Chapter 20

Chapter 20: The Later Romantics

Composer Biographies

Franz Joseph Liszt

Born: October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary

Died: July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

In his own words . . .

"Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought, as it is forced in most arts and especially in the art of words. If music has one advantage over the other media through which a person can represent the impressions of the soul, it owes this to its supreme capacity to make each inner impulse audible without the assistance of reason. . . . Music presents at once the intensity and the expression of feeling. It is the embodied and intelligible essence of feeling, capable of being apprehended by our senses. It permeates them like a dart, like a ray, like a mist, like a spirit, and fills our soul."

Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor. Lizst was an innovator in his piano and orchestral works, and created new approaches to form.

Franz Liszt embodied all of the great ambitions of the Romantic era and many of its contradictions. His life spanned three generations of Romantic composers. In his early life, he was an extravagant virtuoso, the darling of the ladies, and a creator of new and adventurous music. In his old age, he turned to the church, becoming a priest, writing sacred music, and championing the music of a new generation.

Liszt was born in Hungary, where his father was in the employ of a wealthy family. His early talent in music was rewarded by the support of a group of Hungarian nobles who subsidized his studies in Paris. There he became part of an important circle of artists, writers, and musicians that included Fryderyk Chopin. He studied composition and made his living as a performer and teacher. In his performances, he followed the model of such virtuosos as the violinist Paganini, making his personality and physical presence as much a part of the performance as his dazzling technique and musicianship. His effect on the audience—especially women—is preserved (and sometimes satirized) in numerous drawings and paintings. Liszt's long-lasting relationships with two married women (the Countess Marie d'Agoult, by whom he had three children, and the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein) were marked by both turbulent scenes and periods of great creativity.

In 1848, Liszt abandoned his concert career to concentrate more on his composing. He took the post of court conductor to the duke of Weimar, and it was here that he wrote or revised many of his most well-known pieces. Late in life, he moved to Rome, taking minor orders there in 1865. Much of the rest of his life was taken up with composing religious music, although he kept up his career as a teacher and performer, dividing his time between Rome, Weimar, and Budapest.

Liszt stands out most for his new approach to large-scale form. Many of his symphonic works abandoned the four-movement structure of the symphony. Instead, these symphonic poems (as he called them) were huge single-movement works that relied on extramusical programs and the progressive transformation of a musical theme for their structural coherence. In these works, the themes are modified by changes in harmony, rhythm, or even melodic outline. These transformations are used to create a sense of narrative or psychological progression. Liszt also used the technique of thematic transformation in his nonprogrammatic works, such as his concertos. As a virtuoso pianist, Liszt filled his piano music with fantastic technical demands, and many of his compositions represent the ultimate in nineteenth-century virtuosity. He also expanded the repertory and possibilities of the piano with his many transcriptions and arrangements of symphonic and operatic works.


  • Orchestral music, including symphonic poems (Les Préludes, 1848), Dante Symphony (1856), Faust Symphony (1857), 2 piano concertos, and Totentanz (for piano and orchestra, 1849)
  • Piano music, including Transcendental Etudes (1851), Sonata in B Minor (1853), Hungarian Rhapsodies, nocturnes, waltzes, ballades, polonaises, and other character pieces
  • Numerous transcriptions of orchestral and opera works for piano
  • Choral music, including masses, oratorios, psalms, cantatas, and secular part-songs
  • 1 opera and songs with piano accompaniment

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Musical Examples

Click on the songs to listen:
  • Liebestraum No.3 in A-flat Major, Op.63, No.3 03:47
  • La campanella (The Little Bell) 04:48
  • Les Préludes 17:00
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    • A General Biography
      A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes a basic bibliography for further reading.
    • Works and Recordings
      A brief biography and list of recommended recordings of Liszt's most popular works from ClassicalNet.
    • The Franz Liszt Home Page
      Includes a chronology of Liszt's life and works and a list of recommended recordings, as well as an image of a newly discovered Liszt manuscript.

    Johannes Brahms

    Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany

    Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

    In his own words . . .

    "It is not hard to compose, but it is wonderfully hard to let the superfluous notes fall under the table."

    German composer. Brahms created a style that blended the lyrical and intellectual and served as a contrast to the progressive style of the New German School.

    Johannes Brahms grew up practically surrounded by a world of music. His father was a double bass player, and Brahms took early lessons in piano, theory, and composition. As a teenager, he gained intimate familiarity with serious and popular styles, arranging music for his father's orchestra and playing piano in local dance halls. At twenty, he began touring as an accompanist and began to make important contacts. Among these were Robert and Clara Schumann, both of whom had a lasting effect on his life and career. Robert, in his role as a critic, first brought Brahms's name to the notice of the German public, calling him a "young eagle." Clara became an emotional focus for Brahms, one that would last throughout his life.

    Brahms spent many years working as a conductor and pianist, hoping for a prestigious appointment that never materialized. He did, however, serve two years as director of the Berlin Singakademie. In 1868, he settled in Vienna, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He soon composed two works that assured him both fame and financial security: the German Requiem (premiered in 1869) and his orchestral Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873). With this success behind him, he finally finished his first attempt at a symphony. The work was premiered in 1876 to great acclaim, and Brahms was hailed as the true successor of Beethoven. This was followed by three other symphonies, all of which have become standard repertory, along with a large body of important works in virtually every genre (except for opera, which, like marriage, he consciously avoided throughout his life).

    In 1890, at the age of fifty-seven, Brahms announced his retirement from composition. He was coaxed out of retirement by the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms wrote some of his last (and greatest) chamber works. Brahms died of cancer in 1897, not long after the death of his one love and close friend, Clara Schumann.

    Brahms is an important figure in German music, standing almost as a rock of Classicism in the onrushing stream of the new styles created by Wagner, Liszt, and others. His music is unshakably absolute, never drawing on extramusical images or ideas. His study of the music of earlier composers, including those of the Renaissance, added to the more conservative elements of his music. He often turned to older forms of expression, most notably that of variation. At the same time, his music has a strong personal aspect to it. His German Requiem, for example, is neither a sectarian religious work, nor a dramatic stage work (as was Berlioz's). Rather, it is a response to the subject of death, freely drawing passages from the Bible to create a piece that is both personal and national. All these qualities combine to make Brahms one of the truly distinctive voices of the late nineteenth century.


    • Orchestral music, including 4 symphonies (1867, 1877, 1883, and 1884–85), Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873), 2 overtures (Academic Festival, 1880 and Tragic, 1886), and 4 concertos (2 for piano, 1858 and 1881; 1 for violin, 1878; and 1 double concerto for violin and cello, 1887)
    • Chamber music, including string quartets, quintets, and sextets; piano trios, quartets, and and quintet; 1 clarinet quintet; and sonatas (violin, cello, clarinet/viola)
    • Piano music, including sonatas, character pieces, dances, and variation sets (on a theme by Handel, 1861 and on a theme by Paganini, 1862–63)
    • Choral music, including A German Requiem (1868), Alto Rhapsody (1869), and part-songs
    • Lieder, including Vergebliches Ständchen (Futile Serenade, 1881), Four Serious Songs (1896), and folk song arrangements

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    Musical Examples

    Click on the songs to listen:

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    • A General Biography
      A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes a works list; a discussion of his symphonies, concertos, piano music, chamber music, and A German Requiem (all with sound clips); and an image gallery.
    • Brahms at the Piano
      In 1879, Johannes Brahms recorded some short excerpts using Thomas Edison's cylinder recording system. These have long frustrated scholars because their possible musicological value is equaled only by their terrible sound quality. This site documents the attempts of scholars at The Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford to recover the sounds hidden behind all the noise.
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