After the Mongols destroyed the city of Kiev in the thirteenth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded its territory to include parts of the former Kievan Rus. In 1385 it entered into a dynastic alliance with the Kingdom of Poland, which was deepened in 1569 and became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The emerging Russian state, now centered on Moscow rather than Kiev, thus had to face a Polish rival in Slavic lands. The westward pressure of Russia was reasserted after 1613 under the new Romanov dynasty. Nicholas Ostler explains in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World:
“[I]n 1795, Russia gained control of the whole east of Poland up to the Neman and Dniester rivers, a situation that prevailed until the remapping of Europe that followed the First World War in 1918. Linguistically, this control had little effect: although the Polish language is fairly closely related to Russian, it is less so than Ukrainian and Belorussian; above all, the Poles’ political and religious history (as a Catholic nation) had been quite distinct, and in fact their literacy and general standard of living far exceeded those of the Russians. To start with, under Tsar Aleksandr I the country was accorded a separate constitution – but the Tsar found it hard to respect its terms; later, especially after 1863-4 (when Poland rebelled), attempts were made at ‘Russification’. Among other measures, Russian was imposed as the language for official business; and not only the University of Warsaw but all Polish schools were required to operate exclusively in Russian. This proved unworkable, and Polish survived. By contrast, about the same time, in 1863, a Ukrainian language law was introduced, far harsher, banning publication of all books in Ukrainian besides folklore, poetry and fiction, and was followed up in 1867….This was more effective.”
Ukrainians were encouraged to view themselves as “little Russians.” However, a Ukrainian-speaking enclave existed under Austro-Hungarian rule, where their grammar continued to flourish and provided the basis for continued Ukrainian nationhood later. These Ukrainians were known as Ruthenians. Under Russian rule, a Polish natural character continued to survive. Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) was the greatest Polish poet of the Romantic era.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was the Romantic composer most closely identified with the piano, and his solo piano music won him enormous popularity. He was born near Warsaw, Poland, to a French father and a Polish mother. After studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, he performed in Vienna and toured Germany and Italy. When abroad he heard of the failed Polish revolt against Russian domination and decided to settle in Paris, where he established ties with other composers, including Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and, briefly, Felix Mendelssohn. His Polish roots always remained strong in exile, and Polish national themes influenced his music. He became the most fashionable piano teacher for wealthy students. The rarity of his public appearances as a pianist (he made only about 30 in the course of his lifetime) increased his cachet and allowed him to charge very high fees for lessons. Already weakened, he went on a tour of England and Scotland and made his last public appearance on a concert platform in London in 1848. He died from tuberculosis in Paris, France, in 1849.
According to Peter Watson, “Chopin invented a new kind of piano playing, the one that we are familiar with today. He had certain reflexes in his fingers which set him apart from other players, at that time at least, and this enabled him to develop piano music that was both experimental and yet refined. ‘Cannon buried in flowers’ is how Schumann described it. (The sentiment was not returned.) Chopin introduced new ideas about pedalling, fingering, and rhythm, which were to prove extremely influential. (He preferred the English Broadwood pianos, less advanced than some available.) His pieces had the delicacy and yet the vivid colourings of impressionist paintings, and just as everyone knows a Renoir from a Degas, so everyone knows Chopin when they hear it….The piano cannot be fully understood without Chopin. Or without Liszt. Like Chopin he was a brilliant technician (he gave his first solo at ten), and like Beethoven (whose Broadwood he acquired) and Berlioz, he had charisma. Good-looking, which was part of that charisma, Liszt invented bravura piano playing.”
The Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the greatest piano virtuoso of his time. When only nine he made his first public appearance as a concert pianist in what is now Bratislava, Slovakia, and moved with his family to Paris at the age of twelve. There he came into contact with many leading writers and artists, including author Victor Hugo. In 1830 he first met Hector Berlioz and in 1831 he heard Niccolò Paganini play for the first time. At this time he also met Frédéric Chopin. As a pianist Liszt was the first to give complete solo recitals, and between 1839 and 1847 he gave over one thousand solo concerts, touring Europe from Portugal and Ireland in the west to Romania and Russia in the east. His reception at times rivalled the hysteria sometimes afforded rock and pop superstars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and women adored him.
His roots show in works inspired by Hungarian or Gypsy melodies. Liszt had an enormous impact on music by devising new techniques for piano music and by introducing innovations as a conductor. He left the concert stage in 1848, but continued teaching and helping younger composers such as Edvard Grieg and Claude Debussy. As a composer he extended the harmonic language and invented the symphonic poem. He encouraged new music by conducting performances of important works, among them the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin in Weimar on 28 August 1850, the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The German Romantic composer and music critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) studied piano from the age seven and soon began to compose, especially songs and piano pieces, but also symphonies and various works for orchestra. He was musically influenced by Franz Schubert and was married to Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the foremost pianists of her day and a distinguished composer and teacher in her own right. Many of Robert’s best-known piano pieces were written for his wife. Unfortunately, depression ran in his family. Robert Schumann had episodes of strange behavior, attempted suicide and was confined to an asylum near Bonn, where he died in 1856. Schumann wrote the incidental music to the English writer Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred in 1848-49. One of his greatest accomplishments in dramatic music was Szenen aus Goethes Faust (Scenes from Goethe’s Faust).
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was an early Romantic composer, pianist and conductor. A fervent German patriot, he came from a wealthy banking family and was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a contributor to the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. Moses Mendelssohn embraced the Enlightenment and sought a revitalization of Jewish religious thought. Like most Jews in Central Europe he spoke Yiddish, a mixture of German, Polish and Hebrew, but he also mastered German and taught himself French, English, Latin and Greek, and studied mathematics and philosophy. He was convinced that modern Enlightenment ideas did not necessarily need to be opposed to Jewish thought. Reflecting the German tradition, he was less critical of religion than the French Enlightenment often was.
Although Jews were slowly gaining legal rights as a spillover from the French Revolution, Felix Mendelssohn’s father had his children baptized as raised as Christians. Felix began composing seriously at the age of eleven. At seventeen he composed the magical Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He blended influences from Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven with key aspects of Romanticism, the movement which exalted feeling and the imagination, partly as a reaction to the emphasis of reason and logic during the Enlightenment. His works include Italian Symphony, the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah, a violin concerto and numerous chamber works. A fine pianist, he was also the greatest conductor of his day, an excellent organist and violinist and was well read in poetry and philosophy.
The German composer and conductor Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born in Hamburg, but spent much of his professional life in Vienna. The son of a double bass player, he showed early promise as a pianist and studied piano, cello and horn as a child. Through lessons in music theory he developed a love for the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He earned money from playing popular music at restaurants and taverns and acquired a taste for folk music as well. In 1853 he met Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, who became his strongest supporters. After Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and final mental illness, Brahms helped take care of the family while Clara returned to her previous life as a performer. He wrote symphonies, chamber music, piano works, choral compositions and more than 200 songs and made a living as a pianist and from sales of his music to publishers.
Johannes Brahms’ most famous choral work, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), based on Biblical texts, was first performed at Bremen on Good Friday in 1868 and firmly established his European reputation. His last symphony, No. 4 in E Minor (1884-85), may well have been inspired by the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, which he read at the time. In his last two decades he traveled widely as a conductor, performing mostly his own works. He was buried in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) near Beethoven and Franz Schubert.
Beethoven had increased the size of the orchestra. Berlioz would increase it still more. The French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) followed Beethoven’s lead in his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and “shaped his symphonies around a series of emotions that tell a story.” He created more than a dozen works that have gained the status of musical classics, among them his Symphonie fantastique (1830) and the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839), and wrote the nineteenth century “Bible” on orchestration. He played flute and guitar but never learned how to play the piano. He was one of the most literary of composers; the epic poem The Aeneid by the classical Roman poet Virgil inspired his opera Les Troyens (The Trojans). He also found inspiration in many of Shakespeare’s works, in Goethe for La damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust) and composed the Rob Roy Overture to the writings of the Scottish author Walter Scott. After 1835 he began to conduct and soon became one of the first to make a career of orchestral conducting, touring across Europe with his own works as well as music created by other composers.
The Italian Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) composed some of the most popular operas ever written, among them The Barber of Seville, Cinderella and William Tell. The latter was based on the legend (?) of the Swiss national hero William or Wilhelm Tell from the early fourteenth century, whose life symbolizes the struggle for freedom. The operas of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), including La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, are still among the most frequently performed in the standard repertoire.
However, the greatest Italian composer of opera in the nineteenth century was Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), the son of an innkeeper in northern Italy who studied music as a child. Verdi is noted for operas such as Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), Don Carlos (1867), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) and wrote operas for houses in Milan, Venice, Rome, Trieste, Naples, Florence, London and Paris. He preferred stories that had already succeeded as spoken dramas, drawing on plays by authors such as Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller and Victor Hugo. Verdi’s opera Aïda was first performed in Cairo, Egypt, in 1871, two years after the opening of the Suez Canal which linked Mediterranean Europe with the Indian Ocean.
One of the towering figures of nineteenth-century culture was Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Born in Leipzig, Wagner had an enormous impact on all of the arts, especially his belief in the interrelationship between the arts. He brought German Romantic opera to a new height and created what he considered to be a new genre, the music drama. In his late works he developed a rich idiom that influenced composers to attenuate and even abandon tonality. Wagner was highly influential with his emphasis on music as the servant of drama. At the age of fifteen, he attended a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which had a profound effect on him. Several of his elder sisters became opera singers or actresses. Wagner read the plays of Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller and studied music in Dresden and Leipzig. Fleeing from creditors he spent the years 1839-42 in Paris, with little success. In the early 1840s he composed his opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). After Tannhäuser from 1845, based on Germanic legends, his popularity was ensured. Yet when he supported the 1848-49 insurrection he had to flee Germany after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
During the next decade he lived primarily in Zürich, Switzerland, composing, conducting and writing treatises. His discovery of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer influenced his writing of Tristan und Isolde, which he composed between 1857 and 1859 in Venice, Italy and in Lucerne, Switzerland. It premiered in 1865. Having already studied the Siegfried legend and the Norse myths, Wagner began composing his massive cycle of four music dramas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which took more than a generation to complete. The four operas that constitute the Ring cycle are Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and finally Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), later called Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The Götterdämmerung, inspired by Ragnarök, the end of the world as we know it according to Norse mythology, premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in Bavaria, Germany in 1876.
According to scholar Deryck V. Cooke, Richard Wagner “developed such a wide expressive range that he was able to make each of his works inhabit a unique emotional world of its own, and, in doing so, he raised the melodic and harmonic style of German music to what many regard as its highest emotional and sensuous intensity. Much of the subsequent history of music stems from him, either by extension of his discoveries or reaction against them.”
Wagner’s standing as one of the greatest composers of all time is indisputable, but his reputation has been somewhat mired by his anti-Semitic tract Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), published under a pseudonym in 1850 and under Wagner’s own name in 1869. In this essay he arguably contributed to an anti-Semitic strain in German culture that was to prove dangerous under different circumstances a few generations later.
While the French, Italians and others have had a huge influence on the development of European music, the German-speaking regions have produced a disproportionate number of great names within the European musical tradition. The contributions from the Iberian Peninsula, as well as from former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America, are in my view strongest in literature. Luís Vaz de Camões (ca. 1524-1580), or Camoens in English, was one of Portugal’s greatest poets. Lope de Vega (1562-1635) was a Baroque playwright and poet whose reputation in the Spanish-speaking world is second only to that of Cervantes. Pedro Calderón de la Barca y Henao (1600-1681) is another prominent dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age. Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was the principal Spanish composer the early twentieth century, but in general, Spain did not produce many musicians of the same stature as Velázquez or Picasso in painting.
The Baroque reached a peak in northern Europe with the incredibly productive Flemish painter Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). A classically-educated humanist scholar who studied in his native Flanders as well as in Italy, he developed a rich, sensuous and colorful style which was very well received at the time. He was a devout Catholic and painted many religious pictures in addition to fleshy, sensual nudes, water nymphs and angels. In fact, Rubens was so successful that he established a large studio in the city of Antwerp and hired many assistants who aided him in the production of paintings. The Dutch and the Flemish, too, are not as prominent among the great names in music as they are in art.
There are exceptions, among them the Belgian-French Romantic composer, organist and music teacher César Franck (1822-1890), who was born in Liège, Belgium, but came to Paris to study at the Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. Nevertheless, when you consider the truly impressive number of great painters produced in the Low Countries, from Jan van Eyck via Rembrandt to Vincent van Gogh, then their musical contributions do not match this. It appears as if the major composers in the Protestant regions of Europe, like J. S. Bach, flourished mainly in the Lutheran areas, not in the Calvinist ones.
Britain could produce great literary figures such as Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the Anglo-Irish satirist and poet remembered for Gulliver’s Travels, Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose novels and short stories were among the most popular of the Victorian era, or the English women novelists Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Yet Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the first English composer in more than two centuries to enjoy wide international recognition. He was followed by his countryman Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), but compared to Dickens they are not quite of the same stature. George Frideric Handel spent much of his adult life in Britain and composed some of his best works there, but even he was originally born and raised in Germany. While the English-speaking world did not produce much music of the highest order before the twentieth century, they did produce brilliant authors and poets who inspired great music, none more so than William Shakespeare.
As scholar Stanley Wells says in his book Shakespeare: For All Time, the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was born in the same year as Shakespeare but matured faster as a writer. Had Shakespeare, too, died at the age of only twenty-nine, Marlowe would probably have been remembered as the greatest writer of the two. Shakespeare’s reputation grew rapidly during the 1590s. In his own time his poems were far more popular and widely read than they are today, when he is first and foremost remembered as a great playwright. His diversity, his gift for mixing comedy and tragedy and his mastery of completely different literary genres was one of his greatest strengths as a writer.
Franz Schubert and the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) are but two of the major figures who have given us songs, tone poems, ballets, symphonic scores or other compositions based on some of Shakespeare’s works, and artists of the stature of William Blake, J. M. W. Turner and Dante Gabriel Rossetti have drawn inspiration from his characters. Voltaire lived in England between 1726 and 1729 and became familiar with English literature. He appreciated Shakespeare’s talent but was critical of some aspects of his plays, for instance Hamlet. Goethe admired Shakespeare and drew inspiration from him throughout his life. The writer and poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885), best-known outside of his native France for the novel Les Misérables, embraced his works more than did Voltaire.
Hector Berlioz composed more great music inspired by Shakespeare than any other person, even more than Giuseppe Verdi, who himself wrote several works inspired by the English playwright, including a Macbeth opera. The French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) loved Hamlet and produced lithographs illustrating this text in addition to Goethe’s Faust. In 1847 Delacroix also helped with designing costumes for the French writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and his version of Hamlet, which Delacroix disliked. Dumas is especially famous for novels such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) were great admirers of Shakespeare, but Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was severely critical of his plays, especially King Lear. The Russian/Soviet composer and conductor Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the ballet Romeo and Juliet, today one of the most popular ballets based on Shakespeare’s works. It was first performed in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1938 and due to Communist censorship wasn’t performed in Moscow until 1950. The American composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), born in the United States to a Russian Jewish family, wrote the music to the musical West Side Story, set in New York in the 1950s and again loosely based on Romeo and Juliet.
Many artists of the nineteenth century, especially those who did not have an independent nation state, were inspired by national traditions. The Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), born in the city of Bergen, wrote songs, short piano pieces and orchestral suites that incorporated the modal melodies and harmonies as well as the dance rhythms of his native Norway. The all-pervading influence in his music is that of Norwegian folk songs and dances. Not all of his music was nationalistic; his Piano Concerto in A Minor remains a favorite. An ethnic character emerges most clearly in his songs based on Norwegian texts, especially his excellent Peer Gynt Suite (1875), written to a play by the prominent Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). A successful marriage between music and text, Peer Gynt is a rich drama in rhymed couplets and Ibsen’s last play to employ verse.
Henrik Ibsen is otherwise remembered for plays such as An Enemy of the People, Ghosts and A Doll’s House. He was a man with radical ideas who challenged Victorian family values and was one of the champions of realistic drama and the modern theater, along with his prominent Swedish colleague and contemporary August Strindberg (1849-1912). From Sweden, several women writers, for instance Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) with her The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, and Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the influential writer of children’s books such as Pippi Longstocking, were among the prominent names in the twentieth century.
In Denmark, the violinist and conductor Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is regarded as the foremost composer, but literary figures such as the philosopher, theologian and cultural critic Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and especially the Danish author Hans Christian or H.C. Andersen (1805-1875) are more famous abroad. Andersen’s massively popular fairy tales, including The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and above all The Emperor’s New Clothes, have been translated into dozens of languages around the world.
Bohemia had for centuries been a part of the Austrian Empire and thus, unlike Russia, a part of the mainstream of European music. Opera had long been heard in the capital city of Prague, but in Italian or in German, which was the official state language. In the nineteenth century there was growing focus on Czech traditions. Composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), the son of a Bohemian brewer, wrote the comic opera The Bartered Bride, which was first performed in Prague in 1866 and secured his international reputation. He chose Czech subjects, and the sets and costumes drew on national traditions. Influenced by Franz Liszt he created a Czech national style by using folklike tunes and popular dance rhythms such as the polka.
Smetana lived for several years in Gothenburg, Sweden, as conductor of the philharmonic society there, but returned to Prague in 1861. His six symphonic poems are collectively titled Má vlast (My Country, from the 1870s). Of these, the most famous outside of the Czech Republic is The Moldau. He became deaf in 1874, but like Beethoven continued to compose. Smetana was succeeded by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), whose operas include plots based on Czech village life, local fairy tales and Slavic history. This tradition of music with a national flavor was continued by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). The Czech journalist and poet Jan Neruda (1834-1891) was one of the notable authors of the era.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a Russian fiction writer, essayist and philosopher and one of the towering figures of world literature. He grew up in a middle-class family in Moscow and acquired a love of reading, especially the works of the Ukrainian-born writer Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) and the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). At his father’s insistence, Dostoyevsky trained as an engineer in St. Petersburg. While he was at school, his father was murdered by his own serfs. In 1848 he joined a group of intellectuals which met to discuss literary and political issues. Such groups were illegal at the time, and they were arrested and charged with subversion. “Dostoyevsky and several of his associates were imprisoned and sentenced to death. As they were facing the firing squad, an imperial messenger arrived with the announcement that the Czar had commuted the death sentences to hard labor in Siberia. This scene was to haunt the novelist the rest of his life.”
In prison the writer underwent a profound spiritual and philosophical transformation and undertook intense studies of the New Testament, the only book the prisoners were allowed to read. His experiences there and among the urban poor of Russia greatly affected his later literary work and enabled him to attain profound philosophical and psychological insights. He also had to endure the deaths of his wife and his brother and a financially devastating addiction to gambling. Released from his imprisonment by 1858, Dostoyevsky spent several fruitful years abroad and began a productive period producing some of his greatest novels, among them Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Idiot (1868). The Idiot was influenced by Hans Holbein’s painting Christ Taken from the Cross and by Dostoyevsky’s personal opposition to the growing non-religious sentiment of the times. His last work was the epic family tragedy The Brothers Karamazov, completed in 1880. The writer died a few months later at his home in St. Petersburg. His funeral was attended by thousands of citizens.
The Russian author who is closest to Dostoyevsky in literary importance is Leo Tolstoy. His novel War and Peace from 1869 is one of his masterpieces, along with Anna Karenina from 1878, universally applauded as one of the world’s greatest novels. Tolstoy’s central message is an emphasis on human love and trust, but within a realistic framework. Realism in European literature was championed by the Frenchman Émile Zola (1840-1902) and others in the mid-nineteenth century. Realist writers such as Zola and Balzac believed that literature should depict life exactly as it is, just like objective scientists do.
According to A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition, “The greatest Russian realist, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), combined realism in description and character development with an atypical moralizing, which came to dominate his later work. Tolstoy’s greatest work is War and Peace (1864-1869), a monumental novel set against the historical background of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy probed deeply into the lives of a multitude of unforgettable characters, such as the ill-fated Prince Andrei; the shy, fumbling Pierre; and the enchanting, level-headed Natasha. Tolstoy went to great pains to develop his fatalistic theory of history, which regards free will as an illusion and the achievements of even the greatest leaders as only the channelling of historical necessity.”
Sergey Prokofiev made an opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and another opera based on The Gambler, the great novel which Fyodor Dostoyevsky allegedly completed in just a few weeks so that he could pay off his own considerable gambling debts.