Abu Dhabi Classics 2017: celebrating the Romantic era

The Romantic era, which is central to this year’s edition of Abu Dhabi Classics, was an uncompromising jump-off point for classical music that still resonates today

English actor Gary Oldman as composer Ludwig van Beethoven in the film 'Immortal Beloved', 1994. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)
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Vienna, 1806. A German composer and pianist in his mid-30s is battling deteriorating hearing and a complicated relationship with a society woman he utterly adores, but is sadly "not of my station". Ludwig van Beethoven pours out his emotions in sonatas, concertos and symphonies – and something rather interesting starts to happen. Rather than refer to the elegant, formal and increasingly predictable restraint of music's Classical period, which had been in vogue for the past five decades, Beethoven attempts something wilder, more idealistic. Uncompromising, even. And so, classical music's Romantic era is set in motion. It would remain the dominant musical force for the entire century. 

So it feels somewhat apt that the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra should programme Beethoven's 4th Symphony as part of its Music of the Romantic Age gala concert, which opens the Abu Dhabi Classics' season this week. It is an interesting choice from conductor James Gaffigan. After all, it is Beethoven's 3rd and 5th symphonies that are the bone fide classics: the latter's opening bars so famous you can type "Da Da Da Dah" into Google and immediately be taken to a world where wild enthusiasm and epic fury can co-exist, 1808-style. 

The 4th Symphony acts as a neat bridging point between the Classical and Romantic worlds. At the time, it was called "cheerful, understandable and engaging", but also "fiery" and, perhaps crucially, "excessively bizarre" at times. Beethoven was confounding critics, and possibly even himself.

The Romantic era certainly wasn't about romanticism in the cloying, slushy or twee sense of the word. It was – and remains – defined by dynamic music with widely different approaches and interpretations, summed up in the contrasting motivations behind two further pieces that the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra will take on during its first night at Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain. The Siegfried Idyll (1869) by Richard Wagner is an intimate symphonic poem written by the German composer for his wife, Cosima, to celebrate the birth of their son, celebrating family relationships and personal identity. The second, Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto – written when he was in his 20s – is far grander. 

Grieg's work is crucial to understanding the push and pull of romanticism. Widely seen as being inspired by the Norwegian countryside and its traditional folk music, its nod to tradition will certainly hit home in the surroundings of Al Jahili Fort. The romanticism is revealed in how Grieg wears his heart on his sleeve in this piece, and the way his heritage was refracted through this Nordic love song was replicated and shared throughout 19th-century Europe. Most notably by two composers whose work will be performed on the second night of Lucerne's celebration of the Romantic Age: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Johannes Brahms. 

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2, full of melody and famously challenging to play, consistently refers to Russian folk fairy tales in the way it shifts characters, moods and mysterious tones. There is a magic at play here.

Brahms, too, used the sound of Alpine folk music to sketch out the finale of his 1876 First Symphony. And with the rousing finale of Gioachino Rossini's William Tell Overturefamously used in The Lone Ranger – celebrating an actual Swiss folk hero who shot an evil Austrian ruler (after shooting an apple from his own son's head), Romanticism had its huge hit

And yet the glory of romanticism is that for all the links to Alpine slopes or Russian fairy tales, its music can just as easily be about nothing at all. This period also saw the formation of the principle of "absolute music", where pieces celebrated or mourned nothing but the power of music itself.

As music historians define it, the war of the Romantics saw conservatives such as Brahms, Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn's Leipzig Conservatoire rail against any other musical meaning than the pure notes on the page: it was absolute. Programme music, from the progressives of the New German School such as Wagner, Franz Liszt or Louis-Hector Berlioz, was its antithesis, directly responding to story, character or indeed countryside.Ironically, both sides had Beethoven as their start (or end) point, and the whole concept was actually posited by another composer who features across Lucerne's two concerts: Wagner. He was fundamentally against the idea of art existing without meaning, and with the benefit of 150-odd years of distance, arguing against him does now feel ridiculous: if the work had been merely notes on a page that didn't bow to mood or circumstance, it surely wouldn't have possessed the timeless power to move which still holds true today.

Still, that such academic debates raged in the mid-19th century does prove how important, thought-provoking and creative the Romantic era truly was, across the whole spread of Europe.

Everyone from Mahler to Dvorák, Tchaikovsky to Liszt was able to surprise and delight with a choice of instrument or phrase, expressing deep emotions or evoking vast landscapes.

In the end, the absolutists had their day in the sun, with 20th-century classical music often – as the brilliant musicologist Alex Ross puts it – "fenced off from society, a self-sufficient language".

But the power of the Romantic era means that idea still feels at odds with the music we know, music that is heroic, transcendental, and full of meaning.

Nicholas Angelich performs with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra on Thursday at the Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain on Thursday October 12 and Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi on FridayOctober 13. For more informationdetails and tickets, visit www.abudhabiclassics.ae


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Nicholas Angelich on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2