Austria goes from "Wiener Klassik" to Romantik:
From Viennese Classic to Romanticism

The Staatsoper, the National Opera of Austria in Vienna

The "Wiener Klassik" or Viennnese Classical Style of composition comprises of several composers based in or around Vienna, who had an extremely important influence on the development of classical as a whole. Time-wise, it falls into the years between around 1780 and 1827 and includes the work of Joseph Haydn (1732 to 1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 to 1791) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 to 1827).

Some textbooks also include Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Michael Haydn and others. None of them worked together in the sense of a "school" or a scholarly tradition linking them; the term was later found to underline the relation between Haydn′s, Mozart′s and Beethoven′s work.

The biggest of the Viennese Classicists: Mozart

The transfer of Mozart from Salzburg to Vienna is often considered to mark a milestone: It was the beginning of interactions between Mozart′s compositions with those of Haydn, most obvious in early works like violin concertos that often seem almost like a dialogue between the two masters. Later, similar echoes can be traced in both composers′ symphonies, which Beethoven picked up and transferred into the age of romanticism.

All three composers managed to use the musical tradition of German, French and Italian regional music tradition and the baroque polyphony and merge them into a new style. Music was also developed to the highest technical level due to contemporary innovations in the way instruments were built and arranged.

Vienna as an Environment for Music

The multi-ethnic Vienna of around 1800 provided a fertile ground for such developments. The Austrian nobility had significant wealth to spend; it was considered to be a noble act to endow the composition of a piece of music; and there was a tradition in composition nourished by the influence from different Central European regions and Italy.

Annotations, of course. What did you think it was?

The classical composition of the three "Vienna Masters" were directly transferred into the age of romantic composition by Beethoven. Romanticism in music refers to a tradition shaped by emotional elements, a more reduced formalism and traditional harmony than in classical compositions, and the implementation of often non-musical motives (such as literature or folk culture).

Orchestras were constantly extended and re-arranged over the course of the 19th century. Romanticism is divided into three phases, the early, high and late (sometimes "post") romantic period. Since this is music and not physics, the borders between these phases are somewhat blurred.

Late Beethoven & Early Romanticism

The death of Beethoven in 1827 marks the end of the "Wiener Klassik", but in fact his later compositions are already regarded to be truly romantic by most music historians. More important, however, is Franz Schubert (1797 to 1828), who is most famous for his song compositions. He often followed motives from literature, such as ballads and poetry. Another Austrian composer of this time was Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 to 1837).

Ludwig van Beethoven took Classic Music to RomanticismThe early romantic period also transformed the German opera and made it more distinct from the Italian tradition, which got itself developed further on through works by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801 to 1835). These were the days of the Italian Bel canto Operas.

Other European countries picked up on these influences from Austria and Italy, and developed their own styles, often by implementing regional traditions into the romantic style. This led to the establishment of distinct regional lines of composition in France, Britain and Ireland and in Scandinavia.

Austria & the period of High Romanticism

The period of "high romanticism" is mostly considered to fall into the years between 1840 and 1890. It is clearly not an "Austrian" period anymore, although Vienna remained a centre of musical performance and composition until today. National and regional schools of romantic composition had developed in various European countries, and their most famous representatives include the Pole Frederic Chopin (1810 to 1849), the Germans Robert Schumann (1810 to 1856) and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 to 1847) the Italian Guiseppe Verdi (1813 to 1901) and the Frenchman Hector Berlioz (1803 to 1869).

Franz Schubert was born in Vienna

For the German tradition, Richard Wagner (1813 to 1890) was more than just shaping: He turned into a musical deity like no other composer since the days of Beethoven and not dissimilar to Guiseppe Verdi in Italy. The Austrian contribution to this period comes from Franz Liszt (1811 to 1886) who claimed to be Hungarian despite of speaking only German. He was regarded to be an outstanding pianist, but also an innovative force in his symphonic compositions, contributing to the formation of a "Neudeutsche Schule" (new German school). Johannes Brahms (1833 to 1897) was of German origin, but spent most of his creative life in Vienna.

He was regarded to be more conservative and standing in the tradition of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - especially the followers of Wager′s innovative style rejected his works. In terms of Austrians, they preferred Anton Bruckner (1824 to 1896). You can trace his works at the Bruckner Festival in Linz. Today, Bruckner is not considered to be a composer of the Wagnerian tradition, but rather a funny outlaw. In France, Jacque Offenbach (1819 to 1880) shaped the Operetta into a musical genre of its own rights, which was picked up later by Austrian composers and excessively used.

Many high romantic compositions originate from the Bohemian parts of the Habsburg Empire, and often helped the arising national identity of the Czech to be expressed in music. Bedrich Smetana (1824 to 1884) and Antonin Dvorak (1841 to 1904) composed in styles that were often matched with those of Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, respectively.

Late or Post-Romanticism: Leaping into modern styles

The period of the late romantic age is most commonly covered with the years between 1890 and 1940, although especially modern composers tend to be difficult to classify. Some authors try to get around this problem by calling the late romantic period rather the "post-romantic period". What they mean by that is a continued dissolution of traditional formalities and a continuation of earlier trends to abandon tonality.

Annotations again. I had to find some illustration, sorry.

This deprives musicologists of features to classify music by strict means and distinguish between late romantic and modern works. This period is characterised by exaggerated emotions, novel means of sound generation and elaborately equipped orchestras. Vienna, with its desperate excesses of the "fin de siecle" period provided a particularly fertile ground for this style.

Gustav Mahler (1860 to 1911) wrote symphonies of new dimensions and destruct much of the traditional formalism of the genre. The songs of Hugo Wolf (1860 to 1903) are said to show similar attempts. Franz Schmidt (1874 to 1939) is considered to be rather in the tradition of Anton Bruckner. Opera was particularly suitable for exaggerated emotions and Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871 to 1942) did a good job picking up erotic motives of the Viennese school of psychoanalysis.

Late romantic opera was most popular in German and Italian speaking parts of Europe. Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) renewed the genre and some of his works even abandon tonality to a high degree. The Italian Giacomo Puccini (1858 to 1924) was slightly more traditional. In Russia, several composers followed a very lyrical tradition, including Sergej Rachmaninow (1873 to 1943). The Frenchman Claude Debussy (1862 to 1918) is a borderline case stretching into modern composition: his work often dissolves structures into tiny "micro-elements" of rhythm and harmony.

Back to "background"

Further Reading

Arnold Schoenberg & the Second Viennese School

Best of Fest: Austrian Music Festivals

Where to study Mozart: Austrian Music Universities