Our next period in music after the Classical Era is the Romantic Era, although the term also covered art, literature, and the intellectual movement of the first half of the 19th century.
Modern folk may think of “romantic” in terms of Rom-Coms, that cloying genre about the couple that’s all wrong for each other and yet who still wind up in the end. It may also conjure up images of all those “bodice-rippers” — steamy novels generally about young women pining after slightly old, much wealthier, and definitely bad-boy type men.
Both of these are just watered down versions of what Romanticism really was, especially when it came to literature.
See, the Romantics were basically the first Goths. Don’t believe me? The first Romantic novel ever written was a little book called Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
But that’s right: The literary romanticists were big on horror and darkness. The whole movement was about emotions, which had to be bigger than life — the greatest joy to the deepest terror.
Three composers from the era stand out: Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt. Interestingly, only was Austrian, like Mozart. Chopin was Polish and Liszt was Hungarian, representing the move in music away from the traditional Western European hub.
This becomes much more significant in the next era.
Schubert was the first, born 1797 and he died young, just shy of 32 in 1828. While the exact cause of his death is not known, he did exhibit symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning and, at the time, mercury was a common treatment for syphilis — a classic case of a cure being just as bad as the disease.
Since he came out of the Classical Era, he somewhat took up the baton from Beethoven, who was nearly thirty years his senior, and some critics perceived his early works the way that we would look at popular composers of pop music — simple catchy tunes with nothing deeper behind them.
When later critics really looked at his music, they saw so much more to it. He was definitely an experimenter and loved to play with things like modulation, meaning key changes in music. One example, that I’ll try to walk non-musicians through, is in his String Quartet (D. 956).
It’s written in the key of E Major, but somehow modulates to a central section in the key of F minor. If you’re a musician, you’ll see the potential clash immediately, but I’ll walk you through it for those who aren’t. A musical “key” simply refers to the starting note and the sharps or flats that occur in the Major scale that beings on that note.
I’ve covered this in-depth elsewhere, but in this particular case suffice it to say that the main key of E Major has four sharp notes in it: F, C, G, and D. Note that the other key, F minor, specifically does not have an F sharp in it, quite the opposite. It does have four flats, though: B, E, A, and D.
Now, in F minor, F-C-G-D are decidedly not sharp, and in E Major, B-E-A-D are not flat. But a funny thing happens if you swap the flats to sharps or vice versa.
The four flats in F minor are the same as these four sharp notes: A-D-G-C. And if we go back to the E Major key signature, we see F-C-G-D. Or, in other words, three of those notes are actually the same, and F sharp and A sharp go together like peanut butter and jelly, because A sharp is the third step in the F sharp Major scale.
To get from one key to the other, then, Schubert just had to get clever in dancing from the F# to the A# (the “#” is the sign for sharp in music), fiddle it around with the other three sharps, and then land on an E.
And that’s how you create a big emotional effect by shuffling two apparent incompatible keys together.
Next on our list is Chopin, and in keeping with the gothic theme, he was an almost exact contemporary of American author Edgar Allan Poe, who is well known for his tales of the macabre. Chopin was born about a year after Poe and died only ten days after the author did.
No one really knows why Poe died — he was found wandering the streets of his native Baltimore, incoherent and in severe need of medical attention. A common theory, though, is that he was a victim of cooping, which was a form of physically violent voter fraud of the era.
Chopin, meanwhile, took the most romantic era way out possible: Tuberculosis.
In the 39 years he was on the planet, he became a celebrity, and a lot of his work was based on improvisation on the piano. Personally, I can relate to this completely, because that’s my thing. I learned and internalized musical theory, so I just sit down and make stuff up.
Although Chopin probably did it a lot better. He was also somewhat of a teacher via his series of études, or studies, designed specifically to teach piano playing. If you’ve ever taken formal lessons on any keyboard instrument, then you’ve played your share of Chopin.
He also wrote a series of preludes, which cycled around the Circle of Fifths, until he had written one in each of the twelve Major and minor keys, for twenty-four preludes in total.
If we’re going to make modern comparisons, Chopin was the indie artist who became well known by playing intimate venues and having a very dedicated fanbase. But our next composer is, arguably, music’s first Rock Star.
Dear audience, I give you… direct from Doborján, Hungary, Sopron County’s favorite son… put your hands together and make some noise for… the one and only… Liszt Ferencz!
(Wild cheers, women screaming and fainting, fans rushing the stage…)
At the height of his career, this was pretty much it. Franz Liszt was to the Romantic Era of music what Beethoven had been to the Classical — the force of nature that swept in, elevated it to its pinnacle, and then blew it into something completely different.
If you were to think of him as his era’s Bowie, Prince, Springsteen, or any of a number of other icons who had relatively long, multi-generational careers, you would not be far off the mark.
Performance-wise, he was to piano what many people consider Eric Clapton is to guitar, and he started as a child star. He published his first composition when he was 12, and was living in Paris with his mother by 16. When Liszt was 19, he met the composer Hector Berlioz, and also became friends with Chopin.
It was at a concert by the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini that young Liszt became determined to become as good on piano as Paganini was on his instrument.
He had a relationship the Countess Marie d’Agoult, with whom he had three children, Blandine in 1835, Cosima in 1837, and Daniel in 1839. Cosima would go on to become important in 19th century musical history for entirely different reasons.
After he separated from the Countess in 1844 at the age of 33, his career really took off. He continued to tour, and was wildly popular with the fans, particularly the female ones. Various authors gushed over his physical beauty, Hans Christian Anderson among them.
It was during this period that Lisztomania swept Europe, and yes, that was a contemporary term, not a neologism. It seemed unique to him at the time, and was exactly like you’d expect in comparison to screaming fans of groups like The Beatles or Justin Bieber.
One of the stories my music history teacher told me was that at every concert, Liszt would enter wear an elegant pair of gray gloves and make a big show of slowly peeling them off. He would then drape them over the side of the piano, where they would stay for the duration.
When the show ended, he would take his bows and exit, “forgetting” the gloves, and the women in the audience would hurl themselves at the piano in a frenzied brawl to get them. They would also snatch up broken piano strings, try to get locks of Liszt’s hair, and steal his handkerchiefs.
So really no different than modern fans. Ken Russell made a film in 1975 called Lisztomania that dramatized this, although in a highly stylized and anachronistic fashion. The plot is completely off the hook, with Liszt ultimately taking up arms against Richard Wagner at the behest of the Pope to stop Wagner from unleashing a mechanical Thor designed to kill all the Jews in Europe.
Yeah, so little resemblance to reality. It’s still a fun film, and the casting is brilliant, because a lot of the principals in it are well-known musical stars themselves: Peter Frampton as Liszt, Paul Nicholas as Wagner, Rick Wakeman as Thor, Little Nell as part of the court of a Russian princess, and Ringo Starr as the Pope — Gregory XVI to be precise.
It’s all way over the top and larger than life, but so was Franz Liszt. He even experienced another seemingly modern phenomenon. By his 40s, he had accumulated so much wealth that he started giving it away to charity. He was also instrumental in keeping the struggling Berlioz afloat by supporting and promoting his music.
He had retired from performing at 35 to focus on composing, but right around the time he turned 50, his son Daniel and daughter Blandine died within three years of each other. He took holy orders in 1865 — which was as big a deal as when Elvis got drafted — and returned to teaching.