The Romanic Era of music saw Beethoven leading the way with composers creating music that was grand, expressive and with a much greater range of external influences. They built on the conventions from previous music periods but began to challenge them as they sought to free themselves from the restrictiveness ways of the preceding Classical period.
This blog post will look at the key Romantic composers and some of their most important works, and at how things developed stylistically during the era. We’ll learn about the emergence of instrumental virtuosos, Wagner’s innovations in the world of opera, and about various new musical forms.
When was the Romantic Music Era?
There are six major eras that make up the periods of western classical music.
The Romantic period lasted from 1800-1910 AD, and is the fifth of the main eras:
- Medieval era (500-1400AD)
- Renaissance era (1400-1600AD)
- Baroque era (1600-1750AD)
- Classical era (1730-1820AD)
- Romantic era (1800-1910AD)
- Contemporary era (1900-Present)
The Transition From the Classical Period
As with most of the classical music eras, there is a cross over between the Romantic era and the preceding classical era.
This transition was bridged by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) with his music spanning both periods.
He wrote ambitious works, expanding upon the previously strict symphonic rules established by the likes of Mozart and Haydn, with his later pieces anticipating Romanticism.
He worked on a grander scale with material that was much more expressive and emotive, two of the defining features of Romantic music.
Another innovation was the inclusion of programmatic content.
This is instrumental music that attempts to suggest an extra-musical narrative: composers now began to take inspiration from nature, literature, ancient legends, national identity and other non-musical stimuli.
His Symphony No. 6 exemplifies this.
Known as the Pastoral Symphony, it evokes rural life with imitation bird calls:
Other Stylistic Features of the Romantic period
As music became more emotive, composers were able to make their music more overtly autobiographical, and could attempt to express emotions and feelings such as grief, romantic love and tragedy.
Things also became more complex on a technical level, with increasingly complex chord sequences and longer and less predictable phrases and melodies.
Pieces might now cadence into unexpected key centres, for example.
The extremes of the dynamic range were utilised – from ppp to fff – and the same approach was applied to tonal range, with the lowest and highest available notes of each the given instrument now made use of.
Some music now made use of rubato passages, in freer rhythmic time, again contributing to a more expressive sound.
Composers also began write nationalistic music which glorified their home country, sometimes against a perceived oppressor, for the first time.
Jean Sibelius’ tone poem Finlandia has been interpreted as a protest at censorship in Finland by the Russian Empire, while Bedřich Smetana’s music is associated with the push for Czech independence.
Meanwhile, some of Frédéric Chopin’s music celebrated the traditional folk music of his native Poland.
Here is an example:
New Musical Forms
While many of the types of composition that were popular in the Classical period continued to be written, a number of new musical forms developed.
A tone poem is a single-movement orchestral work around a particular theme.
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who also composed a number of important ballets, wrote Romeo and Juliet, which is based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name:
Other new forms and types of composition, some of which have an implied character or mood, included:
- Lieder – German language songs, often created by setting poetry to music and organised in song cycles. Franz Schubert, a transitional composer who straddled the Classical and Romantic eras similarly to Beethoven, pioneered Lieder.
- Nocturne – a composition evocative of night time. Chopin wrote some beautiful nocturnes for piano.
- Arabesque – composed by Tchaikovsky, Robert Schumann and others, this was a type of piece inspired by Arabic culture and architecture in particular.
- Rhapsody – a single-movement work with a deliberate sense of spontaneity, as if it were improvised.
- Concert overture – a single-movement orchestral work, often based upon a literary programme.
Opera: The Golden Age
The Romantic period is considered a golden age of opera, and many of the works that are performed most frequently today were written in the 19th Century.
The Italian bel canto (literally meaning “beautiful singing”) movement of the early Romantic era features ornate and intricate vocal melodies, requiring superb technique from the soloist, and is exemplified in Gioachino Rossini’s operas such as The Barber of Seville.
Later, Giuseppe Verdi operas like Rigoletta make use of a more forceful, direct style with a focus on dramatic storytelling, and were associated with Italian nationalism.
German composer Richard Wagner built upon the innovations of Carl Maria von Weber, who helped establish a uniquely German style of Romantic opera, to push the genre forward into new territory.
He made use of much more adventurous harmony, increasing chromaticism, and pioneered the use of leitmotifs – musical phrases that represent specific characters.
Influencing the likes of Richard Strauss and Puccini, his large-scale, epic works were a far cry from the neat and elegant operas that Mozart wrote in the Classical period.
Wagner’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” appears in his Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This cycle of operas typically takes place over four nights, with a total playing time of around 15 hours!
Here is an example:
The Romantic era saw the emergence of stunning virtuoso performers, who were widely lauded for their instrumental skills, and a number of composers now increasingly appeared in the public eye to play their own music.
Franz Liszt and Frédéric François Chopin were both composers and brilliant pianists, while Niccolò Paganini was one of the most celebrated violinists of his day.
As well as significantly influencing modern violin technique, he wrote a number of pieces that are now part of the standard violin repertoire.
Johannes Brahms, an extremely important composer of chamber and symphonic works, was also a virtuoso pianist who often premiered his own pieces.
Années de Pèlerinage is one of Liszt’s most acclaimed works for solo piano:
Instruments and the Expansion of the Orchestra
The Romantic orchestra got bigger, in keeping with the grander, more expressive music that was being written, and to allow for a broader tonal palette.
Particularly high or low-pitched instruments, like piccolo, contrabassoon and bass clarinet, now made guest appearances in pieces to create certain desired effects or moods, as did instruments from the much-expanded percussion section: celeste (which is famously used in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”), xylophones, triangles or bass drums, for example.
The string section retained the same four instruments – violin, viola, cello and double bass – but the number of players of each instrument increased.
The Industrial Revolution meant that there were great improvements to the mechanical keys and valves used on most woodwind and brass instruments, so they became much closer to the ones seen today.
The piano, now by far the most popular instrument, expanded in size and range from five to eight octaves.
Composers of the Romanic Era
Up until this point most composers had made a living by working under the patronage of the aristocracy, thus writing music that would only be heard by a relatively small audience, or as employees of religious institutions.
However, a big growth in the middle class during this period made it possible for them to write music to be performed in big concerts and festivals, which would be heard by a much wider range of people.
This was in keeping in with the emergence of a new perception of musicians as artists, rather than as craftsmen.
There are numerous important 19th Century composers whose works are still performed often.
Apart from the figures we’ve already covered here, some key Romantic figures include:
- Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) – French composer best known for orchestral works like Harold in Italy and Symphony Fantastique.
- Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) – an early Romantic German composer who wrote numerous piano compositions. Her brother Felix Mendelssohn was also a significant composer.
- Robert Schumann (1810-1856) – German composer of piano works, Lieder, and orchestral works.
- Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) – Italian opera composer whose famed works include Madame Butterfly and Tosca.
- Edward Elgar (1857-1934) – English composer who wrote late Romantic works, including a famous cello concerto.
So, that’s the end of our guide to the Romantic period.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the passionate, emotive music – music that was increasingly about something – that came out of the era.
We’ve also looked at the key composers of the time and at some of the ways in which their role changed, as well as at developments in form and the emergence of the virtuoso soloist.