When we geeks talk about popular music, we break it down into decades. If I say "the ’50s," an image springs to mind: leather jackets, poodle skirts and neon jukeboxes full of Elvis and Buddy Holly.
But as you go back further and further in history, the chunks of time seem to get longer and longer. You see labels like "the baroque era" and "the classical era" — periods that can stretch out for over a century. So what happened? Has musical progress actually sped up in the last 100 years? Or are we getting played by our historical memory?
That’s what we’ve tried to find out. We’ve broken down the 19th century — "the romantic era" — into 10-year pieces, examining the most significant music from each. Inevitably, priority is given to works that we still revere today. But then, the same can be said of any decade's worth of popular music. Our contemporary image of the '60s comes from the Beatles — not the Ohio Express. We've adopted this same way of thinking here.
By the end of this experiment, we'll see whether the 1820s are radically different from the 1830s, or if the whole century really is just one giant smear of romanticism. Let's begin.
The 1800s: New century! New everything!
In the same way that the 1950s were all about Elvis, the 1800s were all about Beethoven. He premiered his first symphony in the year 1800, as if to plant a flag: "This century belongs to me." Within the next 10 years, he established the template for the romantic symphony with Eroica (his third), and he wrote the most famous four-note phrase in all of music.
Beethoven’s symphonies from the 1800s shook the music world as much as the newly self-crowned Emperor Napoleon’s foreign policy shook the rest of it. In both cases, the remaining 90 years of the century would be an extended struggle of coming to terms with the upset caused by those first 10.
Key artist: Beethoven
Key work: Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, Eroica
The 1810s: Figaro, Figaro, Figaro
Ten years into the 19th century, Beethoven’s quest for world domination continued apace, as did Napoleon’s more troublingly literal one. In fashion, Europe reached peak dandyism, and the notion that sartorial choices could express one’s inner self rather than one’s social class was born. Lord Byron’s lyrical staves captured the romantic imagination, and Mary Shelley arguably invented science fiction. It was a time of invention; a time when change was good, as long as Napoleon wasn’t involved.
The defining musical moment came in 1816, when Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville began sweeping the musical world. Rossini had been the biggest thing going in Italian opera since 1813, but Barber broke him in London and New York. For half a decade, operagoers on two continents were walking the streets humming "Largo al factotum." Some of us still are.
Key artist: Rossini
Key work: Rossini: The Barber of Seville
The 1820s: Nostalgia sets in
After two decades of mania about anything and everything new, the frenzy collapsed. Napoleon was dead and there wasn’t much going on, geopolitically speaking, in Central Europe. Accordingly, fashions drifted back to the 18th-century status quo, and the pace of change in music slowed to a crawl. Even mouldy old J.S. Bach got a revival, thanks to Mendelssohn.
Bizarrely, the most progressive voice in this morass of nostalgia was the nearly dead, entirely deaf old maverick of two decades prior: Ludwig van Beethoven. His ninth and final symphony famously included a full choir, eventually leading critics to speculate that purely instrumental music was dead. Meanwhile, his (purely instrumental) late string quartets were so outside of the box that some critics doubted they were even music — surely a ringing endorsement for future generations.
Key artist: Beethoven
Key work: Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14
The 1830s: The real 19th century begins
You know how the real 1960s didn’t start until about 1966? Same here. The music of the 19th century’s first 30 years were the furthest outcroppings of the 18th century’s innovations. Rossini took Mozartean opera to the next level, and Beethoven’s symphonies and string quartets were just Haydn on opium (metaphorically, anyway).
But in the 1830s, the music that we think of as the defining sound of the century — lush, expressive romanticism — arrived fully formed. The twin giants of romantic opera, Wagner and Verdi, both premiered their first works alongside masterpieces by Donizetti and Bellini. Chopin invented the romantic piano solo. And Hector Berlioz composed the definitive romantic symphony while actually on opium.
Incidentally, the 19th century’s defining literary figure, Charles Dickens, published his first novels in the 1830s. Heady days.
Key artist: Chopin
Key work: Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
The 1840s: Lisztomania OMGOMGOMGOMG
OK, to be fair: lots of exciting things happened in the 1840s. Wagner premiered The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser. Schumann spent the decade’s entire first year writing some of his most entrancing songs. The saxophone was invented.
But it was all eclipsed by the rise of music’s first hysteria-inducing celebrity — the proto-Elvis, the proto-Beatles, the proto-Bieber: Franz Liszt. The 1840s marked the beginning of Liszt’s prolific career as a touring piano sensation. He would continue to be one of the century’s leading musical figures until his death in 1886. But in the 1840s, he was still young and sexy and hadn’t taken his holy orders yet. The world belonged to him.
Key artist: Liszt
Key work: Liszt: Douze Grandes Études
The 1850s: Melodrama — MELODRAMA!
This decade was blessed with absurd operatic riches. We can credit this largely to a single phenomenon: the mighty middle period of Giuseppe Verdi. He wrote half as many operas in the 1850s as he had in the 1840s, but the eight that he churned out this decade included Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata and Un ballo in maschera — four of the biggest opera smashes ever.
Verdi’s German counterpart, Wagner, only managed to squeeze out Lohengrin during this decade. Wagner spent the bulk of his time broke in Switzerland, composing the massive works that would come to define future decades. Meanwhile, in France, operetta king Jacques Offenbach scored a big, crass, subversive hit with Orpheus in the Underworld. And, in English lit, Dickens turned out Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities. A decade of drama, melo- and otherwise.
Key artist: Verdi
Key work: Verdi: Rigoletto
The 1860s: Wagner and Brahms glower at each other
The so-called "War of the Romantics" — basically, a beef between musical reformers (Liszt, Wagner) and conservatives (Brahms, Clara Schumann) — was well underway by the end of the 1850s. But, with the progressives’ key visionary in exile (and neck-deep in debt) until 1858, they didn’t have much actual music to show for their philosophy.
In the 1860s, the debate swallowed Europe whole. A newly repatriated Wagner unveiled his first Gesamtkunstwerken: Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. Meanwhile, Brahms spent the decade putting off writing his first symphony.
It would've been a decisive victory for the Wagnerites, if Brahms hadn’t managed to compose some of history’s greatest chamber music and the single most compassionate requiem mass ever written, in the course of his procrastination.
Key artist: Brahms
Key work: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
The 1870s: Eastward and westward
At long last, the 1870s allowed Russia and England into the fold. The latter had been denigrated as recently as the 1840s by poet Heinrich Heine: "Nothing on Earth is more terrible than English music, except English painting." But during this decade, England found its musical niche — and that niche was light opera. Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance even managed to find success in New York City.
In Russia, a sensitive 30-something-year-old named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky became the country’s most notable composer with his piano and violin concertos, his fourth symphony and a controversial ballet called Swan Lake, which would nonetheless become massively popular by the end of the decade.
But neither of these trends could shake central Europe out of its obsession with all things Wagner — especially once he’d given the premiere of the most ambitious work of the century, his four-night dramatic spectacular Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Key artist: Tchaikovsky
Key work: Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
The 1880s: Daring adventure!
The 1880s saw railroads being built en masse, factories rapidly becoming mechanized and European economies thriving. In an age of unprecedented comfort, people have to get their thrills somewhere. A quick look through the literature of the 1880s finds thrills o’plenty: Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world, Robert Louis Stevenson penned Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mark Twain sent Huckleberry Finntraipsing across the United States.
The music of the time mirrored this trend. Grieg’s Peet Gynt suites envisioned a uniquely Norwegian adventure hero. Offenbach didn’t live to finish The Tales of Hoffmann, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a big, rollicking hit. Even in bleak, chilly Russia, you had Rimsky-Korsakov’s fanciful Scheherazade and that eternal potboiler, the 1812 Overture.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Brahms managed to turn out two symphonies in one-tenth of the time it took him to write his first. Thank God for that — the world must have needed some respite from all of the dashing heroism.
Key artist: Brahms
Key work: Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
The 1890s: The old is still new and the new is totally baffling
As the century closes, we ought to ask ourselves what has changed. On one hand, the 1890s brought us the first three symphonies of Mahler, which are basically just bigger, post-Wagner renditions of Beethoven’s ninth. But, on the other, we’ve got the early works of a young French avant-gardist named Claude Debussy — works that sound nothing like anything that has been written before.
That’s the 19th century for you: capable of new and shocking developments in nearly every decade, yet singularly unable to come to terms with how awesome Beethoven was.
Key artist: Mahler
Key work: Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
So, what shall we say the results of our experiment have been? Well, lumping the whole 19th century together as one megalithic "romantic era" turns out to be a bit reductive. But, we always knew it would be, didn’t we? I mean, nothing stays the same for a whole century.
But, at the same time, think about how crazy things went in the 20th century. You had Stravinsky, Boulez and Philip Glass all hitting creative peaks within decades of each other. Plus, there’s pop music, with its seeming inability to sound the same for two consecutive years. I think it’s fair to say that musical progress has sped up a bit since the days of Mahler and Debussy.
Think about that statement, though: the days of Mahler and Debussy. There could hardly be two more different composers. So, maybe the real legacy of the so-called romantic era is that it helped us practice up for the dizzying variety and rate of change of the next 100 years.
At this point, though, it’s probably safe to say that we’ll never get over Beethoven.