Suzy Klein explores the transformation of music in the 19th century. In an age of political and industrial revolution, she tells how music became the leading art form.
Part 1: We Can Be Heroes
Suzy Klein tells the story of a creative outpouring unrivalled before or since – the 19th century witnessed the emergence of composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Chopin, Wagner, Verdi and Liszt, just to name a few of the stellar array whose genius we venerate to this day.
As the aristocracy weakened following the French Revolution, the industrial revolution created new wealth and the middle classes flourished, Suzy shows how it was possible for composers and performers to become the superstars of their age, no longer the servants of kings and princes.
Masters like Paganini and Liszt were idolised, commanded immense fees and had a following as adoring as any of the rock stars and singers of today. Composers tore up the rulebooks, embraced the spirit of Romanticism and poured out their souls in their bold and experimental work. And, freed from the chains of aristocratic patronage, they became entrepreneurs too, organising and profiting from their concerts, and winning unprecedented wealth, fame and status.
But with commercial success came a very modern backlash – artistic credibility v X Factor-style fame. Which would win out? Or could one coexist with the other? As music gained increasing power and influence as the art form of the 19th century, composers started to believe that they could change the world… and remarkably, they really did.
Part 2: Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution
In the 19th century music wasn’t just a backdrop to life, easing pain and enhancing pleasure. It became a revolutionary force that could – and did – change the world.
As the impact of the violence and turmoil unleashed in the French Revolution reverberated around Europe, it was music that most viscerally carried the message that the people could stand up to kings and emperors. In France during the revolution, La Marseillaise emerged as a rallying cry – sung by the mob as they stormed the royal palace. When Napoleon imposed his grip on the nation it became an anthem of subversion, along with countless songs that pilloried the return to autocracy and the crushing of freedom.
But it was not just on the streets, as Suzy shows, that revolutionary fervour was stoked up. Even opera, intended by the authorities to reinforce the status quo, became politically potent, fanning the flames of nationalism and revolution throughout Europe. One French opera actually helped trigger a revolution when it was performed in Belgium in 1830.
Suzy shows how music came to express not only revolutionary fervour, but also the growing force of nationalism that was sweeping Europe. She discovers how Chopin’s music, beneath its lyrical surface, expressed more powerfully than words the defiant spirit of the Polish people suffering under the oppression of a foreign power. And she explores how Carl Weber’s lovely work Der Freischütz articulated the longings for nationhood of the Germans and inspired Richard Wagner to attempt the transformation of the human spirit through his work.
But it was Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi whose music had the most profound political impact in the 19th century. Suzy travels to Parma, Verdi’s home town, to meet the disciples who keep his flame alive to this day, venerating the man whose music embodied the fight for freedom and whose very name came to symbolize Italy’s fight for nationhood.
Part 3: Party Like it’s 1899
Music was both transformed and transformative in the 19th century. It burst out of court, church and tavern into the world and became a universal soundscape, transcending language and borders. This revolution was made possible by economic and social change and, as Suzy Klein explains in the final programme, by a technological revolution.
The 19th century witnessed advances in communication that made the world a smaller place. People could travel by train and steamship with ease across the globe. At the close of the century hundreds of thousands came to the great Paris Exposition of 1889 – the centenary of the French Revolution – to witness the latest inventions and marvel at the strange cultures that came to make music in the temporary halls and theatres that crowded on the Champ de Mars.
They heard the music of the orient; they listened to recording devices; they saw the future. Composers such as Claude Debussy were profoundly influenced by the sounds of the east, in particular the Balinese gamelan. With its non-European harmony and rhythm, such music offered western composers exciting new musical horizons and a way to innovate and escape from the high romanticism of Richard Wagner.
But it was not only the music of the east that inspired the new composers. Developments in manufacturing were changing instruments and creating new ones – exemplified by the saxophone. Suzy witnesses a ‘battle of the bands’ in which the new and versatile instrument demonstrates its capabilities and – for the luddites – its threatening versatility. And in the spirit of the new age she makes her first recording on a vintage phonograph, one of the earliest recording machines. To our ears they may lack quality, but they were mind-blowing to those who first heard them – and they presaged a new future of recorded music that is still with us today.