The Romantic period of music is from 1830 to 1900.
The Romantic period was a time where composers, artists and authors moved away from the formal restraint of the Classical period.
In literature, authors like Byron, Scott, Wordsworth and Goethe led the way.
In the musical world, composers such as Weber, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner were heavyweights of Romantic period music.
(Note: Beethoven is often seen as the link composer between the Classical and Romantic periods. His death in 1827 precedes the start of the Romantic period, but much of his later music displays many of the features of the Romantic period).
Key Features of the Romantic period
There are various “fingerprints” of Romantic music, which you should listen out for:
- Emotional expression – this became more important than formal structural considerations as composers rebelled against the formal restraint of the classical period.
- Big expansion in size of orchestra and in types of instrument.
- New structures/forms – rhapsody, nocturne, song cycle
- Increasingly elaborate harmonic progressions
- Longer melodies than classical period
- Bigger range of dynamics
- Larger range in pitch (could be very easily expressed on the piano).
- Nationalism in music – some composers sought to use their compositions to celebrate their countries e.g. Sibelius Finlandia
Romantic Period Music Examples
Have a listen to this Piano Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt.
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
Can you hear the some of the “fingerprints” of the style listed above?
Listen out for the emotional expression, the elaborate harmonic progressions and the large ranges of dynamics and pitch.
Some composers in the Romantic period used their music to try to describe a specific place, item, person or idea.
A composition written in this descriptive way is called programme music.
Programme music is instrumental – there are no lyrics.
Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky
This is an example of programme music.
It is a symphonic poem (single movement piece of programme music) based on the Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet”. This tragic tale tells the story of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet who are from rival feeding families, but who fall in love. However, the story ends tragically as they kill themselves.
The uses of contrasting themes for different characters in the piece is crucial.
Have a listen to the themes for Romeo and Juliet, which are gentle and lyrical:
The theme for the Montagues and Capulets, on the other hand, is fast and syncopated to illustrate the hatred between the families:
There is also a theme for Friar Lawrence:
Not surprisingly, the music towards the end of the piece is very dramatic!! Tchaikovsky uses lots of percussion, including timpani and cymbals to represent the drama (e.g. there is a very loud cymbal crash to signal Romeo and Juliet’s deaths!). Tchaikovsky also uses irregular rhythms in the fight sections to increase the drama in contrast to the smooth regular rhythms of the love theme.
Have a listen to this dramatic music towards the end of the piece:
Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy also wrote programme music.
For example, in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the woodwind instruments are used to imitate the sound of birds.
Vocal Music in the Romantic Period
Vocal music maintained its popularity in the Romantic period.
Lied is the German word for “song”.
Lieder (plural for “lied”) were very popular in Europe during the Romantic period.
Schubert is the most famous composer of lieder (he composed over 500 of them!!).
Have a listen to this example of a lied by Schubert:
The emotive and dramatic lyrics (typically sung in German) are usually based on German poems of the 18th and 19th centuries and often tell a story.
Lieder are usually composed for one singer and a piano.
The piano part contains a significant amount of musical interest as well.
The structure of lieder differs:
- some are strophic (the verses all have the same tune)
- others are through-composed (the music is different for each verse).
Use of Motifs in Lieder
Lieder typically use motifs (these are short bits of music that represent a character, an idea or a place). The motifs reappear during the song.
In Schubert’s “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” (shown below), the piano motif recreates the sound of the spinning wheel.
Composers would sometimes group songs on the same theme into a collection of lieder called a song cycle.
Schubert created a number of song cycles, most notably “The Fair Maid of the Mill” and “Winter Journey”, both based on the poems of a German poet called Muller and both quite sad in their feel.