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Music revolution! Mozart. Rossini. Whatever next?

Jack H CDean10 June 2014

After learning about the unity that could be achieved at the opera at my last UCL Festival of the Arts event, I was keen to actually experience an aria or two and learn more about the art form that had so compelled Nietzsche.

I was in luck. Will Bowers (UCL English), dressed in two-tone brogues and a pin-stripe suit, like a 1920s mobster who happened to specialise in the opera culture of the romantic period, led the event. Excerpts were sung by Carl Gombrich (bass, Programme Director UCL Arts and Sciences) and Emily Tsui (soprano, second year undergraduate, UCL Arts and Sciences) and Bryan Solomon (UCL Information Services Division) played piano.

Mozart

Mozart

Bowers spoke with elegance and insight about all things 1780s-1820s opera culture. Opera was often performed with “no narrative. It was all about the virtuosity of the performer”. The audience would drink and gamble. The performers would riff and improvise melody and rehearsals were non-existent. Opera existed in a realm of miscellany and elitist debauchery.

It wasn’t until 1789 that the British opera began to shed the shaggy raiments of its past. The Haymarket theatre burnt to the ground and with Britain’s chief opera centre in cinders there was an opportunity for a rethink. The information explosion of the following decade helped in democratising debate and  in siphoning opera into mainstream culture. The opera was a “complicated machine” and Britain was on the verge of a cultural renaissance.

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What makes a piece of music Romantic?

LaraCarim13 May 2013

Would you describe the piece of music below as Romantic, romantic, or both?

> Extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 ‘Pathétique’

The answer, as with most model humanities essays, is of course ‘that depends’ – on whether we are talking strictly about the Romantic period within the history of Western classical music, or whether we simply experience the music as inspired and embodied by strong feelings.

Romantic music with a capital ‘R’ – European music composed roughly between 1810 and 1870 – can be fairly easily classified according to a set of musical characteristics, such as heavy use of stringed orchestral instruments, changes of key and unresolved chords – but capturing what makes a piece of music stir us is much harder to identify – and a challenge that Professor Christopher Peacocke set himself in the first musical event of the Festival of the Arts on 8 May.

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