The Making of Music (Part 3)

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The 19th century was a boom era for classical music, says James Naughtie

Two buildings opened within five years of each other are a useful pivot for the story of music in the 19th century. The Royal Albert Hall was finished in 1871, and in 1876 Richard Wagner conducted the first opera in his new theatre at Bayreuth, which was less a place of entertainment than a temple to his art.

In London, the two decades from 1851’s Great Exhibition were a time of growing national prosperity. Crystal Palace Saturday concerts were crowd-pullers, orchestras and choirs were proliferating and the great Romantic symphonies were being enjoyed by a new and bigger audience. Classical music was booming.
 

At the same time, Wagner was fomenting a revolution that left its mark on every composer who followed him. The four operas of The Ring, performed in sequence
for the first time at Bayreuth, had been started decades earlier but this was the moment when his challenge to established taste was heard in its full glory. Brahms and others raged against ‘the so-called music of the future’ but this new romanticism couldn’t be stopped.
 

It shaped the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, the radicalism of Schoenberg (who spent his youth watching Wagner’s operas again and again), the orchestral genius of Richard Strauss, whose father was a horn player at Bayreuth. It was as if the chord that opens Tristan & Isolde, not resolved until the end of the opera, was the signal for a great turning point in musical history.
 

Brahms and Wagner illustrate the change. Schumann said Brahms was the complete musician from the very beginning, as if he had sprung ‘fully armed like Athena from the head of Zeus’ and his craft speaks of the Romantic tradition that was giving music a majestic and popular voice. Wagner strove to break away, to use orchestral power and the legacy of Beethoven and his successors to produce something new – in particular the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. The argument about what music was for meant that nothing could be the same again.

The Making of Music was broadcast on Radio 4 and is now available as a BBC Audiobook

Audio clip: The Making of Music – The Shock of the New

Related links:
The Making of Music (Part 1)
The Making of Music (Part 2)
The Making of Music (Part 3)
The Making of Music (Part 4)