Romantic Period Music (Part One)

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To continue our two-part music history series, next up is a talk about Romantic period music. We’ve already discussed the Baroque era and the Classical era, so from a linear standpoint, the Romantic era is up next.

This video has been requested, and I definitely understand why – the Romantic era is when a lot of favorite composers came into the scene, like Chopin and Liszt. It’s also an era full of amazing piano music that can be extremely difficult, but sounds much more modern and familiar than Classical music.

In today’s part 1 video, we’ll talk about when the Romantic period was and what the music sounded like, and what was happening in the world which influenced music. We’ll also talk about Beethoven and Schubert and how their transitional music heralded a new age of music.

In the next video, we’ll talk about two types of instrumental music – public and parlor, we’ll talk about opera, we’ll talk rock stars, and we’ll discuss the piano itself.

When was the romantic era?

The dates of the Romantic period aren’t set in stone, but it was in the ballpark of 1820 to 1910. The Romantic era didn’t just show up overnight on everyone’s doorstep – there was a long transition period near the end of the Classical era that began signaling a new artistic era.

Sound of romantic period music

The arts are always connected, be it music, writing, visual arts, and so on. So Romantic music is related to the Romanticism movement in the arts – the focus became on individuality and personal emotions. Artists in the Romantic era longed for something less refined than the polish of Classical music, something more personal.

What that means is music in this period ranges greatly in sound, just like there is a wide spectrum of human emotions. Some songs are silly, some are serious, some are deeply tragic, while others could fit in a horror movie soundtrack. This diversity is part of what makes Romantic music appealing to us in this day and age.

In a more theoretical sense, I want to spend a minute talking about how the harmony, dynamics and other musical elements evolved. First of all, the tidy harmony of the Classical era was replaced with more dissonance, more chromaticism, and far more modulation (key changing). The emphasis of the tonic and dominant (the first and fifth notes in a key) became a little more obscure (sometimes). Minor keys were also used more heavily, and with gusto.

Dynamics also started getting more wild in the Romantic period. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Classical song with “fff”, but I’ve definitely seen more than a few Romantic (and Modern) pieces with these excessive, dramatic markings. Like if “ff” is super loud, how much louder can you really get? Same goes for “pppp”. It’s like, okay, I get it, I need to play really quiet. Did you really need the extra p’s?

Another common feature of Romantic music is something called “Rubato”. This is where the rhythm of a piece gets bent. It means every note you play won’t line up perfectly with the metronome, because you’re speeding up and slowing down, like the natural ebbs and flows of water. It’s a very expressive way to play.

What was happening in the world in the romantic era?

Music, and art in general, isn’t created in a vacuum. It also serves as a reflection of a time and age. So what was happening in the world when the Romantic era emerged?

Probably the most important development was that of the Industrial Revolution. Daily life was hugely affected by the Industrial Revolution – with the invention of machines and labor-saving devices, life began improving for the common folk, and the middle class grew.

With a larger middle class, suddenly music wasn’t just for the few wealthy elite. Music always existed for rich and poor, of course, but things like symphonies and “finer” music wasn’t really available to you if you lacked wealth.

But suddenly you had more people with more money. And not all of these people with money were musicians – many of them knew very little about music, other than that they liked it (kind of like nowadays). In the Romantic era, musicians would hold big public concerts and play for the masses in a way that had never been done before. The class divides that existed in music began to fall away.

Suddenly, music was for everyone.

The Industrial Revolution also allowed instruments to become bigger, better and louder. The piano was refined into the invention we know and love today. Valves were developed for brass instruments. The bassoon came to be, and took its place in the modern orchestra.

Beethoven and Schubert: Leading in a new era

Beethoven was among the last crop of Classical composers – when Haydn was an old man, Beethoven was a teenager, soaking up Classical ideals. His early compositions reflect that Classical style, but toward the end of his life (he died in 1827), his music took on a quality that we would now call Romantic.

His innovations on this new musical direction would go on to directly influence and inspire Romantic composers like Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Wagner, among many others.

I highly love Beethoven’s piano sonatas (probably my favorite sonatas of all time are Beethoven’s), so I want to show you an example of one of his mid-life sonatas, composed around 1805, when Classical music was starting to transition into Romantic music.

We’re going to look at his Appassionata sonata, no. 23, op. 57, in F minor. This is a very well-known sonata, and definitely one of his most challenging. In this piece you can hear him turning sonata conventions on their head – the intro sounds almost free-form, and as the title suggests, it’s extremely stormy. It’s definitely a ride.

My favorite Beethoven sonata interpretations are usually by Daniel Barenboim, so I highly recommend you check it out on youtube. Here’s a little clip to give you an idea of the early sounds of Romantic music.

Schubert, like Beethoven, was one of those young ‘uns who began composing toward the end of the Classical era and the beginning of the Romantic era. He basically invented a genre, the Lied, which blended poetry and music into a vocal/piano work called the “art song”.

His lieder aren’t particularly famous any more, simply because the genre is obsolete. But at the time, it was a huge step in a brand new direction. Schubert masterfully created beautiful, singable melodies that were complex and interesting, and that conveyed the various depths of human emotion.

One famous Lied of Schubert’s I’m sure you know is now known as “Ave Maria”, D. 839. You’ll notice that, compared to Baroque composers like Bach, and Classical composers like Haydn and Mozart, this tune is much more modern sounding (even though it’s opera).

You have a single melody line accompanied by chords on the piano. The sound is intimate – not grand or reaching for any ideal, but personal. This is one of the biggest things Schubert’s lieder contributed to the movement toward Romantic music.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed the first part of this tour through Romantic period music. The idea is to get an overview of the period – a general idea on what was going on in the 19th Century, to understand the music of that time a little better.

Stay tuned for part 2!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.