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Romantic music
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Romantic music

This article is part of the
History of Art Music
20th Century

Romantic music can be defined as music in which expression of feelings is given more importance than formal balance and internal order. The use of the phrase in this sense is generally limited to the context of European classical music.

Although there are moments of pieces through history where this can be said to be the case, it became the dominant musical trend in classical music during the 19th century, and the period roughly from 1800 to 1910 is often called the "romantic period" in music, which differs from the dates of literary romanticism by half a century. Many composers after 1910, however, have continued to write music in a style labelled as "Romantic".

Although the word "romantic" is now usually used to mean "something related to love", "romantic music" as spoken about by musicologists and academics is not necessarily about this and does not always sound like what would nowadays be thought of as "romantic" in the general sense. It is instead defined as being rooted in romanticism in literature and the arts.

Musical language

The Romantic era extended the tonal and harmonic vocabulary of the previous era; in particular there was a desire for greater fluidity of movement, greater contrasts and, in the end, longer works. Chromaticism grew more frequent and varied in use, as did dissonance. Composers modulated to increasingly remote keys. Modulations were not always as extensively prepared as they were in the classical era, and sometimes instead of a pivot chord, a pivot note was used. Franz Liszt and others sometimes enharmonically "spelled" this note in a different way (for example, changing a C sharp into a D flat) to modulate into even more distant keys. The properties of the dimished seventh chord, which enables modulation to almost any key, were also extensively exploited. Composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, often regarded as the first Romantic composer, and later Richard Wagner expanded their harmonic language to include chordss previously unused, or to treat existing chords in different ways. Wagner's Tristan chord, found in Tristan and Isolde, has had much written about it attempting to explain exactly what harmonic function it serves.

Romantic music analogized music to poetry and to rhapsodic and narrative structures, and at the same time created a more systematic basis for teaching the composing and performing of concert music. The Romantic era codified previous practice, for example inventing the idea of the sonata form, and then almost immediately began to extend that form. There was an increasing focus on melodies and themes, as well as an explosion in composing songs. This emphasis on melody found expression in the more and more extensive use of cyclic form, which turned out to be an important structural device to unify the much longer pieces which were composed in the Romantic era.

These trends — towards greater harmonic elusiveness and fluidity, longer and more powerfully placed melodies, poesis as the basis of expression, mixing of literature and music — were all present to one degree or another previously; however, the Romantic Era made their pursuit central to the idea of music itself. Technology also played a significant role in the changes in musical language — from the increasing range and power of the piano, to the introduction of valves and keys for instruments, the very sound and reach of the symphony orchestra changed, and with it the kinds of works which were possible.

Influence from non-musical sources

One of the controversies that raged through the Romantic era in music was the relationship of music to some external text or source. While music with a point or a program was common to the 19th century, the 19th century began to see the polarization between formal perfection and external inspiration as a crucial aesthetic issue.

The controversy was grew with increasing tension beginning in the 1830's with Hector Berlioz' symphony which had an extensive program text associated with it. The Symphony Fantastique, caused critics and professors to pick up their pens. Most prominent among the detractors was François Fetis, a Belgian who was the head of the newly founded Brussels Conservatory, who declared that the work was "not music". Robert Schumann defended the work, but not the program itself, saying that good music would not be hurt by bad titles, but good titles would not save a bad work. It was left to Franz Liszt to defend the idea of extra-musical inspiration.

This rift grew more pronounced, with polemics on both sides. To the believers in "absolute" music, formal perfection rested on the ability to express in music while obey the schematics of previous works, most notably the Sonata Form which were only then being codified. To the adherents of program music, the rhapsodic expression of poetry or other external text was, itself, a form. They argued that to bring the artist's life into his work, the form had to follow the narrative. Both sides pointed back to Beethoven as their inspiration and justification. This rift would become codified by the conflict between followers of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner: Brahms was taken to be the pinnacle of absolute music, without a text or other outside reference, and Wagner the believer in the poetic "stuff" shaping the harmonic and melodic flow of the music.

The forces that brought this controversy about are complex. The rise in importance of Romantic Poetry is certainly one of them, as was the increasing market for songs which could be sung in concert, or played in the home. Another is the changing nature of concerts themselves, as concerts moved from having a wide variety of works, to being more specialized, there was increasing pressure to have instrumental works have a greater expressiveness and specificicity.

Examples of extra-musical inspiration include Liszt's Faust and Dante symphonies and his symphonic poems, the Manfred Symphony by Tchaikovsky, Mahler's First Symphony based on the novel Titan and Saens Sans suite Animals Suite, from which the very popular "The Swan" is drawn. Composers such as Schubert would use song melodies in their extended works, and other compoer's such as Liszt, would transcribe opera arias and songs into purely instrumental works.

Romantic opera

In opera, there was a tendency for the forms usual in classical and baroque opera to be loosened, broken, and merged into each other. This reached its climax in Wagner, where arias, choruses, recitatives and ensemble pieces cannot easily be distinguished from each other. Instead there is a continuous flow of music.

Other changes occurred as well. The decline of castrati led to tenors being given the heroic lead in operas as a rule, and the chorus took on a more important role. Towards the end of the Romantic period, verismo opera, depicting realistic, rather than historical or mythological, subjects became popular in Italy. France followed with operas such as Bizet's Carmen.


A number of romantic composers wrote nationalist music, music which had a particular connection to a particular country. This manifested itself in a number of ways. The subjects of Mikhail Glinka's operas, for example, are specifically Russian, while Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak both used rhythms and themes from Czech folk dances and songs. Late in the 19th century, Jean Sibelius wrote music based on the Finnish epic, the Kalevala.

Instrumentation and scale

As in other periods, instrumental technique was developed in the romantic era. This was a trend that was begun by Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica, and continued through the period. Composers such as Hector Berlioz orchestrated their works in a way hitherto unheard, given a new prominence to wind instruments. Instruments previously rare, such as the piccolo and cor anglais, came to be parts of the standard symphony orchestra, and the orchestra as a whole grew. Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8'\' is known as the Symphony of a Thousand'' because of the large number of people required to perform it.

In addition to using larger orchestral forces, works in the Romantic era tended to become longer. A typical symphony by Haydn or Mozart will last twenty to twenty-five minutes; Beethoven's Eroica, once again, will last at least forty-five minutes, a significant increase; some of Beethoven's later symphonies are even longer. The trend towards long, large scale works which require substantial orchestral forces probably again reached its peak in the later symphonies of Mahler.

The instrumental virtuoso also became more prominent. The violinist Niccolo Paganini was one of the musical stars of the early 19th century, his fame usually put down as much to his charisma as his technique. Franz Liszt was also a very popular virtuoso pianist. Typically in the 19th century, virtuosi such as these were more likely to attract an audience than was the presence on the program of the music of some particular composer.

Romanticism in music, in the end, represented a trend that made larger and larger demands on the orchestras playing it, on individual performers, and on the listeners. These trends tended to more sharply distinguish what we have come to call "classical music" from "popular music."

Brief Chronology of Musical Romanticism

Classical roots of Romanticism (1780-1815)

In literature the "Romantic" period is often said to begin in the 1770's or 1780's with a movement known as "storm and struggle", in Germany. It was also attended by a greater influence of Shakespeare, and of folk sagas, whether real or created, as well as the poetry of Homer. Writers such as Goethe and Schiller radically altered practice, while in Scotland Robert Burns began setting down folk music. This literary movement is reflected in the music of the "classical" era composers in a variety of ways, including Mozart's work in German opera, choice of songs and melodies to set for commercial works, and a gradually increasing violence in artistic expression. However, as long as composer worked in and for court and royal patronage, their ability to engage in "romanticism and revolt" was carefully limited. Mozart's troubles in staging "The Marriage of Figaro" are a case in point, the play had been banned as revolutionary.

But even in purely musical terms, romanticism drew its fundamental substance from the structure of classical practice. The classical era increased playing standards, created standardized forms and bodies of musicians, and set the expectations. It was not without reason that ETA Hoffmann called Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn the "three Romantic composers". One of the most crucial undercurrents in the classical era is the role of chromaticism and harmonic ambiguity. All of the major classical composers used harmonic ambiguity and rapid movement through keys with out "establishing" the key. Among the most famous examples include the "harmonic chaos" at the openning of Haydn's The Creation, and Beethoven's open fifth openning of the D Minor Symphony. However, for all of these excursions - the tension in the music was based on articulated sections, movement towards the dominant or relative major, and a transpearancy of texture.

By 1810 however, the chromaticism, use of the minor key, desire to move through more and more keys and a deeper range to music had been combined with a need for more operatic reach. While Beethoven would later be regarded as the central figure, at the time composers such as Clementi and Spohr represented the taste by incorporating more and more chromatic notes into their thematic material. This tension, between the desire form more "color" and the classical desire for structure would create a crisis of sorts. On response was to move to opera, where text could provide structure even where there were no formal models. ETA Hoffman is known as a critic now, but his Undine of 1814 was a radical innovation in music. Another response was to move to shorter forms, including some novel ones such as the nocturne or night piece, where the intensity of the harmony itself was enough to carry the music forward.

Early Romantic (1815-1850)

Late Romantic Era (1850-1910)

Romanticism in the 20th century (1900- )

Many composers born in the 19th century continued to compose well into the 20th century in styles which were recognizably connected to the previous musical era, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss and Kurt Atterberg. In addition many composers who would later be musical modernists composed works in Romantic styles early in their career, Igor Stravinsky with his Firebird ballet, Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle stand as well known examples. But the vocabulary and structure of the late 19th century was not merely held over, Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erich Korngold, Berthold Goldschmidt and from time to time Sergei Prokofiev composed works in recognizably Romantic styles until after 1950.

While new tendencies such as neo-classicism and atonal music challenged the preeminence of the romantic style, the desire to compose in tonally centered chromatic vocabularies remained present in major works. Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Dmitri Shostakovich, Malcolm Arnold and Arnold Bax while considering themselves modern and contemporary composers, drew frequently from musical Romanticism in their works.

Musical romanticism reached a rhetorical and artistic nadir around 1960: it seemed as if the future was all with avant garde styles of composition, or with neo-classicism of some kind. While Hindemith moved back to a style more recognizably rooted in romanticism, most composers moved in the other direction. Only in the conservative academic hierarchy of the USSR and China did it seem that musical romanticism had a place. However, by the late 1960s a revival of music using the surface of musical romanticism began: composers such as George Rochberg switched from serialism to models drawn from Gustav Mahler, a project which found him the company of Nicholas Maw and David Del Tredici. This movement is described as "Neo-Romanticism", and is considered to include works such as John Corigliano's First Symphony.

Another area where the style of Mahler and Strauss survived, and even flourished, was in film scoring. Many of the early emigres escaping from Nazi Germany were Jewish composers who had studied, or even studied under, Gustav Mahler's disciples in Vienna. Max Steiner's lush score for Gone With The Wind provides an example of the use of Wagnerian leitmotifs and Mahlerian orchestration. The "Golden Age of Hollywood" film music rested heavily on the work of composers such as Korngold and Steiner as well as Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman. The next generation of film composers, Alexander North, John Williams and Elmer Bernstein drew on this tradition to write some of the most familiar orchestral music of the late 20th century.

Composers of the romantic era