The Romantic Era was a period in music in which there was much change during the 1850’s to the 1920’s in the theory and compositional practice of music. The composers wrote their pieces with more artistic freedom, experimentation, and creativity than the artists of the classical era and this caused the melody to become the more dominant feature in the songs composed. Some popular composers that originated out of this era are: Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, and Richard Wagner. For inspiration, many Romantic composers turned to visual arts, poetry, drama and literature, and to nature itself. These influences led composers to express emotion in their music. These changes in the sound of the music came in the form of the increased use of dissonance and the extended use of chromatics. Although Romantic era music contained classical era roots, the instruments used in the Romantic era were changing and brass and woodwind instruments were being improved in the quality of sound, as well as in how they were played. Some Romantic era composers used their compositions to express nationalism by the way of incorporating elements unique to their native cultures, such as folk songs, dances, and legendary histories. Mikhail Glinka is an example of a composer who wrote operas specifically on Russian subjects.
Many great operas derived from the Romantic era including Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Opera was very dominant in Italy where the operas differed from the operas of the classical era because the form of the pieces were being changed by having the tenors given the heroic lead in operas and by giving the chorus a more important lead than before. Gioachino Rossini was the first composer to initiate an opera in the Romantic era, which started in the early 19th century. His first piece, La Cambiale di Matrimonio, included scenes where the characters expressed emotion through the lyrics of their songs. This was a comedic opera that was the first of its kind which was written in 1810. Many great composers followed Rossini including Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Giuseppe Verdi. These composers continued to change the way operas were being written as well as preformed. These changes were evident in Verdi’s first successful opera, Nabucco, which the general public found interesting because of it’s great choruses. Verdi also continued to express nationalism in his operas, Va, pensiero, which was interpreted as giving meaning to the struggle for Italian independence and Verdi was expressing his hope to unify Italy. By the end of the Romantic era, opera had become a combination of many art forms including the theatre, dance and orchestra oriented music.
Although opera was predominant in Italy, many other European composers were contributing to the changes in the music of their generation, including German composer Richard Wagner. Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany where he had a difficult childhood. Wagner’s father died of typhus six months after Richard’s birth which led his mother Johanna Rosine Wagner, to begin living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer, who had been a friend of Richard’s father up until his death. Richard’s mother then proceeded to marry Ludwig Geyer and they moved the family to Dresden. It is here where Wagner started his musical learning. Richard first took interest in his step father’s love for the theatre and performance arts and he played an angel in a play at a local theatre. When he was seven, Wagner was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel’s school at Possendorf, near Dresden, where he received some piano instruction from his Latin teacher. A year later his stepfather died which led the eight year old Wagner to attend the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden. Although Richard was largely a self taught musician he persuaded his family to allow him to take music lessons. From 1828-1831 Wagner completed his first lessons in composition with Christian Gottlieb Müller and by the time he was fifteen he had already written his first play. Wagner’s focus on drama is one of the reasons his operas really shined as being different than operas of the classical era. He enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831 where Wagner further took composition lessons from Christian Theodor Weinlig who refused to let Richard pay for the lessons he was giving him. Weinlig was so impressed with Wagner’s talents that he arranged for one of Wagner’s piano works to be published. Wagner continued his studies in music and he completed his first opera when he was twenty years old called Die Feen. This opera would not be produced until half a century later when it was premiered in Munich shortly after his death in 1883. Around the time he wrote his first opera, Wagner married the actress Minna Planer, who he moved to Riga with where he became the music director of the local opera house. His relationship with his wife was a troubled one in that she left him once for another man, but came back to him before they moved to Paris due to fleeing from tremendous debt. In 1862 he returned to Germany, where he moved in with Ludwig II. After the success of his opera, Tristan und Isolde, he decided to do more traveling around Europe where he created such classics as Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Towards the end of his life Wagner decided to settle in Italy where wrote his final opera, Parsifal. Parsifal was first preformed at the Bayreuth festival which occurred at the opera house in which Wagner himself funded. After the second Bayreuth festival the Wagner’s decided to take a trip to Venice in the winter of 1883. It is here where Richard Wagner passed away due to a heart attack.
In his long musical career Wagner created thirteen operas including the most notable Rienzi, Der fliegende Hollände, Tristan und Isolde, and Der Ring des Nibelungen. It was clear that Wagner was changing the way operas were being preformed, and he continued to push the music further into the Romantic era by viewing operas as “total art works”.