Romantic Period (1820-1910)
Post-Romantic Music in Germany
Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Wagner each unlocked doors that gave succeeding composers the freedom to further stretch the bounds of harmony. The main German Post-Romantic composers—Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), and Richard Strauss (1864-1949)—effectively mark the end of a long tradition. Extremes of musical material (emotional expression, harmonic changes, dynamics, size of orchestra) characterized the style of these composers. They also shared a desire to continue the style of German Romanticism found predominantly in the music of Wagner.
Gustav Mahler was known as a conductor as well as a composer, serving as Director of the Vienna Opera from 1897 to 1907 and as conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1909 to 1911. Throughout his life, he was tormented by his decision as a young man to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. This duality was expressed through sudden and dramatic changes of dynamics and moods in his music.
Mahler was subject to bouts of depression and prone to superstition. He believed enough in “the curse of the Ninth”—that a composer's ninth symphony would be his last, as it had been for Beethoven—that instead of calling his ninth major work a “symphony” (which he could have), he called it a “song cycle”—Das Lied von der Erde. Ironically, he then completed Symphony No. 9 but died before he could complete Symphony No. 10—arguably fulfilling the curse.
Mahler’s symphonic works are massive in scope. All are at least an hour in length and require huge orchestral forces. His scores are enormously detailed and display a precise sense of orchestration. The Symphony No. 2 calls for a huge chorus, two soloists, 17 wind players, 25 brass players, numerous percussion players, 4 harps, an organ, and strings. Symphony No. 8 is nicknamed the Symphony of 1000 because of the number of performers required to perform it.
Despite the size, a level of intimacy may be found in all of his symphonies. Amidst the gargantuan scoring for anvil and percussion lay passages of exquisite beauty for solo mandolin and delicate ländler (an Austrian folk dance). Mahler may also be classified as a traditionalist, for he worked in a standard symphonic form with occasional forays into Lieder and song cycle.
Two excerpts from his Symphony No. 9 display the extremes of Mahler’s expressive capabilities. The is a grotesque rondo with violent harmonic changes that blur the A-minor tonality to near extinction.
After his death, Mahler’s compositions were rarely performed during the first decades of the 20th century, except under the baton of his good friend Bruno Walter. As composers in the 20th century turned to smaller and more abstract musical gestures, Mahler’s grand emotions fell out of favor. After World War II, his music regained popularity due largely to Leonard Bernstein, who also conducted the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein programmed and recorded Mahler’s music as often as he could and admitted a special affinity for the master’s life and music.
The last great German Post-Romanticist was Richard Strauss. Unlike Mahler, Strauss excelled at opera. Salome (1905), Elektra (1909), and Der Rosenkavalier (1910) rank as some of the finest in the German Romantic repertoire.
The exploration of the boundaries of tonality characterized Strauss’ style, particularly in Elektra. He often used dissonance to create comic effects, most successfully in his tone poems. In one memorable moment from Don Quixote, he used dissonance to portray the bleating of a flock of sheep, mistakenly identified by Don Quixote as an advancing army.
Between 1886 and the end of the century, Strauss composed the era’s most significant tone poems:
- Aus Italien
- Don Juan
- Tod und Verklärung
- Till Eulenspiegel
- Also Sprach Zarathustra
- Don Quixote
- Ein Heldenleben
Strauss never succumbed to the lure of 20th-century compositional styles. All the way through to his last major work, Metamorphoses (1945), he remained true to his own brand of Romanticism. Unfortunately, he is also remembered for his association with Germany’s National Socialist Government.