Late Romantic Music Essay

During the late Romantic period, near the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, composers had increasingly grandiose musical forces at their disposal, with the symphony orchestra growing to be the largest orchestra yet. A defining characteristic of a lot of late Romantic music can be described as the music being "extreme" - whether in orchestra size, dynamic range, playing techniques or performance difficulty. Two notable examples include Mahler's 8th Symphony ("Symphony of a Thousand") and Debussy's Gigues.

Looking at Mahler's 8th Symphony, the most obvious example of its extremeness is visible before even looking at the score, just by taking a look at the forces required to perform the piece. It requires an orchestra of over a hundred musicians, in addition to three choirs and eight soloists - its immense scale being where the nickname of Symphony of a Thousand originated from. It features the use of less common instruments which were not invented before the Romantic period, such as the celesta and mandolin, which brought novelty and a unique timbre to the orchestra. The fortissimo in the first bar for all playing parts creates a dramatic entry, immediately helping to establish the scale of the piece. Gigues explores the opposite extreme, starting pianissimo with a gradual crescendo into the piece without any immediate sense of rhythm or tempo. Dynamic range and contrast is further explored through frequent swells and falls in dynamics, such as the diminuendo from fortissimo to pianissimo in bars 42-46 of Mahler's 8th Symphony. Gigues also features more sudden jumps in dynamics, such as the trumpet and snare drum interjections in the third and fifth bars before [4], or the sudden crescendo to fortissimo in the woodwind parts directly on [4].

As well as dynamics, late Romantic music explored more extreme forms of harmony. Gigues starts with an inverted pedal note on C with no sense of key. When the flute melody is introduced with glissandos on the harp, it shows that a whole tone scale is being used. Since all notes in a whole tone scale are equidistant, there is no sense of a tonal centre, which breaks free from the well-established harmonic rules established in baroque and classical music and could be thought of as more extreme. The piece also starts with demonstrating an extreme in texture, having a very bare texture with a solo woodwind instrument accompanied by few other instruments playing only long, sustained pedal notes in unison. With the introduction of the unaccompanied oboe d'amore melody 9 bars after [1], there is a conflict in harmony between the solo instrument and the whole orchestra directly before and after - the melody implies a key of C natural minor, however the repeat of the first theme brings back the ungrounded and mysterious feel of the whole tone scale. This is then followed by a new melody at [2] which suggests a new key of F minor natural (or possibly F mixolydian), which ends with a very dissonant diminished fifth. The piece features frequent use of such tritones, for example in the cello part of bars 3-4 of [3]. Later on at [5], there is a descending chromatic harmony, followed by a very dissonant passage with lots of chromaticism, up until two bars before [8], where the strings enter with what seems an imperfect cadence with homophonic texture. This abundant use of dissonance, as well as the contrast between tonal and atonal segments, contributes to a harmony which can be considered extreme.

Mahler's 8th Symphony did not feature atonality or use dissonance to as great an extent, however it is immensely difficult to perform and pushed even musicians, as well as their instruments, to their limits. For example, in bar 15, both violin parts and the flute part reach a high C, 3 octaves above middle C. In bar 19, the violin parts also feature triple-stopped acciaccaturas spanning a range of two octaves. Later on from bar 32 onwards, the piece also features frequent time signature changes, with rapid changes between two, three and four crotchets in a bar, experimenting with rhythm in a way not commonly done before. The piece also features the use of less common notation relating to playing techniques, for example the vertical slurs in e.g. the low string parts of bar 16 indicating a fast arpeggio, and the use of up bow and down bow markings on the same note in e.g. the first violin part of bar 39.