Before diving into the Romantic Period, it is important to take stock of how the music world had changed over the last two centuries. Through much of music history to this point, the Church had been the primary benefactor of the great composers. As the Church’s influence began to wane, particularly in the German States, the nobility assumed primacy over music, which took a more secular turn. But there was no mistake–with the rare exception on the operatic stage–the composers were the stars.
That began to change with Corelli, whose primary claim to fame was as a violinist. Mozart of course built his initial fame as a child prodigy on piano and violin. Beethoven first rose to fame as a pianist and only later on as a composer. But Paganini was different. He was a sensation. He performed his own works, but other composers wrote works for him to perform. Paganini’s star gleamed brightest and only from the stage and while others would follow, he set the mold that every great musician follows to this day.
The word most frequently associated with Paganini is therefore “virtuoso”. But what does this word truly mean? The OED simply says “a person highly skilled in music.” Classic British understatement notwisthstanding, the OED misses the mark considerably. What does “virtuoso” mean? It means this:
A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.
As chronicled here, Mozart exploited his remarkable talents to become the first freelance composer in history. As such, he was beholden only to those who paid for his compositions and not to any one church or any one aristrocrat in particular. Beethoven took Mozart’s revolution one step further, refusing to bend his art to anyone and relying on a small circle of friends to fund him with no strings attached. For a while, this worked out splendidly for Beethoven–that is, until his benefactors ran out of cash.
Schubert, true to his poetic leanings, had no sense for money or business and was, accordingly, living at the very fringes of poverty for most of his short adult life. To ease his financial burdens, Schuberts friends organized small gatherings–much like the Greek symposiums that inspired the title for this series of articles–called Schubertiades. The idea was to gather like-minded folks in a salon to converse, drink, and enjoy Schubert’s music. While most of the works Schubert composed for these gatherings were songs, he also included some smaller works for solo piano, which he often performed. Schubert was nowhere as skilled a pianist as Beethoven or Mozart had been and these works tend towards the simple side.
These gatherings were vitally important to Schubert for other reasons. Naturally shy and slight of build, Schubert spent much of his life skulking around in the shadows. Despite living his entire life in Vienna, he apparently never met Beethoven. He certainly had the opportunity to do so–at the very least, they were both in the same room for the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But stories abound about Schubert hiding behind a pillar to observe his idol Beethoven, surrounded by admirers.
The Schubertiades coaxed Schubert out of his shell and proved to be a model for other composers of similar disposition in the future. These parties also served as the primary means by which Schubert’s music was disseminated and promoted. Devotees of Schubert continue to mount Schubertiades today, especially on January 31st (Schubert’s birthday). Here is a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Schubert tunes that would be right at home at one of these salon-concerts.
The best cocktail to serve at a convivial gathering is, without question, a punch. Not only can a punch be mixed in advance, a punchbowl is always a welcome and festive sight at a party (and, no, I am not talking about the garbage cans used for punch at a fraternity house). Anyone who has visited Vienna in the winter will know that the Viennese are fond of their glühwein, which is served out of little stands all across the town. Mulled wine, while delicious, is not a punch. A proper punch must have five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, juice, water (or tea), and spices.
The Swedes make a punch called Glögg, which with a little tinkering fits the bill here. It is a perfect, if not potent, tipple for a Schubertiade on January 31.
1 bottle red wine
1 cup ruby port
1 cup water
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
6 cloves, whole
5 cardamom pods, crushed
2 star anise
1 whole orange peel, with 1/4 cup of juice
Add all ingredients to a large sauce pot and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Sweeten to taste with additional sugar, as needed. Strain into punchbowl. Serve in punch mugs, garnished with a tablespoon of raisins and sliced almonds.
Classical music really doesn’t do Halloween and, frankly, no other genre does it well. Here is a playlist of some of the creepiest music composed over the last 700 years or so. If you are tired of The Monster Mash (and, frankly, who isn’t), here’s an alternative.
Two quick hits for New Years’ Eve. First, a playlist. Nothing too fancy about this one—just those songs I want to hear tonight. Something old, with a bit of swing and nostalgia. Only one of these songs will feature on this blog properly. But who said music can’t be simple and fun?
Finally, because people have asked, here are my Top 20 Composers. An exceedingly difficult task and present in rough order. I expect this list to change as this blog evolves, but it’s nice to put a marker down at this stage.