Romantic Music

Introduction

Table Summary

Summary of Romantic Music (excluding opera)
early Romantic
(ca. 1820-60)
late Romantic
(ca. 1860-1900)
full
Romantics
Berlioz (program symphonies)
Liszt (piano works)
Chopin (piano works)
Richard Strauss (tone poems)
conservative
Romantics
Mendelssohn (orchestral works)
Schubert (symphonies, lieder)
Schumann (lieder, piano works)
Brahms (symphonies)
regional
Romantics
Russia Tchaikovsky (ballets, 1812 Overture)
Mussorgsky (Bald Mountain, Pictures)
Bohemia Smetana (My Country)
Dvorak (New World Symphony)
Scandinavia Grieg (Peer Gynt)
Sibelius (Finlandia)

General Features

The central aim of Romanticism is unrestrained emotional expression (see Western Aesthetics). Romantic artists burst free of the limitations imposed by classicism (balance, harmony, clarity, simplicity), embracing whatever aesthetic techniques proved effective in capturing a particular feeling. Throughout the Romantic age, composers increasingly embraced abrupt shifts in dynamics and tempo, and experimented with novel melodies and chord progressions.1

The core period of Romantic music was ca. 1820-1900; like all aesthetic movements, however, the borders of this period are "soft". The roots of Romantic music lie some two decades earlier (in Beethoven's mid-career works), while the careers of some late Romantic composers stretched decades into the twentieth century. Romantic music can be divided into early and late, with a boundary of ca. 1860.

The mainstream world of Romantic music consisted of Germany, Austria, Italy, and France. Romantic music produced elsewhere is known as regional, as it tends to feature a distinct local flavour (e.g. Russian, Bohemian). Regional Romantic music flourished mainly during the late Romantic period.

During the Romantic age, the economic basis of Western art music shifted from private patrons (chiefly nobility and clergy) to public audiences, thanks to the Early Modern expansion of the middle class. Since patrons could exert a great deal of control over a composer's work (from types of works produced to time allowed for composition), the patronage system often curbed artistic freedom. Composers writing for public performance, on the other hand, retained professional autonomy, allowing experimentation to flourish like never before.

Main Article

Chromaticism

Chromaticism is the use of notes that lie outside the scale on which a passage is based. For instance, if a passage is written in the key of C major, the use of any note outside the C major scale (e.g. F sharp) constitutes chromaticism. While Baroque and Classical music typically feature some degree of chromaticism, Romantic music took the effect to new extremes, thereby opening a new world of possibilities for both melodies and chords.

Chromaticism can be used to shift between keys (e.g. from C major to G major). Again, while a moderate amount of key-shifting is common in Baroque and Classical works, Romantic composers used this technique with increasing frequency. The tendency culminated with Wagner, who wrote the first music in which the key constantly shifts about.12

The Orchestra and the Piano

During the Baroque age, the orchestra was dominated by the string section; the other three sections (woodwind, brass, and percussion) remained small. Throughout the Classical and early Romantic ages, the non-string sections grew steadily larger and more independent, culminating in the mature symphony orchestra of the late Romantic period (which remains the standard modern-day orchestra). Moreover, a wide range of instrumental combinations and techniques were pioneered during the Romantic age, thereby unleashing the full potential of orchestral expression. Late Romantic music is often easily distinguished from early Romantic work by the scale and diversity of its orchestration.I384

Typical Layout of a Modern Orchestra

The development of the orchestra was paralleled by that of the piano. An invention of the late Baroque period, the piano gradually superseded the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument throughout the Classical age. During the Romantic period (the "golden age" of the piano), an unprecedented volume and diversity of music was produced for the piano, and the instrument's full expressive potential was achieved.I404

Multi-movement Works

A multi-movement work consists of multiple, self-contained works, each of which is referred to as a movement. Multi-movement works are common in Western music from the Baroque age onward. Typically, the movements vary in character (notably tempo) in order to provide contrast throughout the work.

In a work of absolute music (e.g. a symphony), each movement is typically named according to its tempo (e.g. allegro, andante). In a work of program music (e.g. a symphonic poem), each movement is typically named according to the imagery associated with the music (e.g. Scene in the Country, Tortoises). Sometimes a multi-movement work is called a suite (e.g. piano suite) or cycle (e.g. song cycle).

Up until the Romantic period, orchestral music was dominated by absolute music, namely the symphony and concerto. During the Romantic period, orchestral program music came to equal absolute music in popularity. A single-movement work of orchestral program music is often called a symphonic poem or tone poem, while a multi-movement work is often called a program symphony.

Romantic Composer Types

Romantic composers can be divided into three groups: full, conservative, and regional. The full Romantics pursued Romantic freedom unconditionally, while the conservative Romantics retained a significant degree of classicism (i.e. structure, clarity, simplicity). These two groups comprise the "mainstream" body of Romantic composers.

Beyond the mainstream lie the regional Romantics, who often infused Western art music with the folk music of their native lands. Regional Romanticism was a late development, flourishing mainly in the second half of the Romantic period. The most renowned strains of regional Romantic music are Russian, Bohemian, and Scandinavian.

Summary of Romantic Music (excluding opera)
early Romantic
(ca. 1820-60)
late Romantic
(ca. 1860-1900)
full
Romantics
Berlioz (program symphonies)
Liszt (piano works)
Chopin (piano works)
Richard Strauss (tone poems)
conservative
Romantics
Mendelssohn (orchestral works)
Schubert (orchestral works, lieder)
Schumann (lieder, piano works)
Brahms (symphonies)
regional
Romantics
Russia Tchaikovsky (ballets, 1812 Overture)
Mussorgsky (Bald Mountain, Pictures)
Bohemia Smetana (My Country)
Dvorak (From the New World)
Scandinavia Grieg (Peer Gynt)
Sibelius (Finlandia)

The next three sections of this article explore each of the groups described above, with the omission of composers known primarily for opera.

Full Romantics

ca. 1820-1900

The four most prominent full Romantics are Berlioz, Liszt, Chopin, and Richard Strauss.

French composer Hector Berlioz is known primarily for his three program symphonies. Foremost of these is Symphonie fantastique (his masterpiece), which relates an artist's doomed struggle with unrequited love; the others are Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet. Berlioz was the leading early Romantic figure in the expansion of orchestral instrumentation and technique.I391

Franz Liszt, a Hungarian composer, is remembered chiefly for his many piano works. These include etudes, waltzes, and "Hungarian rhapsodies", the latter of which draw upon the folk music of his native land. (A "rhapsody" is an emotional, through-composed work.) Sonata in B minor is often considered his masterpiece.

Another leading Romantic piano composer was Polish-French Frederic Chopin, whose Sonata in B flat minor is often identified as his greatest work. In addition to sonatas, Chopin worked in such genres as the mazurka (a traditional Polish dance), etude ("study", a work designed for practising specific technical skills), nocturne (a meditative, lyrical work), and waltz. Chopin was fond of tempo rubato ("free tempo"), a common feature of Romantic music, in which the performer freely adjusts the tempo throughout a performance.I409

Richard Strauss, renowned chiefly as a composer of tone poems, was influenced so strongly by Wagner that he is known as a Wagnerian. ("Wagnerian" music features the typical qualities of Wagner's work, including frequent key-shifting, complex chords, and lush orchestration.) Strauss' most famous tone poem is Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Conservative Romantics

ca. 1820-1900

The foremost conservative Romantics are Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.

Franz Schubert excelled primarily in symphonies and song cycles. His foremost symphonies are the Great and Unfinished.

A lied ("song", plural "lieder") is a Romantic poem (typically German) arranged for voice and piano. A set of lieder is known as a song cycle. Schubert, often acknowledged as the greatest lied composer, wrote many song cycles, foremost of which are Die Winterreise ("Winter Journey") and Die schöne Müllerin ("The Miller's Beautiful Daughter").

Felix Mendelssohn is known mainly for orchestral works, especially the Italian Symphony and Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream (which includes the famous Wedding March).

Robert Schumann is remembered chiefly for song cycles and piano cycles. (A "piano cycle" is a series of solo piano works.) His foremost song cycle is Dichterliebe ("Poet's Love"), while his most famous piano work is Traumerei ("Dreaming"), from the cycle Kinderszenen ("Scenes from Childhood").

Johannes Brahms is often singled out as the greatest conservative Romantic. His most renowned works are the German Requiem (often considered his masterpiece) and his four symphonies.

Regional Romantics

ca. 1820-1900

Outside the "mainstream core" of Western art music (France/Italy/Germany/Austria), many composers broke new musical ground by merging native folk traditions with mainstream Romanticism. The result was regional Romanticism, of which the most renowned branches are Russian, Bohemian, and Scandinavian. (Bohemia was the pre-modern kingdom of the Czechs; "Bohemian" and "Czech" are often used interchangeably.) Other notable branches include Iberian and English.

Regional composers often disagreed on the appropriate balance of mainstream and native musical elements. This issue was especially prominent in Russia, where composers often came to be viewed as either "mainstream-focused" or "native-focused".

Foremost of the mainstream-focused Russian composers is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, often considered the greatest ballet composer of all time; his three masterpieces are Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky's most famous non-ballet work is the 1812 Overture, which celebrates the Russian defeat of Napoleon's invasion.

Foremost of the native-focused Russian composers is Modest Mussorgsky.I465,I482 His best-known works are Night on Bald Mountain (a symphonic poem) and Pictures at an Exhibition (a piano cycle).

The foremost Bohemian Romantic composers are Smetana and Dvorak. Bedrich Smetana is known primarily for My Country, a set of six symphonic poems (of which Moldau is the best-known). The outstanding masterpiece of Antonin Dvorak is the New World Symphony, composed while working in the United States.

Scandinavia also features two outstanding Romantic composers. Norway is represented by Edvard Grieg, whose most famous work is the orchestral suite Peer Gynt. Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius, is known primarily for the patriotic symphonic poem Finlandia.

Romantic Opera

Introduction

Both serious and comic opera were transformed by Romanticism. The bonds of classical structure and simplicity were loosened (or cast aside altogether), as composers strove to convey the full range of human emotion with precision and power.

The Nine Most-Performed Opera Composers
Baroque Classical Romantic
Italian Handel Mozart (Donizetti, Rossini) > Verdi > Puccini
German Wagner > R Strauss
French Bizet

From the Baroque to the early Romantic age, opera was typically neatly divided into narrative (plain speech or recitative, which advanced the story) and songs (which paused the story to highlight key elements). In the mid/late Romantic age, opera tended to embrace continuous narrative, in which the story unfolds constantly (throughout both speech/recitative and songs). Indeed, the distinction between recitative and songs was often blurred, as recitative became more lyrical and songs came to lack sharply-defined beginnings and endings.

The history of opera lies primarily in the core region of Western art music (France/Italy/Germany/Austria). By far the most popular opera composer from outside the core is Tchaikovsky, whose two most-performed operas are Eugene Onegin and Pikovaya Dama ("The Queen of Spades").

Italian Romantic Opera

Italian opera experienced a dramatic shift in tone throughout the Romantic period. The early Romantic was dominated by lively comic opera, the mid/late Romantic by starkly serious opera.

Summary of Romantic Opera
early Romantic opera
(the five most-performed composers)
mid/late Romantic opera
(the eight most-performed composers)
Italian Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini Verdi, Puccini
German Weber Wagner, R Strauss, J Strauss
French Berlioz Bizet, Offenbach
regional Tchaikovsky

The three leading figures of early Romantic Italian opera were Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Gioachino Rossini.3 The most popular work of each composer is the tragedy Norma (Bellini), the comedy L'elisir d'amore (Donizetti), and the comedy The Barber of Seville (Rossini).

Popularity of Romantic Italian Opera Composers (by performance runs, 2007-12)

Mid/late Romantic Italian opera was initially dominated by Giuseppe Verdi, widely considered the greatest Italian opera composer (and today's most-performed opera composer). Verdi elevated the drama of Italian opera to a level equal to theatre (just as Wagner did for German opera). Up until the mid/late Romantic period, operas had tended to focus primarily on music, and consequently featured relatively simple, undeveloped stories.I449

Verdi, who worked almost entirely in serious opera, was influential for portraying heroism in characters of marginalized groups (e.g. slaves, prostitutes) and for his blunt social realism.3,14 His most popular works are La traviata and Rigoletto, followed by Aida, Nabucco, and Il trovatore.15

Verdi's successors, who embraced and developed upon his overall style (including social realism), are known as the verismo school ("realism school").3 Their leader was Giacomo Puccini, today's third-most performed opera composer (after Verdi and Mozart), and the last great figure of Romantic opera. Puccini's three most popular works are La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.

Some opera composers are known almost exclusively for a single work. This is certainly true of the two leading figures of the verismo school after Puccini: Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) and Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana).

French Romantic Opera

French Romantic opera was (like Baroque and Classical French opera) rooted in Italian opera, but developed in uniquely French ways. French opera is renowned for its grandeur, achieved through such elements as large choruses, elaborate dance sequences, and opulent staging and costumes.

Summary of Romantic Opera
early Romantic opera
(the five most-performed composers)
mid/late Romantic opera
(the eight most-performed composers)
Italian Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini Verdi, Puccini
German Weber Wagner, R Strauss, J Strauss
French Berlioz Bizet, Offenbach
regional Tchaikovsky

The foremost early Romantic composer of French opera was Hector Berlioz, whose most-performed works are La damnation de Faust ("The Damnation of Faust") and Les troyens ("The Trojans").

Popularity of Romantic French Opera Composers (by performance runs, 2007-12)

The mid/late Romantic period contains the four most popular French opera composers.

Leading the pack is Georges Bizet, whose Carmen is by far today's most-performed French opera; his other masterpiece is Les pêcheurs de perles ("The Pearl Fishers"). The most popular works of Jacques Offenbach are Les contes d'Hoffmann ("The Tales of Hoffman") and Orphée aux enfers ("Orpheus in the Underworld"); of Charles Gounod, Faust and Roméo et Juliette; and of Jules Massenet, Werther.

Operetta

Offenbach was the first great composer of operetta, which can be defined simply as "light opera". The story and music of an operetta are typically shorter, simpler, and more consistently light-hearted (often to ridiculous extremes) than those of an opera; operettas thus embody the transition from opera to musical theatre. Offenbach's most popular operetta is Orphée aux enfers ("Orpheus in the Underworld").

The leading centres of operetta were Paris and Vienna. While French operetta culminated with Offenbach, the foremost Austrian composer of the form was Johann Strauss II, whose Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") is the world's most-performed operetta. Strauss is also renowned for composing orchestral music in various dance forms, including marches, polkas, and (especially) waltzes, of which the most famous example is the Blue Danube.

Outside France and Austria, the most renowned composers of operetta are British duo Gilbert and Sullivan, whose foremost works may be H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.

German Romantic Opera

In the Romantic period, serious German opera finally attained prominence equal to its Italian and French counterparts. Romantic German opera typically features supernatural characters and plots drawn from Germanic mythology; in some cases, ordinary humans are drawn into supernatural matters. The first great composer of Romantic German opera was Carl Maria von Weber, whose masterpiece is Der Freischutz ("The Marksman").I438,4

Summary of Romantic Opera
early Romantic opera
(the five most-performed composers)
mid/late Romantic opera
(the eight most-performed composers)
Italian Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini Verdi, Puccini
German Weber Wagner, R Strauss, J Strauss
French Berlioz Bizet, Offenbach
regional Tchaikovsky
Popularity of German Romantic Opera Composers (by performance runs, 2007-12)

Weber was succeeded by the foremost German opera composer, Richard Wagner, who eventually abandoned the distinction between recitative and songs in favour of continuous melody. Wagner was also the first composer to make extensive use of the leitmotif, a musical theme associated with a particular character or idea. Wagner's four most-performed works are Der fliegende Holländer ("The Flying Dutchman"), Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie"), Das Rheingold ("The Rhine Gold"), and Tristan und Isolde ("Tristan and Isolde").I443-44,2

Wagner had two major successors. One was Richard Strauss, whose most popular operas are Salome and Der Rosenkavalier ("The Knight of the Rose"). The other was Engelbert Humperdinck, whose fame rests almost entirely on one opera: Hänsel und Gretel.

1 - "Western music", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Opera", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 2010.
3 - "Opera", Encarta 2004.
4 - "Western music", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
5 - "Romanticism", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 2010.
6 - "Franz Schubert", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
7 - "The Five", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
8 - "Hector Berlioz", Encarta 2004.
9 - "Frederic Chopin", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
10 - "Anton Bruckner", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 2010.
11 - "Peter Tchaikovsky", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
12 - "Chromaticism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
13 - "Bel canto", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
14 - "Giuseppe Verdi", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 2010.
15 - Operabase Statistics - Verdi