with an aura of his flamboyance and ostentatious style. Pianists looked and tried to imitate him. There were no longer Clementi’s lose-to-the-key fingerings. Pianists lifted their fingers and held their hand high with crashing sonorities and extravagant body movement.  After Liszt performed Grand Galop Chromatique in Berlin in 1842, he was transported by a carriage drawn with six white horses, escorted by thirty carriages and followed by hundreds of private coaches. Even the court had ridden into town to take a look.

‘………Not like a king but as a king did he depart surrounded by the shouting crowd’.

The word ‘recital’ had not come into being even though it was used to describe vocal and instrumental solo performances. In 1840, Liszt secured a piano recital at Hanover Square, London.  Contrary to the custom, he played alone without the assistance of other musicians. Not every pianist fell in line with such new affairs they now are, it took time for them to be established. In the beginning, recitals were done in more informal settings.

Historically, artists would play a piece or two and descend to a room where benches were arranged to allow free locomotion with gracious conversation among his friends until he felt disposed to return to the piano on the stage. Audiences would babble, laugh, smoke, eat, and come and go as they wished during the course of the concert. Only a few eccentric great artists would demand quiet and respect from their listeners. Programs were long and very few audiences could maintain undivided attention.

Conservatoires were emerging all across Europe: Paris (1795), Milan (1800), Naples (1808), Prague (1811), Vienna (1817), London (1882), Brussels (1832), Leipzig (1843), and Munich (1846). All these conservatoires started to grind out graduates who in terms started to give public performances all over Europe. Democratic and middle-class audiences started to pay for the privilege of attending concerts. However, the overall standards were still very low and poor, very few orchestras were on a permanent basis. If an orchestra was required for an ensemble, it would be picked from an opera house where the orchestra members were amateur musicians.

By 1860, European audiences were becoming sophisticated and programs began to be very much along the lines of programs today. Ego was all-important: I am the artist; I am the performer. Music of the Romantic era was not to-be-tampered with force. It was part mystery; it had meaning and idea but was bound to be up with nature, soul and life. Music expressed the state of mind and emoted feelings.  It had a program, implicit and explicit.  

Hans von Bülow 1830- 1894

The Moonlight Sonata which of course was not named by Beethoven. It was published as Sonata Quasi Fantasia, Op.27 No.2. It describes a moving love story that was not reciprocated but fed on itself like a flame lacking fuel. Hans von Bülow had one of the finest musical minds of the nineteenth century. The 1830s were not too far removed from the Classical period and the personality was more important than the music. There was an obligation for the performer to show his taste by embellishing and improvising the notes before him. Nobody thought about such procedures in the eighteenth century nor in the nineteenth century. Liszt thought of nothing at all and when he edited the piano music of

Franz Schubert, the world knew that he had gone beyond the call of duty. Such was his love for Schubert and he dared to flatter himself that Schubert would not be displeased with what he had done with it.

Franz Schubert 1797 – 1828

Manuel Gracia, an important voice teacher of the of the early nineteenth century instructed that to render an interesting musical idea, a repeated theme, such as rondos, variations, polonaises etc. should be varied. Piano teachers were also telling much the same things to their pupils.

Czerny (who is Beethoven’s notable students) allowed ritardando (gradually slowing down) practically everywhere: at the return of every principal subject; when a phrase is to be separated from the melody; on strongly accented notes; at a transition to a different tempo; after a pause; at the diminuendo of a quick passage; at the introduction of at the end of a quick passage; and at the end of a trill or cadence. Every composition was to adhere to the composer’s execution. However, every line of music was bound to have certain notes of passages where a little ritardando or accelerando (gradually getting faster) was necessaryto augment the interest.

Every generation sees a paradigm shift in emphasis and from historical recording, it can summed up that pianist born after the 1850s brought a set of values to their playing significantly different from that of their predecessors. This was notable, especially for pianist born after the 1870s.

The late Romantic Pianists avoided the excesses of early romanticism and carried the art to its peak, setting a precedent of romantic performance practice. They concentrated on the music of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt to the end of the century. If they played Beethoven, it would be his ‘named’ sonatas. They were frightened to play Debussy, and if any it would be the shorter and more popular pieces. If they lived long enough, they may play Rachmaninoff.

Claude Debussy 1862 – 1918
Sergei Rachmaninoff 1873 – 1943

The late nineteenth-century pianists used very little tempo rubato with taste and restraint. German pianists adopted a much more pronounced rubato than Slavic ones. One thing in common was that all late romantic pianists used ritards to announce second subjects or contrasting sections, accelerando to supply a fisson of excitement.  All were handled in a way that never lost the basic metre. The best romantic pianists were not self-indulgent. Their playing had a few eccentricities, textual changes or misreadings but the playing was under strict rhythmic and emotional control. They had a canny sense of how to move the bass line of a piece for a touch of colour and harmonic interest, as well as bring out the inner voices that have been conveniently ignored today.

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