The Romantic Era

The Romantic Era (1820–1910) represents a period of sweeping musical change. It includes compositions that are marginally removed from formal classicism as well as works that have virtually nothing to do with the structural forms and musical concepts of the eighteenth century. There is a vast difference, for example, between the Germanic music of Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler. In this sense, these two composers do not belong in the same “period.” Rather, Mahler would be best described as post-romantic while Schubert is best labeled early romantic. Such is the ambiguity of stylistic labels.

As the Romantic Era dawned, Ludwig Van Beethoven emerged as the dominant figure. Although the German-born Beethoven lived most of his life in the so-called “classical” era, his mature music is too mercurial and expansive to be tethered to classical methodologies. In general, Beethoven challenged the compositional mores of the day. This unwittingly ushered in the Romanic Period, which built upon forms developed in the baroque and classical eras.

Beethoven composed symphonies, chamber works, concertos, sonatas, one opera, and other vocal repertoire. In particular, his nine symphonies are marked by complex thematic development. Moreover, his use of modulation (key changes) and strident rhythmic punctuations allowed his music to expand beyond the previously observed boundaries of sonata form. This compositional style is manifested as early as Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).

With Symphony No. 9, Beethoven added a choral finale (Ode to Joy) in the closing movement. The Ninth transformed the future of the symphonic form, as evidenced by the works of major composers who paid homage to Beethoven's masterpiece. For example, Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1, Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 3, and Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony all contained elements pulled directly from Beethoven's Ninth.

Romantic composers also emphasized the very large and the very intimate in their music. Orchestral, solo piano, and piano/vocal music represent much of the output of the period. The orchestra expanded in size and instrumental variety to what we now regularly experience in concert settings. Additionally, the solo piano recital became a significant outlet for piano virtuosity. This was best epitomized by Franz Liszt, who revolutionized piano artistry through works he wrote for himself. Lieder (song) also became an important focus for Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, and Johannes Brahms, resulting in hundreds of songs that typify the genre.

The Romantic Period also saw the rise of patriotic music sometimes referred to as Nationalism. The ardent works of Russia's so-called Mighty Handful, for example, best symbolize nationalistic composition. Also referred to as “The Five,” these composers (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin) sought to create a distinct Russian art form. Oddly enough, however, it was their compatriot, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who wrote the most famous nationalistic piece of the era. Largely influenced by Western European music, his composition 1812 Overture depicts Russia's victory over Napoleon. It is known for its percussive use of real cannon fire (minus the cannonballs of course).

In the late nineteenth century, another style of music developed in France called impressionism. Evolving alongside the artwork of Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Manet, impressionism focused on musical “atmospheres.” Additionally, it was often concerned with story telling (program music). You will learn more about program music in Chapters 10 and 19.

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