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Romantic music

Music Sound

Romantic music

Ballade | Character piece | Intermezzo

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History of European art music
Medieval (476 – 1400)
Renaissance (1400 – 1600)
Baroque (1600 – 1760)
Classical (1730 – 1820)
Romantic (1815 – 1910)
20th century (1900 – 2000)
Contemporary classical music  

The era of Romantic music is defined as the period of European classical music that runs roughly from the early 1800s to the first decade of the 20th century, as well as music written according to the norms and styles of that period. The Romantic period was preceded by the classical period, and was followed by the modern period.

Romantic music is related to Romantic movements in literature, art, and philosophy, though the conventional periods used in musicology are now very different from their counterparts in the other arts, which define "romantic" as running from the 1780s to the 1840s. The Romanticism movement held that not all truth could be deduced from axioms, that there were inescapable realities in the world which could only be reached through emotion, feeling and intuition. Romantic music struggled to increase emotional expression and power to describe these deeper truths, while preserving or even extending the formal structures from the classical period.

The vernacular use of the term romantic music applies to music which is thought to evoke a soft or dreamy atmosphere. This usage is rooted in the connotations of the word "romantic" that were established during the period, but not all "Romantic" pieces fit this description. Conversely, music that is "romantic" in the vernacular sense is not necessarily linked to the Romantic period.


Trends of the Romantic period

Musical language

The Romantic era established the concept of tonality to describe the harmonic vocabulary inherited from the baroque and classical periods. Romantic composers sought to fuse the large structural harmonic planning demonstrated by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven with their own chromatic innovations, in order to achieve greater fluidity of movement, greater contrast, and to meet the needs of longer works. Chromaticism grew more frequent and varied in use, as did dissonance. Composers modulated to increasingly remote keys, and modulations were often less extensively prepared than in the classical era; sometimes, instead of a pivot chord, a pivot note was used. Franz Liszt and others sometimes enharmonically "spelled" this note in a special way (for example, changing a C sharp into a D flat) to modulate into even more distant keys. The properties of the diminished seventh chords, which enables modulation to almost any key, were also extensively exploited. Composers such as Beethoven (who is often regarded as the first Romantic composer) and later Richard Wagner expanded their harmonic language to include previously-unused chords, or to treat existing chords in different ways. Wagner's Tristan chord, found in Tristan and Isolde, has had much written about it attempting to explain exactly what harmonic function it serves.

Romantic music analogized music to poetry and to rhapsodic and narrative structures, and at the same time created a more systematic basis for the composing and performing of concert music. The Romantic era codified previous practices, such as the sonata form, and then almost immediately began to extend them. There was an increasing focus on melodies and themes, as well as an explosion in the composition of songs. The emphasis on melody found expression in the more and more extensive use of cyclic form, which turned out to be an important unifying device for the much longer pieces that became common during the period.

All these trends — greater harmonic elusiveness and fluidity, longer and more powerfully-placed melodies, poesis as the basis of expression, the mixing of literature and music — were present to one degree or another prior to the Romantic period. However, the Romantic period adopted them as the central pursuit of music itself. Romantic composers were aided by improvements in technology, which provided significant changes in the language of music, ranging from an increase in the range and power of the piano to improvements in the sound and reach of the symphony orchestra.

Non-musical influences

One of the controversies that raged through the Romantic period was the relationship of music to external texts or sources. While music with a point or a program (program music) was common prior to the 19th century, the conflict between formal and external inspiration became an important aesthetic issue during Romantic era.

The controversy began during the 1830s with Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which was presented with an extensive program text, causing critics and professors to pick up their pens. Prominent among the detractors was François-Joseph Fétis, the head of the newly-founded Brussels Conservatory, who declared that the work was "not music". Robert Schumann defended the work, but not the program itself, saying that good music would not be hurt by bad titles, but good titles would not save a bad work. It was left to Franz Liszt to defend the idea of extra-musical inspiration.

This rift grew more pronounced as time progressed, with polemics delivered from both sides. For the believers in "absolute" music, formal perfection rested on musical expression obeying the schematics laid down in previous works, most notably the sonata form then being codified. To the adherents of program music, the rhapsodic expression of poetry or some other external text was, itself, a form. They argued that bringing the artist's life into a work required the form to follow the narrative. Both sides pointed back to Beethoven as their inspiration and justification. This rift would become codified by the conflict between followers of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner: Brahms was taken to be the pinnacle of absolute music, without a text or other outside reference, and Wagner the believer in the poetic "substance" shaping the harmonic and melodic flow of the music.

The forces that brought this controversy about are complex. The rise in importance of Romantic Poetry is certainly one of them, as was the increasing market for songs which could be sung in concerts, or played in the home. Another is the changing nature of concerts themselves: as concerts moved from presentations of a wide variety of works to being more specialized, there was increasing demand for instrumental works possessing greater expressiveness and specificity.

Examples of extra-musical inspiration include Liszt's Faust Symphony, Dante Symphony, and various symphonic poems, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, Mahler's First Symphony (based on the novel Titan), and Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals (from which the popular The Swan is drawn.) Composers such as Schubert used song melodies in their extended works, and others, such as Liszt, transcribed opera arias and songs into purely instrumental works.

Romantic opera

In opera, there was a tendency for the forms established in classical and baroque opera to be loosened, broken, and merged into each other. This reached its climax in Wagner's operas, in which arias, choruses, recitatives and ensemble pieces cannot easily be distinguished from each other. Instead there is a continuous flow of music.

Other changes occurred as well. The decline of castrati led to tenors being given the heroic lead in operas as a rule, and the chorus took on a more important role. Towards the end of the Romantic period, verismo opera, depicting realistic, rather than historical or mythological, subjects became popular in Italy. France followed with operas such as Bizet's Carmen.


A number of romantic composers wrote nationalist music, music which had a particular connection to a particular country. This manifested itself in a number of ways. The subjects of Mikhail Glinka's operas, for example, are specifically Russian, while Bedřich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak both used rhythms and themes from Czech folk dances and songs. Late in the 19th century, Jean Sibelius wrote music based on the Finnish epic, the Kalevala and his piece 'Finlandia' became a symbol of Finnish nationalism.

Instrumentation and scale

As in other periods, instrumentation continued to improve during the romantic era. Composers such as Hector Berlioz orchestrated their works in a way hitherto unheard, giving a new prominence to wind instruments. The size of the "standard" orchestra grew, and began to include instruments, such as the piccolo and cor anglais, that were previously rarely-used. Mahler's Symphony No. 8 is known as the Symphony of a Thousand because of the massive choral and orchestral forces required to perform it.

In addition to using larger orchestral forces, works in the Romantic era tended to become longer. A typical symphony by Haydn or Mozart lasts twenty to twenty-five minutes. In contrast, Beethoven's Third Symphony, generally considered the beginning of Romanticism, lasts at least forty-five minutes. The trend towards long, large scale works requiring substantial orchestral forces was expanded through the symphonies of, among others, Anton Bruckner, finally reaching its peak in Mahler's symphonies, with his works ranging from roughly an hour in length (the First and Fourth symphonies), to an hour and a half and longer (the Second, Third, and the Ninth).

The Romantic period also saw the rise of the instrumental virtuoso. The violinist Niccolo Paganini was one of the musical stars of the early 19th century, though his fame was usually put down as much to his charisma as his technique. Liszt, in addition to his skills as a composer, was also a very popular virtuoso pianist. The presence of such virtuosi on a concert program was more likely to attract a large audience than the composers of the music.

Brief Chronology of Musical Romanticism

Classical roots of Romanticism (1780-1815)

In literature, the Romantic period is often said to begin in the 1770s or 1780s with a movement known as "storm and struggle" in Germany. It was attended by a greater influence of Shakespeare and of folk sagas, whether real or created, as well as the poetry of Homer. Writers such as Goethe and Schiller radically altered their practices, while in Scotland Robert Burns began setting down folk music. This literary movement is reflected in the music of the "classical" era composers in a variety of ways, including Mozart's work in German opera, the choice of songs and melodies to set for commercial works, and a gradually increasing violence in artistic expression. However, as long as most composers worked in court, and for royal patronage, their ability to engage in "romanticism and revolt" was strictly limited. Mozart's troubles in staging The Marriage of Figaro, which was banned as revolutionary, are a case in point.

Even in purely musical terms, romanticism drew its fundamental substance from the structure of classical practice. The classical era saw an increase in compositional and playing standards, and the creation of standardized forms and bodies of musicians. It was not without reason that E.T.A. Hoffmann called Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn the "three Romantic composers". One of the most crucial undercurrents in the classical era is the role of chromaticism and harmonic ambiguity. All of the major classical composers used harmonic ambiguity and the technique of moving rapidly across keys without establishing a true key. One of the most famous examples is the "harmonic chaos" at the opening of Haydn's The Creation. However, for all of these excursions, the tension in the music was based on articulated sections, movement towards the dominant or relative major, and a transparency of texture.

By the 1810s, the use of chromaticism and the minor key, and the desire to move through more keys for a deeper range to music, had been combined with a need for greater operatic reach. While Beethoven would later be regarded as the central figure in this movement, it was composers such as Clementi and Spohr who represented the contemporary taste in incorporating more chromatic notes into their thematic material. The tension between the desire for more "color" and the classical desire for structure led a musical crisis. One response was to move to opera, where text could provide structure even where there were no formal models. ETA Hoffman is principally known as a critic nowadays, but his opera Undine of 1814 was a radical innovation in music. Another response to the crisis was to move to shorter forms, including some novel ones such as the nocturne, where the intensity of the harmony itself was enough to carry the music forward.

Early Romantic (1815-1850)

By the second decade of the 19th century, the shift towards new sources for music, along with an increasing chromaticism in melody and the desire for more expressive harmony, became a palpable stylistic shift. The forces underlying this shift were not only musical, but economic, political and social. The stage was set for a generation of composers who could speak to the new environment of post-Napoleonic Europe.

The first wave of these composers is generally regarded to be Ludwig Spohr, ETA Hoffman, Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert. These composers grew up amidst the dramatic expansion of concert life during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and this shaped their subsequent styles and expectations. Many regarded Beethoven as the example to follow, or at least aspire to. The chromatic melodies of Muzio Clementi and the stirring operatic works of Rossini, Cherubini and Mehul, also had an influence. At the same time, the setting of folk poetry and songs for voice and piano, to serve a growing market of middle-class homes where private music-making was becoming an essential part of domestic life, was a new and important source of income for composers.

The crucial works of this wave of Romantics were the song cycles and symphonies of Franz Schubert, and the operas of Weber, particularly Oberon, Der Freischütz and Euryanthe. Schubert's work was only played before limited audiences at the time, and would only gradually produce a wider impact. In contrast, the compositions of John Field quickly became well-known, partly because he had a gift for creating small "characteristic" piano forms and dances.

The next cohort of Romantic composers includes Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, and Hector Berlioz. All were born in the 19th century, and began producing works of lasting value early in their careers. Mendelssohn was particularly precocious, having written two string quartets, a string octet and orchestral music before even leaving his teens. Chopin would focus on compositions for the piano, including his etudes and two piano concerti. Berlioz would produce the first important post-Beethoven symphony with his programatic Symphonie Fantastique.

At the same time, what is now labelled "Romantic Opera" became established with a strong connection between Paris and northern Italy. The combination of French orchestral virtuosity, Italianate vocal lines and dramatic flare, along with texts drawn from increasingly popular literature, established a norm of emotional expression which continues to dominate the operatic stage. The work of Bellini and Donizetti was immensely popular at this time.

An important aspect of this phase of Romanticism was the wide popularity of piano concerts (or "recitals", as they were called by Franz Liszt), which included improvisations on popular themes, short works, and the performance of longer works such as the sonatas of Beethoven and Mozart. One of the most prominent exponents of Beethoven was Clara Wieck, who would later marry Robert Schumann. The increase in travel, facilitated by rail and later by steamship, created international audiences for piano virtuosi such as Liszt, Chopin and Thalberg. Concerts became events in themselves. This phenomenon was pioneered by Niccolo Paganini, the famous violin virtuoso.

During the late 1830s and 1840s, the full flowering of this musical generation was presented to the public, including the music of Robert Schumann, Giacomo Meyerbeer and the young Giuseppe Verdi. It should be noted that "Romanticism" was not the only, or even the dominant style of music making at the time - a post-classical style exemplified by the Paris Conservatoire, as well as court music, still dominated concert programs. This began to change with the rise of institutions, such as symphony orchestras with regular seasons, a trend promoted by Felix Mendelssohn himself. Music was regarded as a quasi-religious experience, and the "Philharmonic" society became part of a concert as a time for deep engagement in the music, in contrast to the less formal manners of previous concert life.

It was at this point that Richard Wagner produced his first successful operas, and began arguing for a radically expanded conception of "musical drama". A self-described revolutionary, in constant trouble with both creditors and the authorities, he began gathering around him a body of like-minded musicians, including Franz Liszt, who would dedicate themselves to making the "Music of the Future".

Literary Romanticism is generally regarded to have ended in 1848, with the revolutions of that year marking a turning point in the mood of Europe, or at least the perception of where the cutting edge in music and art lay. With the rise of a self-described "realist" ideology, as well as the deaths of such figures as Paganini, Mendelssohn and Schumann, along with Liszt's retirement from concert performance, a new wave of music making had arrived. Some have argued that, like poetry and painting, this new wave should be identified as Victorian rather than Romantic, but this is at present a minority position. Instead, the late 19th century is described as being the "High Romantic".

Late Romantic Era (1850-1910)

As the 19th century moved into its second half, many of the social, political and economic changes set in motion in the post-Napoleonic period became entrenched. Telegraph and railway bound the European world ever closer together. The nationalism that was an important strain of early 19th century Romantic music became formalized by political and linguistic means. Literature for the middle class audience became the fixture of publishing, including the rise of the novel as the primary literary form.

Many of the figures of the first half of the 19th century had retired, died, or reached the end of their careers. Many others struck out in new directions, taking advantage of the greater regularity of concert life, and the greater financial and technical resources that were available. In the previous 50 years numerous innovations in instrumentation, including the double escarpment piano action, the valved wind instrument, and the chin rest for violins and violas, had gone from novelty to standard. The dramatic increase in musical education meant a wider public for piano music and sophisticated concert music. The establishment of conservatories and universities created centers where musicians could make stable careers teaching others to play, rather than being entrepreneurs relying on their own resources. The sum of these changes can be seen in the titanic wave of symphonies, concerti and "tone poems" which were created, and the expansion of the opera seasons in Paris, London and Italy.

The late Romantic period saw the rise of national "styles" which were associated with the folk music and poetry of particular countries, and with the important composers from that country. The notion that there were "German" and "Italian" styles had long been established in writing on music, but the late 19th century saw the rise of a "Russian" style: Glinka, Mussorgski, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovski and Borodin; and also Czech, Finnish and French "styles" of composition. Many composers were expressly nationalistic in their objectives, seeking to write opera or music associated with their native lands language and culture.

Romanticism in the 20th century (1901-present)

Many composers born in the 19th century continued to compose well into the 20th century, in styles which were recognizably connected to the previous musical era, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss and Kurt Atterberg. In addition, many composers who would later be identified as musical modernists composed works in Romantic styles early in their career, such as Igor Stravinsky with his Firebird ballet, Arnold Schoenberg with Gurrelieder, and Béla Bartók with Bluebeard's Castle. However, the vocabulary and structure of the late 19th century was not merely a holdover; Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erich Korngold, Berthold Goldschmidt and Sergei Prokofiev continued to compose works in recognizably Romantic styles after 1950.

While new tendencies such as neo-classicism and atonal music challenged the preeminence of the romantic style, the desire to compose in tonally centered chromatic vocabularies remained present in major works. Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Dmitri Shostakovich, Malcolm Arnold and Arnold Bax while considering themselves modern and contemporary composers, drew frequently from musical Romanticism in their works.

Musical romanticism reached a rhetorical and artistic nadir around 1960: it seemed as if the future lay with avant garde styles of composition, or with neo-classicism of some kind. While Hindemith moved back to a style more recognizably rooted in romanticism, most composers moved in the other direction. Only in the conservative academic hierarchy of the USSR and China did it seem that musical romanticism had a place. However, by the late 1960s, a revival of music using the surface of musical romanticism had begun. Composers such as George Rochberg switched from serialism to models drawn from Gustav Mahler, a project which found him the company of Nicholas Maw and David Del Tredici. This movement is described as Neo-Romanticism, and includes works such as John Corigliano's First Symphony.

Another area where the Romantic style has survived, and even flourished, is in film scoring. Many of the early émigres escaping from Nazi Germany were Jewish composers who had studied, or even studied under, Gustav Mahler's disciples in Vienna. Max Steiner's lush score for Gone with the Wind provides an example of the use of Wagnerian leitmotifs and Mahlerian orchestration. The "Golden Age of Hollywood" film music rested heavily on the work of composers such as Korngold and Steiner as well as Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman. The next generation of film composers, Alexander North, John Williams, and Elmer Bernstein drew on this tradition to write some of the most familiar orchestral music of the late 20th century.

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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