The Story of Music 4: The Age of Tragedy

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In the fourth part of the series, composer Howard Goodall examines the music of the middle to late 19th century, in which a craze for operas and music that dealt with death and destiny swept Europe.

Inspired by Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique, music written about witches, ghouls, trolls and hellish torment became the norm. Even Italian opera succumbed to the death and destiny obsession, with Verdi's La Traviata. The tragic death of its heroine was also a comment on the hypocrisies of the wider society.

The composer who was the most influential figure of the mid 19th century was the cosmopolitan Hungarian-born Franz Liszt. Little wonder that he wrote pieces about two of the mythical figures that obsessed the composers of the period - Faust, the superior, brooding intellectual who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for esoteric knowledge and earthly pleasures, and Prometheus, who is punished for all eternity by Zeus for giving mankind the gift of fire. The age of the Superman was around the corner. And the image of the composer as a moody, misunderstood genius, apart from other men, was cemented in the public imagination.

One of Liszt's many innovations was music that seemingly 'sampled' the folk music of his native land. In the second half of the 19th century, this 'Ethnic Heritage' musical movement gathered pace. But what we hear, in Liszt, Brahms and Dvorak, is rarely genuine peasant forms. Although in Dvorak's New World Symphony, we do seem to hear a borrowed American-Indian tune, which caused great controversy. This was music for a middle class audience, with exotic flavourings.

The composer Liszt most influenced, though, not least in terms of musical nationalism, was his own son-in-law, Richard Wagner. Wagner reinvented opera, and introduced into it darker, more unstable harmonies, that were to change the music that followed him - derived, ultimately, from experiments already made by Liszt. Wagner's operas are a towering achievement. But they had a dark side. Wagner's operas - and his political writings - were later to act as an inspiration for Hitler. The swirling, nationalistic, romantic, nihilistic undercurrents of the music of this period is still troubling today.

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