Romantic music

Romantic music is a period of Western classical music that began in the late 18th or early 19th century. It is related to Romanticism, the European artistic and literary movement that arose in the second half of the 18th century, and Romantic music in particular dominated the Romantic movement in Germany.

In the Romantic period, music became more explicitly expressive and programmatic, dealing with the literary, artistic, and philosophical themes of the time. Famous early Romantic composers include Beethoven (whose works span both this period and the preceding Classical period), Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bellini, and Berlioz. The late 19th century saw a dramatic expansion in the size of the orchestra and in the dynamic range and diversity of instruments used in this ensemble. Also, public concerts became a key part of urban middle class society, in contrast to earlier periods, when concerts were mainly paid for by and performed for aristocrats. Famous composers from the second half of the century include Bruckner, Johann Strauss II, Brahms, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Verdi, and Wagner. Between 1890 and 1910, a third wave of composers including Mahler, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Sibelius built on the work of middle Romantic composers to create even more complex – and often much longer – musical works. A prominent mark of late 19th century music is its nationalistic fervor, as exemplified by such figures as Dvořák, Sibelius, and Grieg. Other prominent late-century figures include Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Rachmaninoff and Franck.

Romantic music was often divided between different styles, often contrasting with each other. From early on there was a division between the New German and the classical part. The New German style was marked by a clear break with the previous music. It was more emotional in the expression, and often characterized by so-called program music, that is, the music followed a program or was inspired by a literary work or artwork. The opposite style was more classically oriented, which means that although it was a more romantic direction, one could hear inspiration from Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and the older guard. It usually had more absolute music, that is, the music itself was in the front and it should not be mixed with other art forms.

Another distinction went on opera. In the beginning, opera was characterized by either the descendants of Gioachino Rossini, where pretty arias often dominated comic operas, or grand opera, fighting against natural or social forces, contrasts and moods. In addition, the German opera had begun to develop in a strongly romantic direction already from the Jegerbruden in 1821, where supernatural beings, the battle against the evil, medieval focus and German sagas and public newspapers dominated. This took Richard Wagner on. He also created the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, which all parts of the opera, from singers to orchestra to libretto to stageography andchoreography, the cooperation to tell a strong message. Wagner used the orchestra to a much greater degree than previous operas, and wrote the stories himself so that he could best match everything. His clear opposite was Giuseppe Verdi, who created operas based on famous plays, poems or novels, and focused on simpler orchestration, still focusing on songs and good melodies. However, Verdi was also influenced by the importance of drama, although he kept Wagner’s operas at an arm’s length. Towards the end of the romance came the veritable opera, far more realistic operas about the present and its challenges, especially with Giacomo Puccini as champion. These were a synergy of Wagner’s and Verdis ideas about opera.

Also within symphonies, there was a clear distinction between those inspired by Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt and their programmatic music (Bedřich Smetana, Anton Bruckner and Pjotr Tsjajkovsky) on the one hand, and Mendelssohn and Schumann supporters who focused on absolute music (John Brahms, Antonín Dvořák and Gustav Mahler) on the other. The symphonies were also partly drawn into Wagner’s ideas of music. The fans of program music became more often inspired by Wagner, while the followers of the absolute music were much more skeptical.

Romantic music was also a development in ballet, new styles as operetta appeared, the Viennese Valley became allemannseie and many virtuosis appeared and raised the level of concert games. The orchestras were growing and the conductor became more important. The piano, which was already advancing in the previous period, became dominant in many homes, and as the main instrument for various concerts and performances of song cycles.

Characteristics often attributed to Romanticism:

a new preoccupation with and surrender to Nature;
a fascination with the past, particularly the Middle Ages and legends of medieval chivalry;
a turn towards the mystic and supernatural, both religious and merely spooky;
a longing for the infinite;
mysterious connotations of remoteness, the unusual and fabulous, the strange and surprising;
a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly, the frightful, and terrifying;
fantastic seeing and spiritual experiences;
a new attention given to national identity;
emphasis on extreme subjectivism;
interest in the autobiographical;
discontent with musical formulas and conventions.

Such lists, however, proliferated over time, resulting in a “chaos of antithetical phenomena”, criticized for their superficiality and for signifying so many different things that there came to be no central meaning. The attributes have also been criticized for being too vague. For example, features of the “ghostly and supernatural” could apply equally to Mozart’s Don Giovanni from 1787 and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress from 1951 (Kravitt 1992, 93–95).

In music there is a relatively clear dividing line in musical structure and form following the death of Beethoven. Whether one counts Beethoven as a ‘romantic’ composer or not, the breadth and power of his work gave rise to a feeling that the classical sonata form and, indeed, the structure of the symphony, sonata and string quartet had been exhausted. Schumann, Schubert, Berlioz and other early-Romantic composers tended to look in alternative directions. Some characteristics of Romantic music include:

The use of new or previously not so common musical structures like the song cycle, nocturne, concert etude, arabesque and rhapsody, alongside the traditional classical genres. Programme music became somewhat more common;
A harmonic structure based on movement from tonic to subdominant or alternative keys rather than the traditional dominant, and use of more elaborate harmonic progressions (Wagner and Liszt are known for their experimental progressions);
A greater emphasis on melody to sustain musical interest. The classical period often used short, even fragmentary, thematic material while the Romantic period tended to make greater use of longer, more fully defined and more satisfying themes;
The use of a wider range of dynamics, for example from ppp to fff, supported by large orchestration;
Using a larger tonal range (exp. using the lowest and highest notes of the piano);

The forms of romantic music
Carried to the highest degree by Ludwig van Beethoven, the symphony became the most prestigious form to which many composers devoted themselves. The most conservative respect the Beethoven model: Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann or Johannes Brahms. Others show an imagination that goes beyond this framework, in form or in spirit: the most audacious of them is Hector Berlioz.

Finally, some go beyond telling a story throughout their symphonies; such as Franz Liszt, they will create the symphonic poem, a new musical genre, usually composed of a single movement and inspired by a theme, a character or a literary text. Since the symphonic poem is articulated around a leitmotif (musical motif allowing to identify a character, the hero for example), it is to bring closer to the music with symphonic program.

This musical genre appeared with the evolution of the pianoforte towards the piano during the romantic period. The lied is a vocal music accompanied mostly by this instrument. The song is drawn from romantic poems and this style allows to bring the voice of feelings as close as possible. One of the first and most famous composers of lieder is Franz Schubert, with The King of the Alders, however, many other romantic composers have indulged in the genre of lied as Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf or Gustav Mahler.

It was Beethoven who inaugurated the Concerto romantic, with his five piano concertos (especially the fifth) and his violin concerto. His example is followed by many composers: the concerto rivals the symphony in the repertoire of the great orchestral formations.

Finally, the concerto will allow instrumental composers to reveal their virtuosity, such as Niccolò Paganini on violin, and Frédéric Chopin or Franz Liszt on piano.

The vocal element in romantic music
The romantic era was no longer a century of great vocal compositions. A series of a cappella composers still existed, exquisite and refined, such as Mendelssohn and Brahms, who achieved inconceivable harmony and chromatic effects in the sixteenth century, which was the florid age of the a cappella style. Especially in Germany, the means to achieve this refinement were the choral compositions for men, which, however, did not owe their impulse to purely artistic reasons, since they became an expression of nationalism or partisan activities, while the rest of vocal-based demonstrations fell into disuse. The great champions of the Romantic period did not think, for a moment, to compose works for the church and thus contribute to the listening of the verses of the Bible.

Oratories were written, such as El paraíso y la peri, by Schumann. Brahms wrote A German Requiem, a religious work with text entirely in German. Masses and other religious works were also written. The Ave Maria by Schubert, is a lied for singing and piano.

Instrumentation and scale
As in other periods, the instrumentation was adapted to the musical requirements of the period. Composers like Hector Berlioz, orchestrated their works in a way never before heard, giving a new prominence to the wind instruments. The size of the standard orchestra increased and instruments such as the piccolo and English horn were included, which were used very occasionally before. Mahler wrote his eighth symphony, known as the “Symphony of the Thousand” by the orchestral and choral mass that is required to interpret it.

In addition to needing a larger orchestra, the works of Romanticism became longer. A typical symphony of Haydn or Mozart, composers of classicism, can last approximately twenty or twenty-five minutes. Already the third symphony of Beethoven, which is usually considered as the initial Romanticism, lasts about forty-five minutes. And this tendency grew notably in the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and reached its maximum levels in the case of Mahler, with symphonies that have an hour duration (as is the case of the first and fourth) to symphonies that last more than an hour and a half (like the third or eighth).

On the other hand, in Romanticism the importance of the virtuoso instrumentalist grew. The violinist Niccolò Paganini was one of the musical stars of the early nineteenth century. Liszt, besides being a remarkable composer, was also a piano virtuoso, very popular. During the performances of the virtuosos, they used to stand out more than the music they were playing.

These are some of the instruments that appear in Romanticism:


Contrafagot: Species of bassoon of great dimensions, whose sounds are produced to the octave grave of the ordinary bassoon.

Saxophone: Wind instrument composed of a conical tube of curved metal U-shaped, with several keys and a wood and cane nozzle. There are various sizes.

English Horn: Wind instrument, larger and more serious than the oboe.

Tuba: Wind instrument of great proportions and voluminous and serious sonority.


Piano: Although it already existed in Classicism, the piano is the great instrument of romanticism. It allows the greatest expressiveness to the composers, who are, many times, virtuosos of this instrument.

Brief chronology
The classic roots of Romanticism (1780-1815)

In literature, it is often said that Romanticism began in the 1770s or 1780s, with the German movement called Sturm und Drang. It was mainly influenced by Shakespeare, folk sagas, real or fictional, and by Homer’s poetry. Writers like Goethe or Schiller radically changed their practices, while in Scotland Robert Burnstranscribed the poetry of popular songs. This literary movement was reflected in various ways in the music of the classical period, including the work of Mozart in German opera, the choice of songs and melodies that would be used in commercial works and in the gradual increase of violence in artistic expression. However, the ability or interest of most composers to adhere to the “Romanticism and the revolution” was limited by their dependence on the royal courts. An example of this is the story of the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart, which was censored for being revolutionary.

Even in purely musical terms, Romanticism took its fundamental substance from the structure of classical practice. In this period the standards of composition and interpretation were increased and standard forms and ensembles of musicians were created. Without missing the reason, ETA Hoffmann called “three romantic composers” to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. One of the most important internal currents of classicism is the role of chromaticism and harmonic ambiguity. All the most important classical composers used the harmonic ambiguity and the technique of moving quickly between different tonalities without establishing a true tonality. One of the best-known examples of that harmonic chaos is at the beginning of The Creationof Haydn. However, in all these excursions the tension was based on articulated sections, a movement towards the dominant or the relative major and a transparency of the texture.

By the 1810s, the use of chromatism and minor tonality had been combined, the desire to move to more tonalities to achieve a wider range of music and the need for greater operatic range. While Beethoven was later seen as the central figure of movement, composers such as Muzio Clementi or Louis Spohrthey represented better the taste of the time to incorporate more chromatic notes in their thematic material. The tension between the desire for more color and the classic desire to maintain the structure, led to a musical crisis. One response was to move towards the opera, where the text could grant a structure even when there were no formal models. ETA Hoffman, now known more for his musical criticism, presented with his opera Undinae (1814) a radical musical innovation. (Not to be confused with Tchaikovsky’s 1869). Another response to this crisis was obtained by using shorter forms, including some novel ones such as the nocturne, where the harmonic intensity in itself was enough to move the music forward.

First romantic composers of Joseph Villegas (1815-1850)
In the second decade of the nineteenth century, the change to new sources for music, together with a more pronounced use of chromaticism in melodies and the need for more harmonic expression, produced a palpable stylistic change. The reasons that motivated this change were not merely musical but also economic, political and social. The stage was set for a new generation of composers who could speak to the new post-Napoleonic European environment.

In the first group of composers is usually grouped Beethoven, Louis Spohr, ETA Hoffmann, Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert. These composers grew up in the midst of the dramatic expansion of the concert life of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and this shaped their styles and expectations. Many greeted Beethoven as the model to follow or, at least, to aspire. The chromatic melodies of Muzio Clementi and the operas by Rossini, Cherubini, Spontini and Mehul, also exerted some influence. At the same time, the composition of songs for voice and piano on popular poems, to satisfy the demand of a growing market of middle class homes, was a new and important source of economic inputs for composers.

The most important works of this wave of romantic composers were perhaps the cycles of songs and the symphonies of Schubert, the operas of Weber, especially Oberon, Der Freischütz and Euryanthe. For the time, the works of Schubert were only interpreted before limited audiences and could only exert a notable impact gradually. On the contrary, the works of John Field met quickly, partly because he was able to compose small and “characteristic” works for piano and dances.

The next cohort of romantic composers includes Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin and Hector Berlioz. They were born in the nineteenth century and soon began the production of compositions of great value. Mendelssohn was particularly precocious, writing his first quartets, an octet for strings and orchestral music before he turned twenty. Chopin devoted himself to piano music, including etudes (studies) and two piano concertos. Berlioz would compose the first notable symphony after the death of Beethoven, the aforementioned Fantastic Symphony. Liszt he composed orchestral music, but is known for innovating in piano technique, his transcendental studies are among the works that require more virtuosity.

At the same time what is now known as “romantic opera” was established, with a strong connection between Paris and northern Italy. The combination of French orchestral virtuosity, Italian vocal lines and dramatic power, together with librettos based on popular literature, established the norms that continue to dominate the operatic scene. The works of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti were immensely popular at this time.

An important aspect of this part of Romanticism was the widespread popularity of piano concertos (or “recitals”, as Franz Liszt called them), which included improvisations of popular themes, short pieces and longer ones, such as the sonatas of Beethoven or Mozart. One of the most notable exponents of Beethoven’s works was Clara Wieck, who would later marry Robert Schumann. The new travel facilities that were offered at the time, thanks to the train and then the steam, allowed international groups of fans of virtuous pianists, such as Liszt, Chopin and Thalberg, to emerge. These concerts were transformed into events by themselves. Niccolò Paganini, famous violin virtuoso, was a pioneer of this phenomenon.

Between the end of the 1830s and the 1840s, the fruits of this generation were presented to the public, such as the works of Robert Schumann, Giacomo Meyerbeer and the young Giuseppe Verdi. It is important to note that Romanticism was not the only, and not even the most important, musical genre of the time, since concert programs were largely dominated by a post-classical genre, exemplified by the Paris Conservatoire, as well as court music. This began to change with the rise of certain institutions, such as symphony orchestras with regular seasons, a fad promoted by Felix Mendelssohn himself.

It was at this time that Richard Wagner produced his first successful opera, and began his search for new ways to expand the concept of “musical dramas”. Wagner liked to call himself a revolutionary and had constant problems with his moneylenders and the authorities; At the same time he surrounded himself with a circle of musicians with similar ideas, such as Franz Liszt, with whom he dedicated himself to creating the “music of the future”.

It is usually indicated that literary romanticism ended in 1848, with the revolutions that took place that year and that marked a milestone in the history of Europe, or at least in the perception of the frontiers of art and music. With the advent of ” realist ” ideology, and the death of figures such as Paganini, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and Liszt’s retirement from the stage, a new generation of musicians appeared. Some argue that this generation should be called Victorian rather than romantic. In fact, the final years of the nineteenth century are often described as late Romanticism.

Late Romanticism (1850-1870)
Arriving in the second half of the 19th century, many of the social, political and economic changes that began in the post-Napoleonic era were affirmed. The telegraph and railways united Europe much more. Nationalism, which was one of the most important sources of the beginning of the century, was formalized into political and linguistic elements. The literature that had as an audience the middle class, became the main objective of the publication of books, including the rise of the novel as the main literary form.

Many of the figures of the first half of the nineteenth century had retired or died. Many others followed other paths, taking advantage of a greater regularity in concert life, and available financial and technical resources. In the previous fifty years, many innovations in instrumentation, including piano action dual exhaust (double escarpment), wind instruments with valves and curb (chin rest) of the violins and violas, went from being something new to standard. The increase in music education served to create a wider audience for piano music and more sophisticated music concerts. With the founding of conservatories and universities, the possibility was opened for musicians to make stable careers as professors, instead of being entrepreneurs who depended on their own resources. The sum of these changes can be seen in the titanic wave of symphonies, concerts and symphonic poems that were created, and the expansion of opera seasons in many cities and countries, such as Paris, London or Italy.

The late Romantic period also saw the rise of so-called “nationalist” genres that were associated with popular (folkloric) music and the poetry of certain countries. The notion of German or Italian music was already widely established in the history of music, but from the end of the 19th century the Russian subgenres were created (Mikhail Glinka, Musorgski, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin); Czech, Finnish and French. Many composers were explicitly nationalist in their objectives, seeking to compose opera or music associated with the language and culture of their homelands.

Post-romanticism (1870-1949)
It can be considered a movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that differs from Romanticism by the orchestral exuberance and the disproportion in the symphonic developments, it is also characterized by an intense chromatism that surpasses Richard Wagner. In post-Romantic composers the melancholy that produces the loss of the romantic culture is observed.

The most representative composers of this style were Anton Bruckner, Erik Satie, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

The romantic musician
By the attitude towards society and the world, Beethoven became the model of the romantic movement, which at the same time was a dangerous model. It was, certainly, the figure of this one that provided the romantic era with the paradigm for his concept of “Artist”. This did not make disappear the idea that was had of “musician” that lent to the society a direct service, that is to say, the song, organist of church, singer of choir, director of orchestra of theater and a long etcetera.

What is clear is that the romantic stage gave rise to the confrontation between the “artist” and the “philistine”, as Robert Schumann said musically in his work Carnival. With Beethoven began a period in which the symphonies, oratorios, chamber music, choir and lyric, of all kinds, and even the operas, were composed without anyone commissioning them, for an imaginary audience, for the future and for the eternity.

The isolation of the romantic musician did not occur without a retroactive effect on his personality and on the character of his work. Prior to 1800, all compositions had to be susceptible to immediate evaluation; if the deviation of the old customs, of the tradition, was excessive, it was not free of dangers, as more than one composer had the opportunity to learn from his own experience. This was the case of Monteverdi, Gluck, or Haydn among others.

On the other hand, competing in originality was more the exception than the rule. So, the generations succeeded each other. Romantic musicians stood up to tradition, and not only did they stop avoiding originality, but they persecuted it and the freer of preconceived ideas a work was, the greater the estimate it aroused.

Romantic music, the music of the nineteenth century, appears full of a succession of personalities of the most varied, with a series of profiles much more marked and differentiated than in previous centuries and it is a very difficult task to clearly trace the trajectory of their evolution.

Romanticism in the twentieth century (1901, onwards)
Many of the composers who were born in the nineteenth century and continued composing into the twentieth century, used forms that were in clear connection with the previous musical era, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Giacomo Puccini, Richard Strauss and Kurt Atterberg. On the other hand, many of the composers who were later identified as modernists, wrote in their early works with a marked romantic style, such as Igor Stravinsky (his ballet The Firebird is notable), Arnold Schoenberg (Gurrelieder), and Béla Bartók (The Blue Beard Castle). But the vocabulary and musical structure of the late nineteenth century did not stop there; Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erich Korngold, Berthold Goldschmidt and Sergéi Prokófiev continued this genre of composition beyond 1950.

Although some new trends, such as neoclassicism or atonal music, questioned the pre-eminence of the romantic genre, the interest in using a chromatic vocabulary focused on tonality, remained present in the most important works. Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Dmitri Shostakovich, Malcolm Arnold and Arnold Bax, although they considered themselves modern and contemporary composers, often showed romantic tendencies in their works.

Romanticism reached a rhetorical and artistic nadir around 1960: everything indicated that the future would be formed by genres of avant garde composition or with some type of neo-classical elements. While Hindemith returned to more recognizable styles in their romantic roots, many composers moved in other directions. It seemed that only in the USSR or China, where there was a conservative academic hierarchy, did romanticism have a place. However, in the late 1960s a revival of music that had a romantic surface began. Composers like George Rochberg went from serial musicto models based on Gustav Mahler, a project in which he was accompanied by others such as Nicholas Maw and David Del Tredici. This movement is often called neo-romanticism, and includes works such as the First Symphony by John Corigliano.

Another area where the romantic genre has survived, and has even flourished, is in the soundtracks. Many of the first emigrants who escaped from Nazi Germany were Jewish composers who had studied with Mahler or his disciples in Vienna. The score of the film Gone With the Wind by composer Max Steiner is an example of the use of wagnerian leitmotivs and Mahlerian orchestration. The music of the films of the Golden Age of Hollywood was composed largely by Korngold and Steiner, as well as Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman. The next generation of composers for cinema, composed by Alexander North, John Williams, and Elmer Bernstein drew on this tradition in the composition of orchestral music for more familiar cinema at the end of the 20th century.

Musical forms of Romanticism
The musical romantic period lasted from 1770 to 1910, so the most used instrument was the piano. In the field of instrumental music, his main heritage was the sonata, which had reached its strongest expression and universal meaning in Beethoven’s symphonies.

The way in the romantic symphony
From the very beginning, the romantics adopted a relaxed attitude regarding the symphonic form.

By this time it had already been released and edited the Eroica, that model of supreme gravity that sounds like a hymn of the purest structure. That composition where no instrument imposes itself within the group and where everyone contributes to the global symphonic objective.

Source from Wikipedia