In the words of Howard Goodall, music from around 1850 became “grand, gutsy and gory”. In the latter half of the 19th century, we come into what many people might associate with the Victorian era: gothic styles and the fascination with the supernatural. With Queen Victoria wearing nothing but black for the rest of her days following the death of Prince Albert, figures like Lord Byron fascinating society with his enigmatic, gothic lifestyle, and Charles Dickens releasing novels addressing gritty real-life, we can see a historic shift in the character of Victorian society. It was probably a result of the restrictive social rules that Queen Victoria had put in place; where there are such rigid rules, there is often a backlash, and music was no exception to changing trends during Victoria’s mourning.
The Victorians were a very superstitious people; anything that couldn’t be explained was often declared a supernatural occurrence. The fascination with ghosts and the price of sin and mania (predominantly communicated as the errors of women) offered a new perspective for writing music especially. It allowed composers to create music from an emotional stimulus or dramatic story, rather than a formula or pattern from a commission. This is not to say that music of previous centuries was devoid of emotion, quite the opposite, but in this era, music often formed from the seed of an emotional story, intending to inflict certain emotions upon the listener. This is why we call this period of music the Romantic period.
It was during this time that symphonies were given names instead of a number, like for example Russian composer, Tchaikovsky's ‘Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, or French composer, Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’. The main feature that the symphony brought to its listeners was drama. A symphony is a piece of music designed for an entire orchestra. Symphonies had been popular in the preceding century, with Mozart writing up to 68 of them, but the 1800s brought a new flare to the form. Interesting and unique harmonies challenged how music could prompt certain feelings and convey emotions. Franz Liszt was a composer who really propelled the trend of death and destiny, and how music could embody and portray it, and he did it in a way that really set the benchmark for other composers.
Beethoven: The bridge between Classical and Romantic
Ludwig van Beethoven is probably one of the most famous composers ever to live. His early work falls into the tail end of the refined Classical period; his first symphony is not a piece of music that seems to match the notorious and dramatic character of Beethoven’s later music, but Beethoven’s music bridged the end of the Classical period, to the early Romantic period, and it’s easy to tell. The development of his music really displays the changing trends, though much of his later work was actually born from his personal struggles more so than his stamp on a trending musical style.
Beethoven influenced music in a way that few composers would ever be able to match. His unforgettable melodies, dramatic contrasts in tone and entrancing harmonic and tonal progressions immortalised his music. There were plenty of Romantic composers who challenged musical norms, but it was Beethoven’s music that is known for being the product of his own emotions and troubling personal life. As an adult, Beethoven struggled with numerous illnesses, as well as what we now understand as terrible depression. As his life went on he slowly isolated himself from the outside world, after being ridiculed for his struggles. It was because of the raw emotional honesty that Beethoven’s music became so successful, and the most interesting part of his life is that for the majority of his musical career, Beethoven was completely deaf.
Theatre in the sidelines...for now
Unfortunately, though the history of music and its role in society has a fascinating story to tell, a big part of that story is the omission of other narratives that weren’t white, wealthy or male. The narrative of the time was that of the powerhouses of Classical and Romantic music, and that’s how things would stay for years to come. Though there were some cases of popular playwrights such as Oscar Wilde selling out tickets for his light-hearted comedies, and works of social challenge in the form of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the theatre would have to remain in the shadow of the opera house and concert hall for some time.
It wasn’t until the four gruesome years of the First World War that drama, as well as music, would take a stand like never before to unapologetically and undeniably scold the flaws of their society and the fatal mistakes that cost millions of lives.