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  • 8/4/2004

The Romantic Era

(1850 - 1920 C.E.)

     The Romantic era was a period of great change and emancipation. While the Classical era had strict laws of balance and restraint, the Romantic era moved away from that by allowing artistic freedom, experimentation, and creativity. The music of this time period was very expressive, and melody became the dominant feature. Composers even used this expressive means to display

nationalism. This became a driving force in the late Romantic period, as composers used elements of folk music to express their cultural identity.

     As in any time of change, new musical techniques came about to fit in with the current trends. Composers began to experiment with length of compositions, new harmonies, and tonal relationships. Additionally, there was the increased use of

dissonance and extended use ofchromaticism. Another important feature of Romantic music was the use of color. While new instruments were constantly being added to the orchestra, composers also tried to get new or different sounds out of the instruments already in use.

     One of the new forms was the

symphonic poem, which was an orchestral work that portrayed a story or had some kind of literary or artistic background to it. Another was theart song, which was a vocal musical work with tremendous emphasis placed on the text or the symbolical meanings of words within the text. Likewise, opera became increasingly popular, as it continued to musically tell a story and to express the issues of the day. Some of the themes that composers wrote about were the escape from political oppression, the fates of national or religious groups, and the events which were taking place in far off settings or exotic climates. This allowed an element of fantasy to be used by composers.


During the Romantic period, thevirtuoso egan to be focused. Exceptionally gifted performers - pianists, violinists, and singers -- became enormously popular. Liszt, the great Hungarian pianist/composer, reportedly played with such passion and intensity that women in the audience would faint. Most composers were also virtuoso performers; it was inevitable that the music they wrote would be extremely challenging to play.


     The Romantic Era brought further changes in the world of vocal music.

Oratorios and choral music were semi-important vocal forms of the time, while the art song was by far the most important.

Art Song


art song became its own special category of vocal music - separate from folk song, operatic aria, and popular song. It was very lyrical. Composers made great strides during this time period to closely associate the text or words of a piece with its musical counterpart.


     The art song was poetic in nature, and its tones were more lyrical than the dramatic tones of an opera. An art song would turn written poetry into something tangible that could be emotionalized through its music. Its goal was to turn specific words or phrases into a musical scene.


     The piano helped to add more emotion into the Romantic art song. The accompaniment enhanced the mood and meaning of the text by harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic material independent of the voice part. It also provided harmonic and melodic support to the voice. It also served to punctuate the poetic form by interludes between stanzas and lines of the poem.


     Poetic structure is responsible for the musical form of a song. Two basic forms are

through-composed form andstrophic form. Through-composed form is different for each stanza and the music closely follows changing ideas and moods in the poem. In strophic form, each stanza of the poem is set to the same music, whereas modified strophic form involves consecutive stanzas playing modified versions of the same music. There are other musical forms that are partly strophic, where some stanzas have the same music, while others have different music.

Song Cycle

     The song cycle is a group of poems by one poet set to music by a composer. The song cycle has a central idea or mood.


     The oratorio was not the main focus of the romantic era. Composers concentrated more on opera and solo song. However, some composers wrote oratorios. Felix Mendelssohn was a notable composer of oratorio. His famous oratorios are St. Paul and Elijah.


     Church music had reached the height of its popularity in the past and was not a main form of music in the Romantic era. The differentiation between an oratorio and other religious music lay within the text, instead of within formal and stylistic factors. Liturgical texts and psalms were set to music more often as festival works for concert performance than as functional church music. Romantic church music was like an oratorio as it employed large choruses, an orchestra, and solo voices. Differing from the oratorio, church music of the time did not have a narrator or make use of a recitative.


     Secular choral music partly gained its popularity in the Romantic Era due to an increase in nationalism and an increasing interest in folk song. Choral pieces of the time ranged from unaccompanied part songs to

cantata like works with solo voices and orchestras. Choral elements were also used in a number of symphonic works by the great composers of the era.


     Beethoven was responsible for bridging the gap between the Classical and the Romantic eras. In his music, he tried to achieve a balance between the more structured, clear and strict Classical form and the newer exotic, innovative, and passionate of the Romantic style of music making. Other composers of this era followed suit, trying to maintain the balance that Beethoven’s music displayed.


Music with a plot or which depicted a scene became important in this era as a way for composers to further display their artistic skill.

 Opera was not the only medium for expressing this; instrumental music was beginning to do so as well. Composers developed the tone poem, which was an orchestral work that conveyed a story without words.

     The main instrumental musical traits of the Romantic Era were virtuosity, individualism, and

nationalism. As chamber music became less and less popular, the orchestra and the piano emerged as the new popular trends of the musical world. As keyboard and symphonic instruments became commonplace, short piano miniatures and symphonic works became the main stapleor the era.


The Piano

     Organ and harpsichord music, which were popular in past eras, began to diminish in importance. Piano music quickly stepped in to fill the void. The piano was an extremely versatile instrument, drawing both performers and composers to it at an increasingly rapid pace. The piano provided a wide dynamic range, the ability to distinguish between loud and soft, and a large capacity for

sonority, which its predecessors did not have. This versatility enabled the performer to express artistic abilities that ranged from a quiet, delicate newborn kitten to that of a proud confident lion king. No other instrument to date matched the ability and endless possibilities that the piano suddenly gave musicians. The damper pedal allowed musicians to try new and exciting harmonic effects, and along with new keyboard mechanics, allowed them to fine tune their compositions in any number of ways.


     There were various musical forms that were composed for the piano. Some of the popular compositions were etudes,

character piecescharacter pieces,variationsvirtuosopiece that states a theme and then modifies it through changes of rhythm, meter, and structure.

Stylized Dances

     Stylized dances were popular dance forms such as the

waltz,mazurka,polka, and thegallop.


     With the coming of the Romantic era, the orchestra grew in both importance, and size. More instruments were added, and gave this orchestra a wider range of sounds and emotions to put forth to the musical world.




 The woodwind section grew to include two or more bassoons, oboes, flutes, and clarinets. Additional color instruments such as the contrabassoon, the bass clarinet, the piccolo, and the English horn were added.


The brass section began to utilize instruments with valves, which gave this section a wider range and versatility. This section included trumpets, horns, trombones, and tubas.


     In addition to the use of timpani, there was now the use of percussion instruments such as bass and side drums, xylophones, celestas, gongs, cymbals, castanets, harps, bells, triangles, and chimes.


     While no additional string instruments were invented during this era, the number of string instruments used in an orchestra increased in size to balance out the addition of the larger brass and woodwind sections.


     New musical ideas were expressed through the use of additional solo parts into an orchestral work. A woodwind instrument or horn was favored for a solo part. Additionally, the string section experimented with, created, and used mutues,

tremelo, harmonics,pizzicato , and double stops.



     Symphonies were composed by a number of Romantic composers. These symphonies were very different from the ones written during the Classical era. These differences included:

1. Freer form of the internal structure of the movement

2. Variation on the number of movements

3. The symphony evolved from a formal design to a creative means of expression

4. The inner movements had more contrasting keys within them

5. Solo voices and choral sounds were added to the symphony.


     A concerto was an extravagant showpiece for a virtuoso soloist and orchestra. The violin and piano were the instruments of choice. This form had three movements, which was similar to that of the concerto of the Classical era.

Symphonic Poem (Tone Poem)

 This form was introduced in the mid 1800s by the composer Franz Liszt. It was a one movement; programmatic work based on a literary work or legend and usually had a descriptive title. Examples included Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn, Smetana’s The Moldau.

Concert Overture

      This form was a single movement work and was usually found in sonata-allegro form. It was somewhat programmatic and usually had a descriptive title. It was not an orchestral introduction to an opera. A few examples were Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture, and Brahms Academic Festival Overture.

Symphonic Variations

      Very few orchestral works were written in variation form. A few examples of this form are Brahm’s Variations on the Theme of Haydn, Franck’s Symphonic Variations for piano solo and orchestra, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Symphonic Suite

     These are programmatic works in several movements which do not follow the symphonic form. Examples of this were Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Rimsky-Korsikov’s Scheherazade, and Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

     Johannes Brahms was born in 1833 of German heritage. He began his musical career by playing the piano. He met the important musicians Clara Schumann and her husband Robert Schumann when he was on a tour of Europe. Robert Schumann and Beethoven were strong influences on Johannes Brahms. His first published work, a piano sonata in C major, combined Schumann"s tender lyricism with Beethoven"s overwhelming energy. So inspired was he by Beethoven"s symphonies that it took Brahms more than 10 years to write his first. It was instantly hailed as "Beethoven"s Tenth."

     Stylistically, as more time passed, Brahms music became more refined and distinctly stylized from other composers. He often achieved a balance between the Romantic exaggeration and experimentation of the era with the structural clarity of the Classical era. He was a composer of numerous

waltzes:No.1,No.2, No.3, No.4, No.5.

      Another famous Brahms composition is Intermezzo Op. 117

No. 1 in Eb Major, andNo. 2 in Bb Major. The most dramatic of Brahms" works was the Cantata Rinaldo. After this, he never attempted to compose another opera. His later works are characterized by their warmth and color.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1901)

     Fredric Chopin was born in Poland in the year 1810. He began playing the piano at age four, and by age eight, was considered to be a child prodigy. He then toured Warsaw and was greeted by noble gentlemen and women, much like the childhood Mozart had experienced. He started composing music at age twelve. One of his first well-known compositions was the Rondo in C Minor, which was written when he was fifteen. He composed numerous etudes. One of these etudes, called the

Black Key Etude, was written in the key of Gb and used only sharps and flats.      After he toured more of Europe, young Chopin fell in love with Vienna. After he moved to Vienna, his musical career seemed bleak, as his first public concert did not go well. He became depressed due to the fact that Warsaw had been attacked and occupied by Russia. However, this inspired the composer to write one of his most famous works, the Revolutionary Etude, Opus 10, No. 12.


Since Vienna did not suit him, he moved to Paris, France. When in Paris, his music grew more appreciated and was praised by the other well-known composers of the era.

 After his childhood sweetheart, Maria Wodzinska, refused his hand in marriage, he became depressed. Again, Chopin rose above his tribulation and wrote the famous waltz, Les Adieux, about lovers who part.

      His last concert was held in the Salle Pleyel in Paris in February of 1848. Although he was sick, he finished the concert. Chopin died a year and a half later. Chopin was the master of the piano of his generation. In his lifetime, he composed over 200 piano pieces. He turned the piano into a more emotional tool then was ever thought possible.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)

     Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn was a famous German composer. Born in 1809, Mendelssohn lived a happy life from the start. Like other virtuoso composers, he was a child genius when it came to music. At age nine he gave his first piano concert, composed productively from the age of ten, and was ready to conduct the Sunday morning musicales that were the joy of his youth, by age thirteen. At age seventeen, he composed one of his well known works, The Midsummer Night"s Dream. One part of this work was the



nspired by the music of J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn arranged for a performance of Bach"s Passion According to St. Matthew, which had not been performed in the eighty years since Bach"s death.

 Along with his friend Devrient, Mendelssohn raised money, engaged the soloists, sold tickets, trained the chorus, and played the organ for what were three sold out shows. Mendelssohn continually promoted J.S. Bach throughout his lifetime and is party responsible for the formation of the Bach Society.

     Mendehlssohn went on to complete the Scotch and Italian Symphonies, and a new piano concerto called the Reformation Symphony. One of his most famous works is Elijah, an oratorio that he composed and conducted. Mendelssohn also composed two other well known pieces,

Fingals Cave Overture and theWedding March. Later in life he became the director of the first German Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, where he also taught. Mendelhssohn"s music is marked by a delicacy, sparkle, seamless flow, and clarity.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

     Giacomo Puccini was a master of the Romantic Italian opera. He studied Opera at the Conservatory of Milan. He was able to go there due to a grant given to him by the Queen of Italy. He is well known for his opera La Boheme, which depicts the Bohemian lifestyle. He won 1000 Italian lire in a contest for his composition Capriccio Sinfonico. His other well-known operas are Tosca, Madame Butterfly, La Rondine, and Il Triptyh.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

      Franz Schubert was a very musically talented child. Of Austrian descent, he was taught to play the violin by his father and the piano by his brother. The choirmaster at his church trained his voice. At age eleven, he was sent to a private music school in Vienna. There he sang soprano in the choir and played second violin in the school orchestra. He grew to appreciate the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

     When his voice changed, he left school and became a teacher in his father"s school. After doing this for three years and feeling unfulfilled, he quit and focused on composing full time. Always living on the brink of starvation, yet always composing, Franz Schubert would spend the rest of his life in Vienna.

     Schubert was eighteen when he wrote the masterpiece song

Der Erlkonig. It wasn"t accepted right away, as the public was critical of the dissonance in the accompaniment and its strange sound. However, today it is considered one of the greatest songs ever composed. Some other very well known works of Franz Schubert areDie Forelle, andAve Maria. He composed over six hundred songs; in 1815 alone, he wrote one hundred and forty-four songs. He has been quoted as saying "I complete one song only to begin another."

     His last work was his Unfinished Symphony which is comprised of only the first and second movements. Schubert died at the young age of thirty-one. On his tombstone it reads, "Music hath here entombed a rich treasure but a still fairer hope."

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

     Russian born, Tchaikovsky is regarded today as one of the greatest and most popular symphonists, second only to Beethoven. As a person, he was extremely fragile, sensitive, and charming but breakable. His first symphony was not well received which made him extremely upset, as he had labored so hard over the completion of this work. A similar thing happened to another work of his, the B Flat Minor Piano Concerto. His teacher of the time, Nikolai Rubinstein, criticized the piece. This outraged Tchaikovsky, and he grew so angry that he took back the dedication to his teacher on the piece, and moved out of Rubenstein"s house.

     Some of Tchaikovsky"s most famous works are

The Romeo and Juliet Overture, the opera Eugen Onegin, and the Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky also composed the score to the well-known ballet, The Nutcracker. This piece is a multi-movement work and is typically performed around Christmas time."Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,""Trepak,""Arabian Dance,""Chinese Dance,""Dance of the Reed Flutes,""Waltz of the Flowers" are parts of this work. He is regarded today as one of the most expressive Romantic composers to come from Russia.

Guiseppi Verdi, (1813-1901)

     The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi had a life full of trials and tribulations. At age twenty-eight, he was a happy man as he had just written his first opera, Oberto, and was living in Milan with his wife and his two small children. Unfortunately this happiness was soon interrupted, as his two children and his wife died within months of each other. Due to his extreme loss, he became depressed and did not work for many months. His first work after this tragedy, a comic opera entitled King for a Day, was not received well by the public. Giuseppe Verdi vowed never to write again.

     Eventually, Verdi came into contact with a play that inspired him to write a musical score. This became one of his masterpiece operas Nabuco.

The public instantly proclaimed it a success and they gave it thunderous applause the first time it was performed

. Verdi wrote additional operas entitled: Attila, Macbeth, I Lombardi, and Ernani. Other famous operas which he composed were Rigoletto, La Traviata, Don Carlos, La Forza del Destino, I Vespri Siciliani, Il Trovatore, Simone Boccanegra, and UN Ballo in Maschera.

     Another famous opera of Verdi"s was Aida. This opera was written for the opening of the Suez Canal and was performed in Cairo in 1871 for the first time. It was received with tremendous applause, and is one of the most emotional, lyrical, expressive, and skillful operas ever written. The last opera he wrote was Falstaff, a comedic opera that showed wit an charm (a surprising feat considering he wrote it when he was eighty years old). He is one of the greatest masters of opera.

Taken From: http://library.thinkquest.org/15413/history/history-rom-comp.htm

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