At the turn of the eighteenth century, changes in social and political order over Europe led to a series of aftershocks which gave way to the new ideology of Romanticism. The new spirit which championed individual creativity and expression over exiting form and order were reflected in the arts. In music, the Romantic sensibility was resonated in both extant genres (such as operas, symphonies and chamber music) and new ones (namely, the
programme symphony and art songs). With the large numbers of lieder of Schubert and Schumann, the two proved that the expressive powers of the miniature art song were no less than that of an extended symphony. In fact, out of all the Romantic genres of nineteenth century, it was the art song which managed to transcend geographic and cultural boundaries and became a universal vehicle for expression.
In Paris, while Hector Berlioz remained unchallenged in his imaginative powers and boldness as the iconic Romantic composer, his vocal music exhibited a sense of nuances and subtlety, which were the essential qualities of the Romantic art song. The French melodies continued to thrive in the hands of Gabriel Faure, whose refined and understated style served as a model for upcoming composers such Debussy and Hahn.
The Viennese tradition was inherited by Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf, although each embarked on a different path of his own. Brahms’s vocal music conveyed a sense of lyricism and constraint which was reminiscent of Schubert and Schumann. On the other hand, Wolf was more daring in form and harmony, and hence giving the German lied a refreshing new dimension.
Composers from Central and Eastern Europe also adapted and customized the German Lied to serve their expressive purposes. Dvořak’s setting of Czech poetry and the infusion elements of Czech folk music gave his songs a distinctive signature style. While the influence of Russian music was limited in Tchaikovsky’s songs, the coherence was found in the craftsmanship and fine balance between the voice and the piano, as well as between the sung text and the unsung utterances.