A History of Classical Music – Part 4: Romantic

'The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog' by Caspar David Friedrich

Just like the Baroque and Classical periods before it, the Romantic period in music coincides with the Romantic period in art and literature. The Romantic period in music starts around 1820, a few years before Beethoven died (in 1827), and Beethoven’s music can be considered to bridge the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods. Schubert was also a Classical-period composer whose music can be considered very Romantic: his music expresses deep feelings and a great variety of moods and emotions.

The Romantic era also coincides with a very turbulent period of history: Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and in the subsequent years, the European powers (including Great Britain) worked hard to establish political stability following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. However, conflicts and revolutions continued to rage across Europe: this was a difficult period to be alive, and this is often reflected in the music, art and literature of the time.

Romantic music is all about feelings, and how to express those feelings in music. Music from the Baroque and Classical periods was for entertainment, at home or at court, or for the church, while Romantic music is ‘music for music’s sake’. Romantic music used and extended the structures set down in the Classical period (such as the Sonata, Concerto or Symphony) but extended these in an attempt to create music that expressed deep or passionate human feelings and truths. Romantic music drew inspiration from other art forms such as literature and painting, from history (and historical figures), and from nature. Some composers are described as “romantic” though they lived outside of the Romantic period, such as Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1874-1943).

During the nineteenth-century the symphony orchestra (and its instruments) developed further and grew much bigger, and the invention of an iron frame for the piano made it a stronger and more versatile instrument, capable of a bigger sound. Romantic composers took advantage of these developments to produce music that is often broad in scope, with contrasting dynamics, melodies, colour and mood. The key features of Romantic music are:

  • A strong sense of melody (tune), often very beautiful, lyrical and song-like
  • Freedom in structure and design: Romantic music is a more personal expression of the imagination, fantasy or adventure
  • More unusual and daring use of harmony and modulation (changes in key)
  • A rich variety of types of pieces, such as songs, ‘piano miniatures’ (short pieces), tone poems to enormous symphonies lasting over an hour, with spectacular dramatic and dynamic effects.
  • Connections and unity within a work through the use of themes or musical “mottos” (also called leitmotif). Richard Wagner is perhaps the most famous for this, particularly in his operas.
  • Greater technical virtuosity (skill), especially in pianists (such as Liszt, violinists (Paganini) and flautists.
  • The concert as a ‘spectacle’, or ‘occasion’ – much as the modern classical concert is now.
  • The performer as a celebrity (Liszt, Paganini)

Some of the greatest composers of the Romantic period are:

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): composed a huge amount of music for the piano, often ‘miniatures’ (small-scale works) such as Nocturnes, Preludes, Etudes, Scherzi, Ballades. Also music inspired by the folk dances from his homeland (Poland) such as Polonaises and Mazurkas. He transformed the Waltz from a drawing room dance to an elegant concert piece (his most famous waltz is the ‘Minute’ Waltz (Opus 64/1), so-called, not because it should last only a minute, but because it is small.) Most famous works: Piano Sonata in B-flat minor (includes the famous ‘Funeral March’), Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, Fantasie-Impromptu Op 66, ‘Raindrop’ Prelude.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Wrote songs, works for orchestra and chorus, many piano works, his most famous being Kreisleriana. His piano concerto is one of the most famous of all piano concertos. His music displays many contrasts in mood. His wife, Clara, was a fine virtuoso pianist and a composer in her own right. Most famous works: Papillons (Butterflies) and Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Piano Quintet in E flat, Dichterliebe (a song cycle).

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (1811-1886): As well as a composer, Liszt was also a virtuoso pianist, who turned the piano recital into the showpiece it is today. He was also a revered teacher and championed many young composers such as Wagner and Berlioz. He wrote a great deal of music for the piano, much of which is very difficult to play, and is considered some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. He wrote the first ‘symphonic poem’, a piece for orchestra which tells a story, and a lot of his music was inspired by literature and art. One of his most famous works for piano is the Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), a suite of pieces which describe his travels around Switzerland and Italy, conjuring up images of mountain streams, thunderstorms, countryside and art works. Other important works include: ‘Faust’ Symphony, the B-minor Piano Sonata, Hungarian Rhapsodies (inspired by the music of his homeland, Hungary), Transcendental Etudes (very technically difficult pieces for piano).

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Italian composer most famous for operas, including Aida, Rigoletto and La Traviata, which contain many well-known and much-loved arias (songs) and choruses (such as Nessun Dorma).

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): German composer famous for operas (including the ‘Ring’ cycle), and other music which is large in scale and scope, with complex harmonies and rich textures.

Pyotyr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Russian composer who is perhaps most famous for his ballet music (Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty). Also, symphonies, piano concertos, piano miniatures.

Other Romantic composers to explore: Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, Hector Berlioz, Gustav Mahler

Romantic playlist

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