Romantic music

From New World Encyclopedia

Josef Danhauser's 1840 painting of Franz Liszt at the piano surrounded by (from left to right) Alexandre Dumas, Hector Berlioz, George Sand, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini, Marie d'Agoult with a bust of Ludwig van Beethoven on the piano.

The era of Romantic music is defined as the period of European classical music that runs roughly from 1820 to 1900, as well as music written according to the norms and styles of that period. The Romantic period was preceded by the classical period and the late classical period of which most music is by Beethoven, and was followed by the twentieth century classical music.

The invisible, vibratory world of instrumental music can be said to correspond to the unseen incorporeal world. Arthur Schopenhauer believed that music was "the very image and incarnation of the innermost reality of the world, the immediate expression of the universal feelings and impulsions of life in concrete, definite form." Goethe's observation that "…the head is only able to grasp a work of art in the company of the heart" could stand as defining axiom for the cultural attitudes of the nineteenth century.

History of classical music
Medieval (476 – 1400)
Renaissance (1400 – 1600)
Baroque (1600 – 1760)
Classical (1730 – 1820)
Romantic (1815 – 1910)
20th century classical (1900 – 2000)
Contemporary classical (1975 – present)


Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, an example of Romantic painting

Romantic music is related to romanticism in literature, visual arts, and philosophy, though the conventional time 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.

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The goal of Romantic music was to describe deep truths that are accessed through emotion and intuition

The vernacular use of the term "romantic music" applies to music which is thought to evoke a soft mood 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, with some musical romanticism producing strong, harsh sounds for agitated emotion. Conversely, music that is "romantic" in the modern everyday usage of the word (that is, relating to the emotion of romantic love) is not necessarily linked to the Romantic period.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, with its predilection for "natural law" and "practical morality" over supernatural religion and metaphysics, constituted a major shift in attitudes about music and the arts. Music was no longer considered a product of divine origin but rather an unnecessary luxury. The spirit of the Enlightenment was clearly secular with an eye for the egalitarian in all things. Public concerts, as opposed to private concert events sponsored by wealthy benefactors, were becoming more prevalent and as a result musical style underwent changes. Music was to aspire to simplicity and avoid the complexity of contrapuntal devises and the excessive elaboration and ornamentation that was characteristic of the music in the Baroque period.

The French Revolution

The social upheaval of the French Revolution in 1789 and the attitudes it engendered, specifically the primacy of individual rights, signified another important cultural change for music and musicians. Beethoven, who was a child of the French Revolution, asserted that as a creator he had certain rights and was therefore the equal of, or superior to kings, clergy, and nobles. This quasi-megalomania, coupled with anti-social behavior and self-absorption would become a defining trait among many great artists of the Romantic era.

This attitude attributes great importance to the listener of music. Friedrich Nietzsche expressed it this way: "In order for an event to have greatness two things must come together: The immense understanding of those who cause it to happen, and the immense understanding of those who experience it."[1] As musicologist Donald J. Grout suggests: "In a very general sense, all art may be said to be Romantic; for, though it may take its materials from everyday life, it transforms them and thus creates a new world which is necessarily, to a greater or lesser degree, remote from the every day world."[2]

1820 portrait by Karl Stieler

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) personified the attitude that music was "a direct outpouring" of a composer's personality, his individual triumphs and tragedies. This became a prevalent Romantic notion and the irony here is that as the egalitarian attitudes of Romanticism (its Zeitgeist) led to the aforementioned anti-social attitudes among artists; a condition diametrically opposed to the philosophical tenets of antiquity.

That said, certain aspects of Romanticism are akin to the ancient concept of "microcosmic relatedness," for Romantic art "aspires to immediate times or occasions, to seize eternity, to reach back into the past or forward into the future, to range over the expanse of the world and outward through the cosmos." Romanticism celebrates metaphor, ambiguity, suggestion, allusion and symbol and as a result, instrumental music, which was shunned by the early Church, is now favored over music with words due to its "incomparable power of suggestion" and mystery. The invisible, vibratory world of instrumental music corresponds to the unseen incorporeal world.

Schopenhauer believed that music was "the very image and incarnation of the innermost reality of the world, the immediate expression of the universal feelings and impulsions of life in concrete, definite form." Goethe's observation that "… the head is only able to grasp a work of art in the company of the heart" could stand as defining axiom for the cultural attitudes of the nineteenth century.

Trends of the Nineteenth century

Johann Sebastian Bach in a 1748 portrait by Haussmann

Musical language

Music theorists of 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 earlier masters such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven with further chromatic innovations, in order to achieve greater fluidity and contrast, and to meet the needs of longer works. Chromaticism grew more varied, as did consonance and dissonance and their resolution. Composers modulated to increasingly remote keys, and their music often prepared the listener less for these modulations than the music of the classical era. Sometimes, instead of a pivot chord, a pivot note was used. The properties of the diminished seventh and related chords, which facilitate modulation to many keys, were also extensively exploited. Composers such as Beethoven and, later, Richard Wagner expanded the harmonic language with previously-unused chords, or innovative chord progressions. Much has been written, for example, about Wagner's 'Tristan chord', found near the opening of Tristan und Isolde, and its precise harmonic function.

Some Romantic composers analogized music to poetry and its rhapsodic and narrative structures, while creating a more systematic basis for the composing and performing of concert music. Music theorists of the Romantic era codified previous practices, such as the sonata form, while composers extended 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 increasingly extensive use of cyclic form, which was an important unifying device for some of the longer pieces that became common during the period.

The greater harmonic elusiveness and fluidity, the longer melodies, poesis as the basis of expression, and the use of literary inspirations were all present prior to the Romantic period. However, some composers of the Romantic period adopted them as the central pursuit of music itself. Romantic composers were also influenced by technological advances, including an increase in the range and power of the piano and the improved chromatic abilities and greater projection of the instruments 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 program music was common before the nineteenth century, the conflict between formal and external inspiration became an important aesthetic issue for some composers during the Romantic era.

During the 1830s Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which was presented with an extensive program text, caused many critics and academics 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, saying that bad titles would not hurt good music, but good titles could not save a bad work. Franz Liszt was one of the prominent defenders of extra-musical inspiration.

This rift grew, with polemics delivered from both sides. For the supporters of "absolute" music, formal perfection rested on musical expression that obeys 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 for the artist to bring his life into a work, the form must follow the narrative. Both sides used Beethoven as inspiration and justification. The rift was exemplified by the conflict between followers of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner: Brahms' disciples took him to be a pinnacle of absolute music, while Wagnerites put their faith in the poetic "substance" shaping the harmonic and melodic flow of his music.

Examples of music inspired by literary and artistic sources include Liszt's Faust Symphony, Dante Symphony, his symphonic poems and his Annees de Pelerinage, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, Mahler's First Symphony (based on the novel Titan), and the tone poems of Richard Strauss. Schubert included material from his Lieder in some of his extended works, and others, such as Liszt, transcribed opera arias and songs for solo instrumental performance.

Nineteenth-century opera

In opera, the forms for individual numbers that had been established in classical and baroque opera were more loosely used. By the time Wagner's operas were performed, arias, choruses, recitatives, and ensemble pieces often cannot easily be distinguished from each other in the continuous, through-composed music.

The decline of castrati led to the heroic leading role in many operas being ascribed to the tenor voice. The chorus was often given a more important role.

In France, operas such as Bizet's Carmen are typical, but towards the end of the Romantic period, verismo opera became popular, particularly in Italy. It depicted realistic, rather than historical or mythological, subjects.


Main article: Musical nationalism

A number of composers wrote nationalist music. Mikhail Glinka's operas, for example, are on specifically Russian subjects, while Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák both used rhythms and themes from Czech folk dances and songs. Late in the nineteenth century, Jean Sibelius wrote music based on the Finnish epic, the Kalevala and his piece 'Finlandia' became a symbol of Finnish nationalism. Chopin wrote in forms like the polonaise and mazurka, that were derived from Polish folk music. Many Russian composers like Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov shared the common dream to write music that was inspired by Russian folk music.


Classical roots (1780-1815)

In literature, the Romantic period is often taken to start in 1770s or 1780s Germany with the movement known as Sturm und Drang ("storm and struggle") attended by a greater regard for Shakespeare and Homer, and for folk sagas, whether genuine or Ossian. It affected writers including Goethe and Schiller, while in Scotland Robert Burns began setting down folk music. This literary movement is reflected in the music of contemporary composers, including Mozart's German operas, Haydn's so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies, the lyrics that composers (particularly Schubert) chose for their Lieder, and a gradual increase in the violence of emotion that music expressed. As long as most composers relied on royal or court patronage, their opportunity to engage in "romanticism and revolt" was limited. Mozart's troubles in the banning of his The Marriage of Figaro as revolutionary are a case in point.

Romanticism drew its fundamental formal substance from the structures of classical practice. Performing standards improved during the classical era with the establishment of performing groups of professional musicians. The role of chromaticism and harmonic ambiguity developed during the classical era. All of the major classical composers used harmonic ambiguity, and the technique of moving rapidly between different keys. One of the most famous examples is the "harmonic chaos" at the opening of Haydn's The Creation, in which the composer avoids establishing a "home" key at all.

By the 1810s, the use of chromaticism and the minor key, and the desire to move into remote keys to give music a deeper range, were combined with a 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. There was a tension between the desire for more expressive "color" and the desire for classical structure. One response was in the field of opera, where texts could provide structure in the absence of formal models. ETA Hoffman is principally known as a critic nowadays, but his opera Undine of 1814 was a radical musical innovation. Another response to the tension between structure and emotional expression was in shorter musical forms, including novel ones such as the nocturne.

Early Romantic (1815-1850)

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, the shift towards new sources of musical inspiration, along with an increasing chromaticism in melody and more expressive harmony, became a palpable stylistic shift. The forces underlying this shift were not only musical, but economic, political and social. A new generation of composers emerged in post-Napoleonic Europe, among whom were Beethoven, Ludwig Spohr, ETA Hoffman, Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert.

These composers grew up amidst the dramatic expansion of public concert life during the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries, which partly shaped their subsequent styles and expectations. Beethoven was extremely influential as among the first composers to work freelance rather than being employed full-time by a royal or ecclesiastic patron. The chromatic melodies of Muzio Clementi and the stirring operatic works of Rossini, Cherubini and Méhul, also had an influence. 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 also becoming an important source of income for composers.

Works of this group of early Romantics include the song cycles and symphonies of Franz Schubert, the operas of Weber, particularly Oberon, Der Freischütz and Euryanthe, and the comic operas of Gustave Albert Lortzing, such as Der Wildschutz and Zar und Zimmermann. Schubert's work found limited contemporary audiences, and only gradually had 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.

Early-Romantic composers of a slightly later generation included Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, and Hector Berlioz. All were born in the nineteenth century, and produced works of lasting value early in their careers. Mendelssohn was particularly precocious, and wrote two string quartets, a string octet and orchestral music before even leaving his teens. Chopin focused on compositions for the piano. Berlioz broke new ground in his orchestration, and with his programmatic symphonies Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy, the latter based on Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

What is now labelled "Romantic Opera" became established at around this time, 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.

Virtuoso concerts (or "recitals," as they were called by Franz Liszt) became immensely popular. This phenomenon was pioneered by Niccolò Paganini, the famous violin virtuoso. The virtuoso piano recital became particularly popular, and often included improvisations on popular themes, and the performance of shorter compositions as well as longer works such as the sonatas of Beethoven and Mozart. One of the most prominent exponents of Beethoven was Clara Wieck, who later married Robert Schumann. The increase in travel, facilitated by rail and later by steamship, created international audiences for touring piano virtuosi such as Liszt, Chopin and Sigismond Thalberg. Concerts and recitals were promoted as significant events.

During the late 1830s and 1840s, music of Romantic expression became generally accepted, even expected. The music of Robert Schumann, Giacomo Meyerbeer and the young Giuseppe Verdi continued the trends. "Romanticism" was not, however, 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 performing institutions, along the lines of the Royal Philharmonic Society of London founded in 1813. Such institutions often promoted regular concert seasons, a trend promoted by Felix Mendelssohn among others. Listening to music came to be accepted as a life-enhancing, almost religious, experience. The public's engagement in the music of the time contrasted with the less formal manners of concerts in the classical period, where music had often been promoted as a background diversion.

Also in the 1830s and 1840s Richard Wagner produced his first successful operas. He argued for a radically expanded conception of "musical drama." A man who described himself as a revolutionary, and who was in constant trouble with creditors and the authorities, he began gathering around him a body of like-minded musicians, including Franz Liszt, who dedicated themselves to making the "Music of the Future."

Literary Romanticism ended in 1848, with the revolutions of 1848 marking a turning point in the mood of Europe. With the rise of realism, as well as the deaths of Paganini, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and Liszt's retirement from public performance, perceptions altered of where the cutting edge in music and art lay.

Late Romantic Era (1850-1910)

As the nineteenth century moved into its second half, many social, political and economic changes set in motion in the post-Napoleonic period became entrenched. Railways and the electric telegraph bound the European world ever closer together. The nationalism that had been an important strain of early nineteenth century Romantic music became formalized by political and linguistic means. Literature for the middle classes became the publishing norm, including the rise of the novel as the primary literary form.

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, were no longer novelties but requirements. The dramatic increase in musical education brought a still wider sophisticated audience, and many composers took advantage of the greater regularity of concert life, and the greater financial and technical resources available. These changes brought an expansion in the sheer number of symphonies, concerti and "tone poems" which were composed, and the number of performances in the opera seasons in Paris, London and Italy. The establishment of conservatories and universities also created centers where musicians could forge stable teaching careers, rather than relying on their own entrepreneurship.

During this late Romantic period, some composers created styles and forms associated with their national folk cultures. The notion that there were "German" and "Italian" styles had long been established in writing on music, but the late nineteenth century saw the rise of a nationalist Russian style (Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin), and also Czech, Finnish and French nationalist styles of composition. Some composers were expressly nationalistic in their objectives, seeking to rediscover their country's national identity in the face of occupation or oppression, as did for example the Bohemian Bedřich Smetana and the Finnish Jean Sibelius or the Czech Antonín Dvořák

Romanticism in the twentieth century

Many composers born in the nineteenth century continued to compose in a Romantic style well into the twentieth century, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss. In addition, many composers who would later be identified as musical modernists composed works in Romantic styles early in their career, including Igor Stravinsky with his The Firebird ballet, Arnold Schoenberg with Gurrelieder, and Béla Bartók with Bluebeard's Castle.

The vocabulary and structure of the music of the late nineteenth century were no mere relics; composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erich Wolfgang 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 use a tonally-centered chromatic vocabulary remained present in major works. Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Dmitri Shostakovich, Malcolm Arnold and Arnold Bax drew frequently from musical Romanticism in their works, and did not consider themselves old-fashioned.

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 1960's, a revival of music using the surface of musical romanticism began. 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 the film, 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, Alex North, John Williams, and Elmer Bernstein drew on this tradition to write some of the most familiar orchestral music of the late twentieth century.


  1. Freidrich Nietzsche, Werke in Drei Banden (Munich: Carl Hasner Verlag, 1954).
  2. J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, ISBN 978-0393668179).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. ISBN 978-0393668179
  • Burton, Anthony. A Performer's Guide to Music of the Romantic Period. London: associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 2002. ISBN 1860961940
  • Kirby, F.E. Music in the Romantic Period: An anthology with commentary. NY: Schirmer Books, 1986. ISBN 0028713303
  • Moore, Douglas. A Guide to Musical Styles: From Madrigal to Modern Music. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1963. ISBN 0393002004
  • Nietzsche, Freidrich. Werke in Drei Banden. Munich: Carl Hasner Verlag, 1954.

External Links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.


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