Wagner, Schubert & Schumann: German Romantic Composers

Wagner, Schubert & Schumann: German Romantic Composers
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  • 0:05 German Romanticism
  • 0:23 Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
  • 1:30 Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
  • 3:02 Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

German-speaking composers dominated the European musical scene for centuries. This lesson looks at three very different Germanic composers from the Romantic era and explores some of their best-known works.

German Romanticism

Germany and Austria have been home to some of the greatest classical composers of all time. This lesson will explore the lives and major contributions of three German-speaking composers from the Romantic era: Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Richard Wagner.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert was born to a schoolteacher in the German-speaking city of Vienna, Austria. He was an accomplished singer, string player, and pianist, and his musical talents allowed him to attend the most prestigious schools in Vienna. However, Schubert's true passion was composing. He spent every spare second he could writing music, and even quit his job as a teacher to have more time to write music.

Schubert wrote symphonies, chamber music, and solo piano works but is best known as the father of German lieder. The word lieder literally means 'songs' in the German language, but when it is used in classical music, it specifically refers to a German art song for voice and piano.

Schubert would often premiere his latest lieder at parties dedicated to the arts that became known as 'Schubertiads.' Schubert loved to party, which may be how he contracted syphilis, a disease which caused his death in 1828. In addition to writing over 600 lieder, he also left behind a number of works for orchestra and ensemble, including some very popular string quartets and his 'Unfinished Symphony'.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Germany. His dream was to become a piano virtuoso, a technical and artistic master of a musical instrument. Unfortunately, a hand injury killed those dreams. Instead, he began a career as a music critic, founding an academic journal for new music called Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

Schumann also composed music, especially for the piano. His well-known 1835 work Carnaval consists of 21 short piano pieces. One of those pieces was named after Clara Wieck, the daughter of Schumann's piano teacher Frederich. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist. When Carnaval was written, she was 15 years old, and Schumann, who was 9 years older than she, had begun to fall deeply in love with her.

Clara's father, Frederich, strongly opposed this relationship, but, despite his objections, Schumann and Clara were eventually married. Schumann was so in love with Clara that he wrote over a hundred lieder the year they got married. Historians call this year, 1840, Schumann's Liederjahr, or 'year of song.'

The Schumanns had six children that survived to adulthood. Their happy marriage was shadowed by a depressive and hallucinogenic mental disorder that had plagued Robert Schumann since he was a young man. Following a suicide attempt in 1854, Clara made the difficult decision to have him institutionalized. He died in a mental hospital in 1856.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany. He loved the fusion of theater and music, which led him to focus mostly on opera composition. Wagner ascribed to an aesthetic theory called Gesamtkunstwerk, an idea that synthesizes poetry, scenery, costumes, music, and acting to create a unified work where drama is the main focus.

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