Romantic period (music)

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The Romantic period in classical music refers to that written generally during the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth - although what is “romantic” and what is “neo-romantic” is very open to debate. The novels of E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Sir Walter Scott, Goethe (especially his “Faust”), the increasing interest in nature, the popularity of the English late 18th and early 19th century poets, all began to make their way into music - starting with a movement towards nationalistic vocal works in Paris, the operas of Weber the songs of Franz Schubert and later works of Beethoven. The classical features of adherence to standards of form, balance and taste were increasingly overcome by the use of imagination, elements of fantasy and the supernatural, story telling, recognition of the human spirit, appreciation of the countryside and national and personal themes.


Features include:

  • The heyday of German “lied” (song). Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf head the list of composers that still fill recital halls today.
  • The rise of the song cycle. Whilst the performance of a set of songs of the same style and theme sung together, had been known since the 17th century, the onset of the romantic era and the popularity of song brought about a flowering of this form. The three great cycles of Schubert and the two of Schumann are particularly notable.
  • The symphonic poem – or tone poem – made use of the new freedom from adherence to form to paint a musical picture or tell a story.
  • The concert overture became an entity outside the drama stage. (There is blurring here between the concert overture and the tone poem – often it is depends on what the composer called it. Example: Mendelssohn wrote his overture to “''A Midsummer Night’s Dream''” as a concert overture many years before he was commissioned to write incidental music for the play. It is a tone poem – listen to the constant fluttering of fairy wings. Mendelssohn wrote the “Hebrides Overture” after a tour of Scotland. Also known as “Fingal’s Cave”, it is one of the great musical depictions of the sea.)
  • The instrumental miniature – a stand-alone piece (though frequently written in sets) such as the John Field and Chopin nocturnes for piano, the hundreds of short pieces by Franz Liszt, short “romances”, “fantasies”, “capriccios”, “intermezzos” etc. such as those of Brahms and the “koncertstüche” for various instruments on various themes by Robert Schumann.
  • The rise of the cult of the virtuoso, starting with Paganini and Chopin, and famously exemplified by the life and music of Franz Liszt, where the music seemed a slave of the performer – indeed frequently written to showcase the ability of the performer. The virtuoso pianists and violinists of the 19th and early 20th centuries were given a status comparable with the most popular “rock bands” today.
  • A search for national identity began, beginning in opera and other vocal works, culminating in the music dramas of Richard Wagner, but also featuring a rise in recognisably national schools and later, recognition of national folk-musical traditions and the need for their continuance.
  • Personal viewpoints, dreams, desires, autobiographical elements, all became present in otherwise purely instrumental music. (Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” is partly autobiographical, as are string quartets by Bedrich Smetana (“Intimate Letters”) Leos Janacek (“From my life”)

Early Romantic and Late Romantic

The expanded use of melodic lines, richness of tonality, and the size of the orchestra can be seen in a contrast between Ludwig van Beethoven's Thunder, Storm[1] from his Pastoral Symphony and Richard Strauss's Thunder and Tempest[2] from his Alpine Symphony, writing on the same subject.

For composers, the large scale Wagnerian orchestra made it difficult to compose. Because of the expanded brass contingent, the brass section can easily overpower and drowned out 44 violinists and the wind section. For this reason, Late Romantic orchestral works are all about achieving a balance between different sections of the orchestra,[3] not just in tone and harmony, but the structure of an orchestral composition itself.


Many well known composers are associated with this era:

See also


  3. A great example of Jean Sibelius, of which there are many great examples, of finding and striking the balance between brass, strings and winds is this section from Sibelius - Symphony #2, 1st movement, part 2, Sofia Philharmonic, Arkady Leytush, Live Performance, June 26, 2008.