German Romantics Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s German Romantics concert on November 25, 2015 at Koerner Hall. Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips.

Like most movements in the arts, the 19th century Romantic age was a reaction against the previous era—the 18th century and the age of reason and enlightenment. The Romantics searched for individual freedom and expression over intellectuality and the clarity of design and structure. Organization and form were not ignored, but they were now used to serve artistic goals and personal expression. In the German-speaking lands, the writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine and E.T.A. Hoffmann, the artists Caspar David Friedrich and Eberhard Wächter, and composers like Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt strove to unite the concepts of art, literature, music, philosophy and science. Now more subjective than objective, the age of the individual was born. Sometimes viewed as the first Romantic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “I am different from all other men. If I am not better, at least I am different.”

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) spent his entire short life in Vienna, dying there at the age of thirty-one. Thankfully, he was prolific, composing nine symphonies, over twenty piano sonatas and many shorter piano pieces, fifteen string quartets and lots of other chamber music, over six hundred songs, stage works, as well as much sacred and secular choral music. Schubert lived a hand-to-mouth existence, often relying on the help of friends who believed in his talent and art, but precious little of his music was published during his lifetime, and he was viewed by the Viennese at the time as an inconsequential light-weight. Showing innocence, passion, sorrow, joy and playfulness in his music, Schubert is today rightly seen as one of the great composers, and Vienna proudly claims that Schubert’s music should be experienced with one eye wet, the other dry. As his later admirer, Franz Liszt said, “Such is the spell of Schubert’s emotional world, that it very nearly blinds us to the greatness of his craftsmanship.”

The later German Romantic composers Liszt (1811-1886) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) both held Schubert in high esteem, but they belonged to two different philosophies of 19th century German Romantic music. Brahms, influenced by his mentor Robert Schumann (1810-1856), believed that Romantic ideals could still be realized through traditional forms like the symphony, sonata and string quartet. But the Hungarian-born Liszt, his friend (and son-in-law) Richard Wagner and others felt that 18th century form and structure had run its course, and new, freer and more expressive forms like the music drama and tone poem should now take precedence. From a 21st century perspective, a political “mountain-out-of-a-molehill” developed between the two warring factions, but today, we can freely enjoy the excellent music that emerged out of both camps, without having to choose one over another.

Brahms developed a deep love for the music of the “gypsies” or Roma, from his early days as the pianist for the popular Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. (Witness the sets of Hungarian Dances, finales of the Brahms concertos, and tonight’s Zigeunerlieder, Op.103). In the 19th century, the music of the Roma was confused with Hungarian folk music. In many ways, the Zigeunerlieder are the vocal counterpart to the instrumental Hungarian Dances by Brahms, with texts drawn from Hungarian folk songs.

The three Petrarch Sonnets by Liszt are his own piano transcriptions of his earlier songs, based on sonnets by the Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). All are meditations on the various moods and perspectives of love – a topic on which Liszt was a qualified expert, experiencing several torrid love affairs. All three sonnets reflect the strong melodic styles of the songs and beautifully capture the atmosphere and sentiments of love.

TMC Artistic Director and Conductor Noel Edison has long loved the music of the German Romantics, believing that the heart is reached through the mind. He says, “Granted that some of this music was meant for the parlour rather than the concert hall, but it is all very melodic, well-constructed and was never denigrated by performance circumstances or location.” He believes that this rich, German Romantic choral repertoire should be performed by more of today’s choral ensembles. The highly alert and responsive degree of ensemble, tuning and performance proficiency of the current TMC is perfectly suited to it. In creating tonight’s programme, Noel felt strongly that the artistry of renowned Canadian pianist André Laplante would match and complement the choral material. “It is an evening of chamber music for choir, and chamber music for piano. André Laplante is one of my favourite pianists working today. He is in essence a passionate singer on the keyboard.”

Rick Phillips is a Toronto-based writer, teacher, broadcaster and music tour host. Visit his website at

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.