In the last video, we talked about Romantic Period music, and the things that were going on in the 19th century. We talked about what Romantic music sounded like, what was going on in the world at the time, and about how Beethoven and Schubert paved the way to a brave new musical era. If you missed that video, definitely check it out.
Today we’re going full-force into the Romantic era. We’ll talk about the development of the piano, public and parlor music (and how the symphony and Chopin fit into those) and the first music rock stars.
Romantic period music: the piano
The first pianos were made in the early 1700s, developed by a master harpsichord maker. These early pianos were much smaller and quieter than the modern pianos we know and love today. Bach was even consulted in the early days of the piano.
Since the early piano was so soft and quiet, Romantic composers yearned for a more powerful instrument, and this was possible because of the Industrial revolution (discussed in part 1 of this series). The new strings were better quality, and iron frames were used, which allowed the strings to endure more tension (loudness and hard playing).
It was in this period, the early to mid-1800s, when these developments were made. The piano was also extended in size – from five octaves to seven octaves.
Felt wasn’t even invented until 1826, and it’s now it’s the standard material for covering the piano hammers (which enables harder hitting and tenser strings). This is where we also saw the use of three strings per note, except for the very highest and lowest.
Public music and the full orchestra
The motto of the Romantic orchestra might as well have been “bigger is better”. Due to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, orchestra performances became very popular and widely attended by the general populous.
And since Romantic composers from Schubert to Mahler had a penchant for big, bold emotions, the need for a larger orchestra emerged.
Since brass instruments were getting so much better, they began to play a more significant role in orchestras – not always as a background part. In the woodwinds section, the bass clarinet, oboe and English horn were added to the mix. And since the brass and woodwinds sections were expanding, so did the string section, just to keep it all balanced.
And of course, let’s not forget about percussion instruments. If you listen to Classical symphonies, you’ll notice an overall lack of percussion – the Classical orchestra only had a couple of timpanies. But with the expanding Romantic orchestra, we got the bass and snare drum, cymbals, chimes and gongs.
So the Romantic orchestra basically doubled – from the 30-40 people in a Classical orchestra, to the 70-80 in a Romantic one (though sometimes it was even more than that). Because of all the extra instruments, suddenly you needed a conductor to keep everyone in line.
We’ve done examples of Classical symphonies on this channel, but we haven’t listened to a Romantic symphony yet. There isn’t like a “one size fits all” symphony that I can show you, encompassing every single aspect of Romantic music. Ultimately it’s coming down to personal preference.
There are tons of epic symphonies out there with huge orchestras, like Mahler, and very sad, depressing symphonies, like Tchaikovsky’s sixth. The one I’m going to show you today is by Brahms, generally considered to be pretty conservative – not a rule breaker – but his fourth symphony is so masterful and moody, and it always gets to me. It’s probably one of my favorite symphonies of all time.
Brahms Symphony no. 4 in E minor
Another main aspect of Romantic period music was parlour music. Parlour music was just another thing afforded by the Industrial revolution and the growing middle class. It was simply music performed at home or a friend’s home, for small parties. These middle class folk had money for instruments, as well as enough free time to learn to play them. Sheet music was more freely available, and composers would write with amateurs specifically in mind.
Think about parlour music as the TV of the 1800s. People didn’t have records or other electronic entertainment (obviously), so they had to make the entertainment themselves.
Salon music and chopin
Then we had salon music – pretty much the same concept as parlour music – basically a house party that involved music. Salon music and performances centered on piano solos, usually short pieces that were super impressive. Chopin performed at a lot of salons, since he wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and hated big public performances.
So the main avenues you’d get your music fix if you were living in the romantic era would be:
-going to the symphony
-going to the opera
-having some friends over for jamming and dancing, if you were in the middle class or elite
Since we spent a bit of time talking about the physical development of the piano, I wanted to take a minute and talk about Chopin, a guy who developed the piano in a completely different way – by his song writing.
Since Chopin basically wrote only for the piano, he must’ve become attuned to it. Whereas composers before him would write piano pieces that were inspired by other instruments (piano parts that imitated voice, trumpet, violin, flute, and so on), Chopin’s style was purely pianistic. He created a style of playing where the piano simply sounded like a piano.
Chopin was definitely a Romantic era composer in style – his style of writing was hugely innovative, but very emotional – sometimes big and dramatic, sometimes subtle and subdued. I did a history video on Chopin’s life, as well as his music, if you want to check those out.
For an example, I want to show you a Chopin Nocturne. His nocturnes are in the top tier of piano music, especially for being short pieces. Chopin didn’t create Nocturnes (John Field did), but he transformed them as he did with so many other genres.
We’ll take a listen to his Op. 9 No. 2 nocturne. It’s simple in the sense that there’s a crystal-clear melody radiating out of the piece, which was one of Chopin’s strengths.
Liszt and virtuosos in the romantic era (rock stars)
Celebrities have always been a thing, and will always be a thing, forever and ever. But something exciting happened in the Romantic period, long before the days that Elvis took the stage.
There were two notable characters, Paganini and Liszt, who were basically the first musical rock stars. Paganini came first, so let’s start there.
Paganini was a virtuoso violinist, and did all kinds of crazy things during his performances, like harmonic tricks and other violin-specific things I can’t describe since I’m not a violinist. But this guy was a rule-breaker and a born performer, which went on to inspire Liszt, who was having a crisis of faith (and poverty) leading up to seeing Paganini perform. But he saw Paganini blow people’s minds, and thought, “man, what if I did the same thing, but on piano?”
And after rigorous training, he did exactly that. Liszt was a passionate dreamboat when he performed, and made the ladies faint. He wrote some of the craziest and most difficult piano music there is – music that is very experimental, but oftentimes incredibly beautiful.
There is so much good Liszt music (I feel like I say that about everyone), like his Sonata in B minor, or his second Hungarian Dance, two of my favorites. But I wanted to give you an example of his wild and chaotic style in an extremely difficult piece called the Mephisto Waltz, number 1. This song is pure adrenaline. It’s not a clean and tidy tune like what Brahms would write.
And that concludes our brief overview on Romantic period music! This was intended to be an overview, to get a sense of what music in the 19th Century was like. In the future, I’ll dive headlong into some of these topics more deeply. Hope you enjoyed!