Character piece is a calque of the German Charakterstück, a term, not very precisely defined, used for a broad range of 19th-century piano music based on a single idea or program. The term is less frequently applied to music for another instrument (never voice) with piano accompaniment, but very seldom for larger ensembles.
Character pieces are a staple of Romantic music, and are essential to that movement’s interest in the evocation of particular moods or moments. What distinguishes character pieces is the specificity of the idea they invoke. Many character pieces are composed in ternary form, but that form is not universal in the genre. A common feature is a title expressive of the character intended, such as Stephen Heller’s Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage around my room”), an early example of the genre, or Bruckner’s Abendklänge (“Evening harmonies”). Other character pieces have titles suggesting brevity and singularity of concept, such as Beethoven’s Bagatelles, or Debussy’s Préludes, or casual construction: the title Impromptu is common. Many 19th-century nocturnes and intermezzi are character pieces as well, including those of Chopin and Brahms, respectively.
The first mentions of charakter- in the titles of the plays are found already in the 18th century, for example, in Beethoven, who called the symphonic overture “Leonora” that way. Until the 1830s, the term remains scarcely used, but then, with the development of piano music, it finds more and more adherents of this form. In the second half of the XIX century, many characterist plays appear and there is a tendency to expand the meaning of the term: in addition to music that characterizes mood, it begins to relate to the musical description of places, events and characters.
Occasionally, musical allegories of the baroque period are already counted among the character pieces. The theory of affections combined moods with musical stylistic devices. To be sure, these are still very general and symbolic correspondences, not the individual expression demanded since the end of the eighteenth century and made possible by the sound of the pianoforte.
A link between baroque and romanticism was the musical sensitivity in the 18th century: some works by French clavecinists such as François Couperin or Jean-François Dandrieu inspired North German composers such as Christian Gottfried Krause, who recommended music pieces in his book Von der musikalischen Poesie (1753) to give a title. Important at that time was still the Baroque unity of affect, which was also true for the aria, and the principle of imitating nature, as he was by Charles Batteuxwas propagated. Music has not yet been considered an independent art.
Theoretical interest and educational needs around 1800
Similar views were still the music theorist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg and the composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt. Christian Gottfried Körner wrote in 1785 his essay on character representation in music.
The need for these musical works arose above all from lovers, rather than professional musicians. So-called served for music lessons handpieces, the precursor of later (piano) Studies of the 19th century.
In 1784 Gottlieb Christian Füger published characteristic piano pieces for the representation of twelve affects. The character pieces by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (“Six diverse Pièces pour le clavecin ou pianoforte”, 1778/79) no longer have a cyclical connection. The emancipation of the single movement was a motivation for composers to write character pieces. But only the beginning of romanticism created new conditions. Crucial in this time was that the piano sonata was no longer regarded as the representative genre of piano music. Rather, the principle of song-like, lyrical design became the new basis for instrumental musicthis epoch. The character piece with its poetic inclinations has now been brought to fruition.
Musical Poetry in the 19th Century
As one of the first representatives of the more modern character piece, Johann Wenzel Tomaschek from 1807 wrote a total of ten albums with pronounced character pieces from 1807 over the course of more than 30 years, mostly in three-part song form. The eclogues published since 1810/1811 were later followed by rhapsodies. As late variants of a baroque affect representation one can still understand the characteristic studies for the pianoforte (1836) by Ignaz Moscheles. They have headlines like: “anger, contradiction, tenderness, fear”.
The “handpieces” became more technically demanding etudes over time. Here are essential starting points for the works of later artists, including Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Lieder ohne Worte, Seven Characteristic Pieces op. 7 (1827). These are in the sign of their predecessors Ludwig Berger and Moscheles. Unlike Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert found his musical models mainly in vocal music.
In Robert Schumann’s the poetic element is often confirmed by headlines (forest scenes, children’s scenes, Nachtstück, fantasy piece, album pages…). The 18 Davidsbündlertänze op. 6 (1837) are only referred to as character pieces in the second edition of 1850/51.
Popularization and Prestige Loss
With the popularization of the character piece in the popular music and the advent of the program symphony, symphonic poem and the music in the romantic ballet where all the actions on a larger scale and larger ensembles are presented musical, the character piece lost its importance. It was all the more often combined with the visual sensations of the time such as panorama and diorama or the life image in popular theater. In return, the ideal of an Absolute Music was formed, which should be “purified” of extra-musical meanings.
Schumann’s successors included artists such as Stephen Heller, Theodor Kirchner (Neue Davidsbündlertänze op. 17, 1872, and character pieces op. 61, 1882) and Adolf Jensen. The character piece became more and more a kind of template. Later composers such as Edvard Grieg developed their own style (wedding day on Troldhaugen [Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen], 1897).
Variants in the 20th century
Claude Debussy’s Impressionism developed into a French tradition of the character’s character (Children’s Corner, Estampes, Images), which ranges from Maurice Ravel, Eric Satie, to Olivier Messiaen.
From the end of the 19th century, works of salon music were also called character pieces. The radio music of the 20th century used the character piece as a tourist souvenir (on the blue Adriatic by Gerhard Winkler) or functional music piece (The Merry Alarm Clock by Boris Mersson). The term gets thereby a dazzling character and is often used pejoratively. In the character pieces of this era, a surprising musical effect is in the foreground. Examples of this are the St. Petersburg sleigh ride (there are shots with whip bangs and dog barking) and the mill in the Black Forest(There are recordings with birdsong) by Richard Eilenberg, On a Persian market by Albert Ketèlbey (circus music is the epitome of the Oriental) and Heinzelmänchen’s guard parade by Kurt Noack.
Demarcation from the program
It is not always easy to differentiate the character pieces from the program music. The musicologist Hugo Riemann considered “the delighted lingering of the composer in the single effect” (Handbuch der Musikgeschichte, 1913) a characteristic of the character piece. In contrast, program music describes a whole plot. The difference between character and action can best be used in the poetics of Aristotle: program music describes a kind of drama or epic, while the character piece remains static and at most shows contrasts (as often in a middle section).
The character piece is, unlike the movements of a sonata or suite, often alone, such as Albumblatt, Pièce détachée or Moment musical. Several lyrical pieces sometimes combine with each other to cycles, for example, with similar themes (such as Schumann ‘s Kinderszenen). As a template serve dance, song and Rondoformen, since the romance were mainly the song forms use.
The pieces of character are essential in the music of Romanticism, and are essential for those movements in which the evocation of particular modes or moments is of interest. What distinguishes the pieces of character is the specificity of the idea they evoke. Many pieces of character are composed in ternary form, but it is not a universal characteristic. A common trait is the intention to grant them expressive titles, such as Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Journey around my room”) by Stephen Heller, an early example of the genre. Other character pieces have titles suggesting brevity and singularity of the concept, such as trifles of Beethoven or Preludesof Debussy, or casual construction: the title Impromptu is common. Many nocturnes and intermezzi are also pieces of character, among them those of Chopin and Brahms, respectively.
Large sets of many individual character pieces, intended to be played as a single piece of music, were not uncommon; Schumann’s many works of this form (including Kreisleriana and Carnaval) are the best known examples. In the late 19th and twentieth centuries, as piano music became ambitious and larger in scale, the scope of what a character piece could reference grew as well. The New Grove cites Smetana’s “Festival of the Gypsy Peasants” and Sibelius’s “The Oarsman” as examples of this later trend.
Source from Wikipedia