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German-speaking composers dominated the European musical scene for centuries. This lesson looks at three very different Germanic composers from the Romantic era and explores some of their best-known works.

German Romanticism

Germany and Austria have been home to some of the greatest classical composers of all time. This lesson will explore the lives and major contributions of three German-speaking composers from the Romantic era: Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Richard Wagner.

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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert was born to a schoolteacher in the German-speaking city of Vienna, Austria.

He was an accomplished singer, string player, and pianist, and his musical talents allowed him to attend the most prestigious schools in Vienna. However, Schubert’s true passion was composing. He spent every spare second he could writing music, and even quit his job as a teacher to have more time to write music.Schubert wrote symphonies, chamber music, and solo piano works but is best known as the father of German lieder. The word lieder literally means ‘songs’ in the German language, but when it is used in classical music, it specifically refers to a German art song for voice and piano.

Schubert would often premiere his latest lieder at parties dedicated to the arts that became known as ‘Schubertiads.’ Schubert loved to party, which may be how he contracted syphilis, a disease which caused his death in 1828. In addition to writing over 600 lieder, he also left behind a number of works for orchestra and ensemble, including some very popular string quartets and his ‘Unfinished Symphony’.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Germany. His dream was to become a piano virtuoso, a technical and artistic master of a musical instrument. Unfortunately, a hand injury killed those dreams. Instead, he began a career as a music critic, founding an academic journal for new music called Die Neue Zeitschrift f;r Musik.Schumann also composed music, especially for the piano. His well-known 1835 work Carnaval consists of 21 short piano pieces.

One of those pieces was named after Clara Wieck, the daughter of Schumann’s piano teacher Frederich. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist. When Carnaval was written, she was 15 years old, and Schumann, who was 9 years older than she, had begun to fall deeply in love with her.Clara’s father, Frederich, strongly opposed this relationship, but, despite his objections, Schumann and Clara were eventually married. Schumann was so in love with Clara that he wrote over a hundred lieder the year they got married. Historians call this year, 1840, Schumann’s Liederjahr, or ‘year of song.’The Schumanns had six children that survived to adulthood.

Their happy marriage was shadowed by a depressive and hallucinogenic mental disorder that had plagued Robert Schumann since he was a young man. Following a suicide attempt in 1854, Clara made the difficult decision to have him institutionalized. He died in a mental hospital in 1856.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany. He loved the fusion of theater and music, which led him to focus mostly on opera composition. Wagner ascribed to an aesthetic theory called Gesamtkunstwerk, an idea that synthesizes poetry, scenery, costumes, music, and acting to create a unified work where drama is the main focus.

To better accomplish this, he built a special opera house in the town of Bayreuth, Germany called the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. This stadium-style auditorium was designed to minimize distractions to help the audience focus on the action occurring on stage.Wagner wanted to make the music an integral part of the drama, which led him to invent the leitmotif, theme music for characters, objects, places, or emotions. Unlike most theme music, leitmotifs transform and change as the drama unfolds. Leitmotifs are cool because they give the audience additional information about the drama. For example, if a male character sings a female character’s leitmotif, the audience knows that the male character is thinking about the female character.

Wagner’s leitmotifs shine in his epic work The Ring of the Nibelung. This 4-opera cycle takes about 15 hours to perform and follows the story of a magical ring and the gods, mortals, and mythical beings whose fates are influenced by the ring’s power. Think Lord of the Rings meets Viking goddess warriors, but with everyone singing. Wagner’s opera cycle has dozens of characters to keep track of, but his leitmotifs help the audience follow the complicated plot.Wagner was a controversial figure, not only for his innovative music but also because of his anti-Semitic views. Because of this, Wagner’s music is taboo in Israeli concert halls and opera houses.

Lesson Summary

Schubert, Schumann, and Wagner were all important German-speaking composers of the Romantic era. Franz Schubert is best known for his lieder, or German art songs that he would premiere at lavish parties called Schubertiads. Robert Schumann married the talented pianist and composer Clara Wieck, and hoped to become a piano virtuoso until a hand injury prevented him from realizing his dream. He turned to composing and became a music critic, publishing his ideas in the New Journal of Music. Richard Wagner loved drama, and devoted his life to writing operas. He practiced an idea called Gesamtkunstwerk, where all theatrical elements work together to enhance the drama. To help with this, he wrote short musical ideas, called leitmotifs, that represented characters, objects, and emotions.

Learning Outcomes

As you study this lesson on Wagner, Schubert and Schumann, you’ll increase your capacity to:

  • Indicate the things that Schubert is best known for
  • Summarize the life and accomplishments of Schumann
  • Discuss Wagner’s work in and innovations for opera

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