You need to be more Romantic
October 4, 2008 2:44 AM   Subscribe

Romantic-era classical music for someone who is not fond of Romantic-era classical music?

Most of my collection consists of 20th Century composers, or music from the Classical era and before. The big gap is in Romantic-era works, intentionally so. Back in college, I thought I would go into composition, so I concentrated mostly on listening to modern works.

As such, I developed a big chip on my shoulder about the Romantic era. (That is so 19th Century!) I figured, why be just another expert in composers everyone already listens to when I can explore the ones who aren't yet in the canon? That was 15 or so years ago.

Now I have an eMusic account with which I use to grab more music than I could realistically consume. As much as I still like modern works, I feel the need to branch out. The 19th Century is still pretty much undiscovered country for me, one I feel ready (finally) to explore.

For reference, composers to whom I regularly listen: Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (of course), Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, anyone who's ever written anything for Kronos Quartet.

The closest I've gotten to Romantic music in my collection: Anton Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, the symphonies of Jean Sibelius (which are technically 20th Century), and the Moldau by Bedrich Smetana.

I've so far ruled out Hector Berlioz. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never listened to a work of his I ever liked.
posted by NemesisVex to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Are you looking for recommendation of works or composers?

If the former, try Brahms' concertos & symphonies. Same for Dvorak. Same for Tchaikovsky.

Classical.Net lists the basic repertoire by era. Some of the works are starred. Start with those.
posted by Gyan at 3:13 AM on October 4, 2008

I'm also partial to a bit of Reich, Glass & Shostakovich. Romantic music that works for me includes:

» Schubert - for example the unfinished symphony, and the 'Death and the Maiden' string quartet.
» Chopin - my favourite works of his are the Preludes, of which this is a lovely recent recording.
» If you like Dvóřak and Smetana, you may also enjoy the works of another Czech composer, Josef Suk (early 20th century rather then 19th, but definitely Romantic rather than Modern). I especially like the 'Summer's Tale' and 'Fairy Tale'.
» Such old chestnuts as Saint-Saëns' 'Danse Macabre', Rimsky-Korsakoff's 'Scheherezade', Dukas' 'Sorcerer's Apprentice', Mussorgsky's 'Night on Bald Mountain'...
posted by misteraitch at 3:25 AM on October 4, 2008

I too have a composition degree and leaned heavily toward 20th C composers like Cage, Braxton, George Brecht and the Wandelweiser collective. My experience of 19th C music comes mainly from my participation in symphony orchestras, piano lessons, and theory classes.

My favorite thing about romanticism is it ushers in the birth of science fiction: Frankenstein, cyborgs, robots, the gothic. We also see a rise in nationalism and folk epics. Enlightenment rationalism and European court society patronage are eventually washed away by transcendental, psychotropic thought experiments and the crass populism of the vaudeville theater. It's like the 1960s but on a continental, epochal scale.

So take all the crazy shit in stride: the orientalism of Rimsky-Korsakov, the emergence of Eastern European nationalism that foreshadows current debates about the EU, the schizophrenic pastiche of Mahler, the proto-fascist gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner, the Guitar Hero virtuosity of Paganini and Liszt, the orgies and love dolls of Offenbach. Have fun with history!
posted by billtron at 4:35 AM on October 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I have a similar background to yours -- if you like 20th century music, start there and work backwards. Strauss, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, even some early Shoenberg and Stravinsky... They sort of started in the Romantic style and then bridged into the 20th century.

Along this line of thinking, Debussy is another great "bridge." I wouldn't call him a Romantic composer, but if you're looking for 19th century music that can excite your 20th/21st century ears, he's one of the best examples. (I should mention Ravel too).

Or look at the 20th century composers who borrowed heavily from Romantic styles -- Vaughan Williams and Holst, for example, and Barber, maybe some Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Or approach from the opposite direction. You like Beethoven -- listen to his works chronologically. By the time you get to the end, you're basically listening to early Romantic music.

Personally, I think Strauss' tone poems are a great place to start.

A lot of contemporary composers swear by Wagner but for some reason I've never learned to appreciate him. Same with Mahler. But if you're expanding your palate (and palette), those two really should be on your list.

Also, the Russian Nationalists (Rimsky-Korskakov, Borodin, etc.) -- your 20th/21st century ears may enjoy their sense of color/texture/orchestration, especially compared to the sopping wet (overdone?) drama of the German Romantics... Of course there's Tchaikovsky too -- perhaps overplayed but you can learn a lot from him.

Liszt can be fun. Chopin is probably the best way to experience Romantic harmony at its purest, as well as Schubert and Schumann.
posted by Alabaster at 5:50 AM on October 4, 2008

Best answer: I'd skip the prep work of finding Classical and Romantic "bridges" to slowly and meticulously get your feet wet (to mix metaphors) -- just get all this stuff from emusic and dive in:

anything by Brahms, especially the 4th Symphony, 1st Piano Concerto, German Requiem, cello sonatas, and piano trios

Dvorak's Cello Concerto, "American" Quartet, piano trios

tons of instrumental music by Schubert, especially the 5th, "Unfinished," and "Great C major" symphonies, "Trout" Quintet, String Quintet, String Quartets #13-15, etc.

anything by Chopin, especially the Mazurkas, Nocturnes, and Preludes

Mendelssohn's Octet (one of the very greatest pieces of music ever by anyone, written when he was 16 years old) and also his "Italian" (4th) Symphony and Violin Concerto

chamber and piano music by Schumann (best chamber piece is his Piano Quintet)

Bruckner's 9th Symphony (that second movement!!!)

piano concertos by Saint-Saens, especially the 2nd (these are pretty lightweight but instantly enjoyable)

Debussy's String Quartet (Romantic music by Modern composer)

There you go -- hours and hours and hours of fantastic music that you're going to love.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:08 AM on October 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Gyan: I'm looking for both composers and works, or even better, works that make good entry points for composers of that era.
posted by NemesisVex at 7:39 AM on October 4, 2008

Best answer: If I were you, I'd avoid symphonies and concerti in general (with an exception for Mendelssohn's magical violin concerto), because that's where the sludgy/bombastic side of Romanticism comes out most strongly, and concentrate on chamber music and songs to begin with. A few recommendations from a fellow disliker of the excessively Romantic:

Brahms: German Requiem, Piano Quintet, Piano Trio, Clarinet Quintet.

Schubert: Quartets and (especially) quintets.

Schumann: Piano and chamber music. (Skip the symphonies.)

Chopin: Any solo piano pieces; skip the awful concerti. (Long form was not his forte.)

I've so far ruled out Hector Berlioz. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never listened to a work of his I ever liked.

You're breaking my heart—I've been proselytizing for Berlioz for decades! I'm betting you know mainly his Symphonie fantastique, which is still by and large what they play of his. Please, I beg you, give him another try; he was a classicist at heart who worshipped Shakespeare and Gluck and was a master of delicate orchestration. Start with the songs; listen to "La captive" and Les Nuits d’été. If you don't like those, I guess you really don't like Berlioz. But if you do (and I'll bet you do), branch out and try the overtures (not subtle but tuneful and fun), Roméo et Juliette, and ultimately Les Troyens, which to me is one of the all-time great operas.
posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on October 4, 2008

Rachmaninoff produces about the only Romantic-era classical music I can listen to, and I seem to have similar tastes to you otherwise. Try something like this (YouTube). You might hear a lot of inspiration toward Philip Glass in Rach.
posted by wackybrit at 8:48 AM on October 4, 2008

One more thing: try to track down Schumann's Toccata. Disjointed in a vaguely 20th century kind of way, especially when it sort of falls apart at the end.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:36 PM on October 4, 2008

Definitely Scriabin. He's a nice choice from someone into 20th century music because his early works are two-bit Chopin imitations, and he evolves rapidly into a true 20th-century composer by the end of his life, so you can kind of work backwards, as Alabaster suggested. The only Scriabin album I have is Chris O'Riley's Scriabin: Vers La Flamme, which I can recommend heartily (that page has some samples).
posted by abcde at 3:01 PM on October 4, 2008

Best answer: Seconding the suggestion to start with chamber music rather than symphonies or concertos. Brahms is a great place to start; try the piano trios and quartet, as well as the piano quintet. If you like piano music, listen to the 2-piano version of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn; if you're not so into the piano, listen to the orchestrated version.

Schumann's piano quartet and quintet were my entry into Romantic music. I also love Schumann's piano music, so maybe give that a try as well. In the category of "bridge" works, check out some early Schoenberg, like the Gurrelieder. Also listen to some of Alexander von Zemlinsky's earlier works, like Die Seejungfrau.
posted by bassjump at 6:26 PM on October 4, 2008

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