What were the historical periods of music history? And how did they shape music as we know it today?
In this series, we’re diving into the music of the past, from Ancient to Modern times.
Today, we’re exploring the music of the Romantic era.
The Romantic Period
The Romantic Period was from about 1820-1900.
The Industrial Revolution was sweeping America and Europe during this time, and it had an impact on virtually every area of life, including music.
Musical instruments and sheet music became more affordable, opening up the world of music-making to more people than ever before.
Nationalism was also a powerful force during the 19th century. The desire to create a strong cultural identity was seen in much of the music that was written by Romantic composers.
This list of composers is certainly not exhaustive, but the most prominent ones are discussed here.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Romantic music without mentioning Carl Maria von Weber, Franz Schubert, and especially Ludwig van Beethoven.
These three composers form a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods.
Beethoven, in particular, had a far-reaching impact on the composers who followed him. His dramatic, dynamic, expressive musical style inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps.
He was, in a very real sense, the first Romantic composer.
Hector Berlioz, a colorful French conductor, was known for his choral and orchestral works.
Maria Szymanowska was a famed Polish pianist. She brought the genre of nocturnes to Poland before Frederic Chopin made them famous.
Polish composer Frederic Chopin made history by writing most of his music for solo piano. He produced some of the finest repertoire in the instrument’s history.
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, was a gifted composer in her own right. She composed over four hundred works, very few of which were published in her lifetime.
Felix Mendelssohn was also a talented composer of chamber, orchestral, and vocal music. He is especially remembered for the music he wrote for William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Emilie Mayer was a prolific German composer. She wrote eight symphonies, which was an unusual undertaking for a woman in her day. Women were thought to be incapable of writing larger, more complex music.
German composer Robert Schumann wrote many pieces for orchestra and piano. He was especially gifted in writing character pieces.
Clara Wieck Schumann was a constant source of inspiration to her husband Robert, who used her as a muse in many of his works. They often collaborated, and she wrote many shorter pieces as well as a piano trio and concerto.
Johannes Brahms, another musician from Germany, is renowned for his elegant orchestral, chamber, and piano music.
Johann Strauss II from Austria wrote many waltzes and other styles of dance music.
French pianist Louise Farrenc composed many of the pieces for her own concerts.
German composer Richard Strauss (no relation to Johann II) was a master of both opera and orchestra.
Franz Lizst was a legendary Hungarian pianist whose compositions for the instrument are just as astounding. He was known for his technical mastery of the keyboard.
Georges Bizet, a French opera composer, is most remembered as the creator of the opera Carmen.
In Norway, Edvard Grieg wrote many pieces incorporating traditional Norwegian folk music and dances.
Gioachino Rossini was famous for his Italian operas, as well as many sacred and orchestral works. The most well-known of his operas are William Tell and The Barber of Seville.
Richard Wagner is one of the most famous (and controversial) composers that Germany ever produced. From his opera Tristan und Isolde came the famous “Tristan chord“. His Ring Cycle, a series of musical dramas, was especially popular. Unfortunately it was later turned into a tool of Nazi propaganda.
Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov made up the group of composers known as “The Russian Five”. They helped create a national style of Russian music.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a famed Russian composer of ballet and orchestral music. His music for Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker remain beloved around the world today.
Pauline Viardot-Garcia was a French-Spanish composer and music teacher whose career spanned most of the 1800s. She was so prominent in the Romantic musical world that almost every one of her contemporary composers was influenced by her in some way.
Giuseppe Verdi was so closely associated with the spirit of Italian nationalism that “Viva Verdi!” became a patriotic rallying cry. He wrote over two dozen operas.
Gustav Mahler, a Bohemian-Austrian composer, wrote many Romantic-style symphonies and orchestral works.
Anton Dvorak was a Czech composer who helped the Czech people find a national musical identity. He was known to draw inspiration from Czech folk music for many of his compositions.
Queen Lili’oukalani, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, was a talented composer, instrumentalist, sight-reader, and choir director. She wrote the song He mele lahui Hawai’i, which was used as the Hawaiian national anthem for eleven years.
Giacomo Puccini was one of the finest composers in the history of Italian opera.
Camille Saint-Saens was a writer of French orchestral music in the Romantic style. He is especially remembered for his symphonies and his The Carnival of the Animals, a suite of program music written for children.
Teresa Carreno, a Venezuelan child prodigy, was a virtuoso pianist and a fruitful composer. She is said to have composed simple piano pieces before the age of four.
Amy Marcy Beach was a concert pianist who turned to composition after her marriage. She wrote over three hundred works and often set her own poems to music.
Claude Debussy was a French composer of piano, chamber, and orchestral music. He also wrote one opera. Debussy was probably the first Impressionist composer – although he famously hated the term “Impressionism”.
Recreational music-making reached a new height during the Romantic years, largely due to the more affordable instruments produced by the Industrial Revolution.
Families often gathered together in their homes to play and sing, so much so that “parlor music” became its own popular genre.
Program music (music that accompanies a theme, plot, or story) was very important during this period. It had its roots in earlier periods, but many Romantic composers fully embraced it.
Famous examples of program music include Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the Peer Gynt suite by Grieg, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and nearly all the works of Debussy.
Again, nationalism had an influence over Romantic composers, who sought to create distinctive styles of music native to their homeland.
Emotional expression came to the forefront of music during the Romantic period. Composers used colorful harmonies, rich dynamics, dramatic key changes, and grand orchestrations to capture the feeling behind their works.
Women composers met with a little more success during this period than they had in previous times. However, they were not considered as competent as men when it came to writing music.
The piano reached new heights of popularity in the 19th century. Nearly every middle class family owned one, and skillful playing was considered a mark of good breeding in many social circles.
Stringed instruments were also very popular, since they lend themselves so well to the rich, colorful emotional expression so prominent in Romantic music.
Brass and woodwind instruments played a key part in the large orchestras that were common during this era.
Percussion instruments also took on a new importance. The timpani, kettledrum, and cymbals were often given significant roles in larger orchestral works.
Romantic Musical Styles
Symphonies, which had developed during the Classical period, were the crowning genre of Romantic repertoire. Composers like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak followed in Beethoven’s footsteps and took the art form to new heights.
Opera also was important in the 1800s, particularly in Italy and Germany.
Many styles of piano music flourished during this period, with composers like Chopin writing almost exclusively for the instrument.
German lieder, or vocal pieces accompanied by piano, were extremely common as well. Many composers wrote them by the dozens!
Character pieces were in style during these years. These short pieces of program music illustrate real or fictional characters, such as Robert Schumann’s The Happy Farmer.
Below is a recording of the Theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, composed during the 1870s. This piece is a good example of the richly orchestrated, emotionally expressive music that the Romantic Period produced.
And that’s the story of the Romantic Period. What do you think of it? Leave a comment below!