Classical Music History Overview

Richard Wagner

One can’t ignore Wagner when it comes to 19th-century music. He pushed the limits of tonality while keeping his music clear and keeping a steady theme or idea. Wagner’s creation of “gesamtkunstwerk”, or “total work of art”, is a very Romantic idea since it includes all works of art (music, poetry, acting, architecture). Wagner’s operas are all very important and most people would know themes from some of his pieces such as Lohengrin (“Bridal Chorus”), and The Valkyrie (“Ride of the Valkyries”) as they are two commonly used pieces of music.

Gustav Mahler

If Richard Wagner pushed the limits of tonality then Mahler helped to break the old limits of tonality and build new ones, along with other composers. Mahler’s music can be very emotional, and quite Romantic, such as the first movement of his Fifth Symphony. The piece begins with a funeral march and continues to switch back and forth between different styles and themes.

Modest Mussorgsky

Mussorgsky’s nationalist approach to music was part of a new generation of composers. His style dwelled on Russian themes and folk tunes for music. His most famous composition, Pictures at an Exhibition, is a very nationalist piece and also a very interesting piece because of its somewhat programmatic theme. Another representative piece of Mussorgsky would be Boris Godunov, which we did not listen to, but it is his well-known opera.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s music is not as nationalist as Mussorgsky’s, although it still has that Russian “vibe.” His famous ballets (Nutcracker Suite, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty) all are wonderful compositions that are representative of his style. These pieces are also very Romantic because of their use of new harmonies, theme development, and emotion.

John Philip Sousa

America’s own John Philip Sousa could be called the “Marching King.” He didn’t compose much other than marches, although he did compose several operettas. His marches have become famous American themes and some are even associated with several universities in the United States. His most famous march is The Stars and Stripes Forever, which is the United States’ official march. Also, Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” is also a well-known piece, being the United States Marine Corps official march.

Franz Liszt

Liszt is another composer who also “wears his heart on his sleeve.” It’s very easy to feel certain emotions through Liszt’s music, and he also tended to prefer conveying emotions rather than telling a story, just as Brahms. However, this doesn’t mean that Liszt didn’t write programmatic music. Liszt used the technique of thematic transformation in a lot of his music, which was similar to theme and variation and to other forms such as idée fixe and leitmotif. Liszt’s Symphonic Poems are some of his more representative works.

Richard Strauss

Strauss makes the listener think, mostly because Strauss is trying to tell a story by using music. For example, in Don Quixote Strauss uses different instruments and different themes to represent two characters. Strauss’ tone poems usually function in this manner and are very artistic pieces. His “Vier Letzte Lieder” is also an incredibly beautiful and Romantic song.