Romantic music stirs the soul. Composers translated their inner feelings into sounds. The music gets loud and clashing, then soft and sweet — like the classic bipolar Romantic. Rather than following a strict 4/4 beat, the music surges and flows, meandering like our thoughts and fleeting emotions. Happy feelings come in major-key harmonies, while darker emotions are minor key or dissonant, punctuated with crashing cymbals.
Orchestras grew in size to add more punch. You had the traditional string instruments, plus brass, percussion, and woodwinds. Throw in a choir, and a performance could involve literally hundreds of highly-trained professionals. The music wasn't just for duchesses and highbrows. As the middle class grew, big concert halls were packed several nights a week. Opera thrilled audiences the way Hollywood movies do today. The piano virtuoso Franz Liszt toured Europe like a rock star.
Romantic music is more harmonically complex than the "Classical" music from an earlier age. Where Mozart wrote pieces of simple beauty, Romantic music was grandiose, even pompous, designed to stir the heart and thrill the listener. A Romantic piece can take you through an emotional wringer. And, across Europe in the late 19th century, Romantic music inspired patriots to wave their struggling nation's flag.
Music by John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), words by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)
Our Symphonic Journey begins, like so many European trips do, right here in the USA. The Star Spangled Banner celebrates the accomplishments of the first democratic revolution — in America — that blazed a trail for democracy in Europe.
You know the story. The song was written as America's fledgling democracy battled British royalists in the War of 1812. Francis Scott Key stood watching while foreign troops bombed Baltimore's Fort McHenry. "O, say..." As he looked out in the dawn's early light, our flag — with its broad stripes and bright stars — still flew.
When Americans hear those moving words, they remember the struggles of so many patriots in the fight for freedom. It moves us. And people all over the world feel the same emotional kick when they hear patriotic music from their own homeland. What better way to kick off a concert of heart-quickening music than with the song that, in 1831, became America's national anthem.
By Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899)
The world's most famous waltz celebrates the city of Vienna and the river that runs through it.
At its peak in the 1800s, Austria's Habsburg dynasty ruled one of the mightiest empires Europe had ever seen. Its royal family loved music and was a generous patron of the arts. Generations of great musicians — from Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms — flocked to Vienna, the epicenter of European culture. Music filled the city.
The waltz craze — the Beatlemania of its time — swept through Vienna. At first, it was scandalous. The "ONE-two-three" beat came from a crude peasant dance, unfit for genteel society. Dancers clung to each other as they spun to passionate music. Dances lasted from dusk to dawn, night after night.
Leading it all was Johann Strauss, Jr., the charismatic heartthrob of the day. Playing his furious violin while simultaneously directing the orchestra with wild gestures, Strauss whipped the crowds to "bewildering heights of frenzy" (as Wagner witnessed), till they were "frantic with delight and emitting groans of ecstasy."
Over time, this music of common peasants became respectable in high society. Strauss' Blue Danube was the #1 hit of 1867. With its memorable melody and catchy counterpoint, it describes the gray-brown river that's rarely blue. For Austrians today, it calls up sentimental affection for a world gone by.
The Austrian empire fell hard at the end of World War I, as the age of "divine right" monarchs gave way to democracy. No longer a superpower, it seems Austrians learned what really matters: good cakes, fancy balls, a short work week, a long life span, and a good waltz. That's Austria today, where it's my hunch that hearts still beat in 3/4 time.
By Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
The overture's opening fanfare — strong, clear, and rooted in simple C major — announces the optimistic mood of the opera, its composer, and of Germany itself in the 1860s. Wagner had just returned to his homeland after 12 years in exile, and he found the place humming with activity.
In 1850, there was no Germany, just a collection of 39 little German-speaking countries — Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, and so on. But a national movement was coalescing. Over the next two decades, German iron and coal output multiplied six fold, and trade boomed. When Germany united in 1871, it was immediately Europe's number-one economic power.
But there was one thing missing that could truly unite this new country — a common history. To be legitimate, countries needed historic roots. If emerging countries didn't have them, they'd dream them up. Artists dug deep in their culture to revive mythic themes, writing tales of their national heroes, rebuilding castles from a golden age, and composing music that awakened the German soul.
In the opera Die Meistersinger, Wagner created a nostalgic version of an ideal German village, populated with wise cobblers, lovely maidens, and happy craftsmen who sing while they work. It's a love story, where the brash young hero competes in a song contest to win the hand of his lady.
Musically, the overture introduces the opera's three main themes, one after the other, each about 90 seconds long. At the end, they reappear woven together, finishing in a brilliant climax. The whole piece is warm, bright, and robust, set to an up-tempo 4/4 beat. For nationalistic Germans of the 1860s, Wagner's opera confirmed how their country could preserve all that was good in their idealized past while steaming into the industrial future.
By Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)
The Moldau River — called the Vlatava in Czech — runs through a diverse landscape, like a thread connecting the Czech people. As with so many small European nations, the Czechs have struggled heroically to carve out their identity while surrounded by mightier neighbors — Austrians, Germans, and Russians.
In 1848, Smetana — a struggling young piano teacher — joined the radical "Citizens' Army" that had taken control of Prague. He wrote patriotic songs and befriended the rebel leader. In June, word came that Austrian troops were marching on the city. Smetana mounted the defense barricades hastily erected on the Charles Bridge, over the Moldau. The well-armed Austrians easily crushed the Czech revolt, but Smetana emerged with a reputation as a true patriot. He went on to write music that celebrated the roots of Czech culture, language, and traditions.
The Moldau is a symphonic portrait of the country's most important river. It starts as a trickle (the fluttering flute arpeggio), then slowly grows into a powerful stream (the main melody). This melody — haunting and beautiful — evokes the age-old traditions and unstoppable drive of the Czech people. The river passes by hunters in the forest (distant fanfares) and past a peasant wedding (the rustic dance tune).
The Moldau continues through a placid, moonlit stretch (of high strings and flute arpeggios), beneath ruined castles (the main melody in minor key), then accelerates through the rapids (a clashing, minor-key jumble of agitated strings, fanfares, and cymbal crashes). Finally, the river emerges majestically (the melody in a major-key) where it glides beneath the Charles Bridge in Prague — the Czech capital and Smetana's hometown.
At its premiere in 1882, The Moldau struck a chord immediately with the Czech people, and it continues as a kind of unofficial national anthem. It's performed every spring to open Prague's music festival. They chime a few notes in train stations before announcements. And it even plays on board Czech Airlines' planes as they touch down in Prague. To this day, Czechs get a lump in their throat when they hear Smetana's evocative melody — The Moldau.
By Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
In the year 1871, Aida premiered, and Italy was born. The triumphant piece caps decades of struggle of the Italian-speaking people to create their own independent country.
Before the 1870s, Italy, like Germany, was a fragmented collection of little states and colonies of the big European powers. Uniting such a diverse land — from Rome to Florence to Venice to the hill towns, beaches, and lakes — was a daunting task. And established countries didn't willingly give new countries their place on the map. Even waving the Italian flag was forbidden. But for Italian patriots, music raised their spirits like a bugle call on the battle field.
Italians' favorite music was Opera. Bombastic and melodramatic, it seems to fit people who are so enthusiastic about expressing their emotions that they need their hands. Italians would fill the opera houses, stand on their seats, and sing together the great arias of Verdi as if raising their voices in unison for Italian nationhood. Though Verdi himself was not a flaming revolutionary, his operas were seen as coded messages calling for freedom. In fact the very name "Verdi" came to be a nationalistic slogan calling for the only Italian blooded king, Victor Emmanuel, to be king of a new Italian nation — V.E.R.D.I.: Victor Emmanuel Re di Italia, "King of Italy."
This selection is the triumphal march from Verdi's best-known opera. While it's set in ancient Egypt, it's easy to imagine the pharaoh as a stand-in for the king of a newly united Italy, the soldiers as Italian freedom fighters, and the chorus as "the people."
A fanfare announces the arrival of the victorious troops. The horns are answered by strings setting a stately march. The pharaoh and his people enter to sing praise for their country (a melody played here by the Cascade Symphony Orchestra strings). Then the troops parade in, waving palms, and bringing conquered booty to deliver to the pharaoh. At the very end, the hero Radames arrives in a golden chariot. The pharaoh — that is, King Victor Emanuel II — embraces him, and thanks him for bringing victory to the homeland.
by Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
With a melody that's known around the world, this piece captures the grandeur and confidence of the first global superpower — Britain. At the end of the 19th century, Queen Victoria ruled nearly a quarter of the planet. Her realm was, famously, the empire "upon which the sun never set."
Britain was humming with the new-fangled inventions of the Industrial Age. A rising middle class was becoming prosperous and educated. There was an optimism that technology would bring a better life, and that hard work would be rewarded.
The son of a humble church organist, Elgar worked his way up in society, attending public schools and teaching himself music theory. By his forties, he was still a virtual unknown. Then in 1901, Pomp and Circumstance was performed in London, and it was an immediate hit. The next year, it was performed for the coronation of Victoria's successor, King Edward VII. Soon, Elgar was at Buckingham Palace, being knighted "Sir" Edward.
In 1905, Elgar traveled to the States to accept an honorary degree from Yale University. For the ceremony, Pomp and Circumstance was played. It seemed so perfect for the occasion that the tune has become the standard "Graduation March" for American commencement ceremonies.
Pomp and Circumstance begins with a flourish, then sets out on a jaunty march in E-flat, before relaxing down to D major — the "Graduation March" we all recognize. The march is stately and ceremonial, not a rush into battle. Its mellow orchestration conveys a quiet confidence, as though you've overcome adversity and are moving on. The music calls to mind the England we know and love — royal guardsmen, castles and knights, the monuments of London, and the Union Jack. For most Americans, this tune celebrates educational triumphs. But if you happen to be ruling a vast empire or bushwhacking a brave new future for the common man, it works nicely for other triumphs as well.
by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
In the 19th century, Norway was struggling in an uneasy union with Sweden. Norwegians had a deep-seated need to be Norwegians...distinct from Swedes. They celebrated their unique cultural identity in the folk songs, traditional customs, and awesome beauty of their native land.
"Morning" calls up images of a sunrise over a majestic fjord. Fluttering woodwinds set a peaceful mood. Then comes that memorable flute melody, suggesting the rising sun and chirping birds, as the world awakes and warms on a pristine morn.
Grieg, like so many Romantics, drew his inspiration from nature and his native land. Born and raised in Bergen, he made it his lifelong home. He married a local girl and directed the community orchestra. Though he traveled abroad (meeting Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and others), he settled with his family in his Bergen home, called Troldhaugen ("troll hill") after a local folk tale.
Bergen has deep roots in Norwegian history, dating back to Viking times. Until the 19th century, it was Norway's leading city. Most of the country's great painters, writers, and musicians gathered there in the far west, surrounded by the inspirational nature of Norway. These Romantics found their cultural roots literally in the soil, among the local farmers. They stood awestruck by the primeval wonders of nature — happy victims of its power and immensity. It set their souls free.
"Morning" was originally composed to accompany Peer Gynt, a popular play by Henrik Ibsen. Peer Gynt was sort of a Norwegian Huck Finn, a free-spirited dreamer whose misadventures played out in Norway's majestic scenery. These days, most Americans know "Morning" from cartoons and TV commercials.
Grieg's music painted the world he knew: the mountains, inlets, harbors, wooden homes, and peasant dances. It evokes the pride Norwegians feel for the gorgeous corner of the world they call home.
by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
France, home of the Enlightenment and the great Revolution, is where modern Europe was born. While the Romantic era is characterized by nations struggling for independence, all through this period France already had its independence. Its struggle was a domestic one: between haves and have nots, royals and aristocrats and peasants...the ruling elites and the common people. With their revolutions — and it took several — the French led the charge in Europe to end the old regime notion that some people are born ordained by God to be rulers and the vast majority are born to be ruled.
As if needing a soundtrack for its political aspirations, France helped birth the Romantic revolution in music. Where earlier composers wrote melodies, Hector Berlioz wrote emotions. He expanded the size of the orchestra and composed richer, more complex harmonies for added effect. Berlioz pointed the way to a new freedom in music.
This selection comes from his opera about the Trojan War. It tells the well-known story from the point of view of the losers and refugees.
A trumpet fanfare announces a procession. The Trojans enter, pulling the Trojan Horse into the gates of Troy, accompanied by joyous, triumphant music. Little do they know, Greek soldiers are hiding inside this victory gift. (You can hear them; listen for an abrupt pause halfway through the piece, when the music suddenly shifts to "whispering" strings.) Berlioz combines the Trojan triumph with hints of their ultimate doom.
With true Romantic hubris, Berlioz wrote the opera on an over-the-top scale: five acts, five hours long, requiring superhuman singers, a huge orchestra, dancers, chorus, and expensive sets. No opera house would take on the challenge, and Berlioz never saw a full performance of his masterpiece.
The French Revolution of 1789 — with its slogan "Liberté, egalité, fraternité" — inspired all Europeans who longed for freedom. But putting those ideals into practice wasn't easy. Even after decapitating their king, it took several more revolutions and another century to establish a true democracy.
Even today, the French people appreciate and vigorously defend these hard-fought gains. They're surrounded by monuments to the Revolution (the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower) and enjoy high culture made available to the common man — fine parks, cuisine, and art. As you listen to Berlioz's music, think of France's gift to Europe — liberty, equality, brotherhood.
by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The crowning moment of the final movement of the last symphony by the giant of 19th-century music — what better way to sum up our symphonic journey?
From Germany to Italy to the Czech Republic, we've seen how Romantic music served the cause of nationalist movements. How music of the common man, such as waltzes and marches, was raised to symphonic respectability. How composers found their souls in Nature, and how, in their unconventional lives, they broke the mold of tradition. The music of the Romantic era both expresses and empowers a basic human emotion — our fundamental yearning for freedom.
With Beethoven's Ode to Joy, we come full circle. Conceived in the spirit of the French Revolution, and based on a poem to universal brotherhood, this anthem is as relevant today as it was when Beethoven put pen to paper.
For his final symphony, Beethoven drew on musical ideas he'd dabbled in for decades, making it a synthesis of his career. He incorporated a popular poem that had inspired lovers of freedom since the French Revolution — Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy (1785). Though the Cascade Symphony Orchestra plays a purely instrumental version, listen to Beethoven's memorable, quarter-note melody and think of Schiller's words, which capture the joy of universal brotherhood.
"O Joy, beautiful spark of the Gods," the poem goes, "...under thy gentle wing...all men shall become brothers." It calls for everyone (the "millions") to recognize their universal bond, and "embrace in a kiss of the entire world." As Beethoven's music builds to its peak, the chorus joins together one last time to proclaim: "All men shall be brothers."
The 19th century laid the foundations for the 21st-century freedoms we enjoy today: freedom from foreign rule, rights for citizens, and government by, for, and of the people.
Now Europe is boldly taking one more step. Once-bitter enemies are binding together into a European Union. It's tough to get such a diverse collection of nations, languages, ethnicities, and customs to do anything in unison. But there's one piece of music Europeans can sing together — Beethoven's Ode to Joy. With this piece, Beethoven calls for all men to become brothers, to celebrate freedom, and to be united joyfully in their diversity. His music is now the official anthem of the European Union.