We settle in our seats and on the opposite side of the table Giacomo lays out his neatly prepared notes, beautifully drawn diagrams, maps of his thoughts. Romanticism is the subject and it feels fitting that on this day that a dark cloud hangs over the scientific community with the loss of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, we begin with talking about the stars.
Giacomo Banella: Romanticism was all about expressing something that is inside of yourself but also looking outward. Composers started looking around them and being influenced by the environment. They looked up at the moon and the stars and found beauty and inspiration. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata being a clear example of this.
Sam Olivier: So how did we get to this point? Had composers not always been doing this?
GB: Well, before Romanticism we had a period retrospectively referred to as the Classical era which took place roughly from the early 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. The Classical era is defined by a balance and strict dedication to the form of music. Pieces followed the same physical structures and often the harmonic evolution was limited by a set of rules. Composers worked within a skeleton form and would treat their works as intellectual exercises.
During this time Mozart was one of the key composers and is responsible for taking the style of composition to the very edge. He strived for a heavenly equilibrium and pushed the form to the very limits of balance and harmony. He reached perfection in this style and so something had to change.
SO: Which composers do you think took on this challenge and how?
GB: I think Beethoven is a very good example and personifies the era well across all his symphonies. The first two are very much influenced by the classical style of Mozart, but also Haydn who was his teacher. It’s when we get to the third symphony that you start to see the changes. Across the three symphonies the length is getting longer and organically the ideas are broadening with the orchestration getting heavier as more instruments were added and the sections grew. We also start seeing a stronger character in the music. Beethoven’s third symphony is built around the ‘heroic’ theme in Eb major, with this idea of the hero as an outsider bringing positive change very much a key ideal of Romanticism and helps to develop the idea of a narrative in music.
SO: What would you say are some of the mechanics of Romanticism, and more specifically how did the role of your instrument (double bass) change?
GB: The roles of the individual instruments began to change a lot. For instance, the double bass originally used to just double the celli parts. In fact this is where the name comes from as the cello was considered the bass line and the double bass would play the same part an octave lower. The Romantic composer began writing individual parts for the double basses but also divided the other strings into further parts to allow for greater variation and texture. We can look at Mahler’s first symphony and see that the double bass even has a melodic solo!
We also see other techniques of playing become more prominent. Things like spiccato (where the player lightly bounces their bow on the string) and new signs like marcato (a small marking indicating that the note should be played more forcibly then the surrounding notes). This combined with the more detailed use of dynamics – we see huge variations from fff to ppp – are all signs of the composer trying to inject more of their own feelings and individuality into their work resulting in imagination, emotion and sense all prevailing over reason. With Schumann being a beautiful writer of lieder (song) you can sense in his symphonic writing that every single note is singing. It always wants to arrive somewhere and say something. That’s why he is one of the greatest Romantic composers.
SO: When we listen to a lot of music written in the later part of the 20th century, today it can sound quite jarring in comparison to music from the Romantic era. How do you think this change came about?
GB: In the same way that the use of form was stretched in the Classical era, it was tonality that manipulated beyond recognition in the works of Romantic composers. Mahler is a good marker for the end of Romanticism. His compositions embody all that comes before them and stretch tonality to a point that new rules had to be set. Such things as the juxtaposition of keys and the constant shifting of tonality resulted in music reaching a point that it became impossible to express anymore. It had lost its previous function. You can think of it as if you take a picture and stretch it in all directions, it becomes unrecognisable and could even break when spread too thin. Mahler (and Wagner too) took the rules of composition of the time and stretched them to a point that the music would become unrecognisable to the ‘classical’ ear. The ‘break’ could be seen as the reaction by the serialist composers in Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg to strip away the emotions from composition and returning to a sense of form with mathematically calculated structures.
SO: Some would argue that Romanticism is still alive and well with the production of film soundtracks.
GB: I would agree with this to a point. These are works that are written in reaction to the images on the screen, there to enhance an emotion that the director wants to convey and express the passion of a moment.
SO: So finally, why do you think so many people are drawn to the music of the Romantic era?
GB: I think what Romanticism offers is a piece of music for every emotion. We’re all on our own paths but all can relate to these emotions. To hear a piece of music and immediately feel what it is expressing is a beautiful thing.
Find out more about Giacomo here.
Southbank Sinfonia perform Schumann's Romantic-era Symphony No.3 at the Bridge Theatre on Friday 6 April as part of our #ConcertLab series. Find out more here.