Romantic Music (1850-1900)

The word romanticism was first used to describe new ideas in painting and literature, towards the end of the 18th century. This word was later taken up by musicians, to describe the changes in musical style, which took place soon after the turn of the century. Unlike Classical composers, Romantic composers aimed for a store powerful expression of emotion, often revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings. Romantic music is not just about the emotion of love, it can also be about hate or death (positive or negative feelings). Many Romantic composers took an interest in art and literature:

Composers of the Period

Composer Lived Composer Lived
Beethoven 1770-1827 Smetana 1824-1884
Schubert 1797-1828 Brahms 1833-1897
Berlioz 1803-1869 Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Mendelssohn 1809-1847 Dvorak 1841-1904
Chopin 1810-1849 Grieg 1843-1907
Schumann 1810-1856 Rimsky-Korsakov 1844-1908
Liszt 1811-1886 Elgar 1857-1934
Wagner 1813-1883 Mahler 1860-1911
Verdi 1813-1901 Richard Strauss 1864-1949

The Orchestra

As Romantic composers widened the range of their musical material, we find richer harmonies, more passionate melodies, and greater use of chromaticism. (Chroma is Greek for colour). There was an enormous increase in the size of the orchestra. The tuba was added to the brass section, valves were invented, giving the brass more flexibility. Composers wrote for woodwind instruments in threes of even fours. The piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and double bassoon were added.

A larger string section was formed, to accommodate the extra sound. More varied percussion (e.g. bongos) were added. A larger range of pitch and volume was now possible. New combinations of instruments were brought about. A rich variety of compositions resulted, ranging from piano pieces and songs to large spectacular works, (The majority of large works were by: Wagner, Berlioz, Mahler and Richard Strauss).

The German Lied

The plural is lieder. Songs began to develop in the Romantic period for solo voice and piano. There were two types:

  1. Strophic - same music for every verse
  2. Through-composed - different music for each verse. The voice and words fit very closely together (reflect each other.)

The piano is more than just an accompaniment in these compositions, it is a partner to the voice. Schubert is perhaps the greatest composer of German Lieds, he wrote over 600 (including: The Earl King, The Trout, To Sylvia). Other composers of this style were Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Richard Strauss. Sometimes a composer might set a whole group of poems linked to the same idea, perhaps even sketching a story, for example, Schubert's Winter Journey.

Music for Piano

Several improvements were made to the piano in the 19th Century. E.g. more notes, metal frame as opposed to wood. The piano gained a richer sound, and gradually, a wider range of notes. The sustaining pedal began to be used to a much wider extent. The most famous piano composers of the time were: Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. They wrote sonatas (for one instrument, or a soloist with one accompanying instrument.), and short pieces such as the

Many pieces shared contrasting moods, and were in Ternary form. Another piece of the time was the etude (study). It was meant to improve the playing technique of the player. This period saw the rise of the virtuoso, a person with extraordinary musical skill, such as Paganini (violinist people thought he had made a pact with the devil, because he was so good), and Liszt (pianist he was very concerned with showmanship.)

Programme Music

As links were formed between music, painting and literature, composers started to compose programme music. - music that tells a story. (The opposite is absolute music - music without a story.) There are three main types of programme music for orchestra:

  1. The Programme Symphony - e.g. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, The Symphonic Fantastique (About a young man who is in love. He dreams about her, and she becomes a melody in his mind. This melody is an 'idée fixe', it keeps coming round again, a recurring theme. It is by Berlioz,)
  2. The Concert Overture - It is a one movement programme piece for orchestra, intended for performance at a concert. E.g. Fingal's Cave by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Romeo and Juliet.
  3. The Symphonic Poem (The Tune Poem) - It was invented by Liszt. It is a one movement programme piece for orchestra. Liszt used a device called thematic transformation ( a basic theme that is continually being changed in mood and character, like the 'idée fixe'). Liszt wrote a thematic piece called Hamlet. Other examples are: Danse Macabre (by Saint-Saëns), Vltava (by Smetana), A Night on the Bare Mountain (by Mussorgsky), The Sorcerer's Apprentice (by Dukas), and Till Eulenspiegel (by Richard Strauss).

Incidental Music

It is music specially composed to be heard at certain points during the performance of a play. (To set the mood, to cover the scenery changed or as background music)


These are several pieces of incidental music gathered together, intended for a play, e.g. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker (All three by Tchaikovsky), A Midsummer Nights Dream (by Mendelssohn), Peer Gynt (by Grieg)

The Concerto

Changes were made to the form of the Concerto during the Romantic period. Instead of a double-exposition, there was now a single exposition, usually with the soloist entering immediately, sharing the themes with the orchestra. The cadenza was now written out by the composer. Other changes included:


Wagner wrote many operas, especially German operas. People said Wagner was the 'most powerful force since Beethoven.' His operas are called music dramas. Some examples of his works are: Rhinegold, The Master Singers and the Valkyrie. Wagner was a master of orchestration. He had a huge orchestra. The operas were on a large scale, and sometimes took four or five hours to perform. Woven into the texture are many short themes called Leitmotiv. Each one represents a character, emotion, object or place.

19th Century Nationalism

By the middle of the 19th Century, music was dominated by Germany. However, composers from other countries began to feel they should break away. They used folk tunes, dance rhythms and local legends for this purpose. Some examples of 19th Century Nationalism are:





Late Romanticism

Mahler and Strauss wrote in a Romantic style, into the 20th century. Richard Strauss' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', written in 1896, is an example of later romanticism.

The Main Characteristics of Romantic Music

  1. Freedom of form and design. It was more personal and emotional.
  2. Song-like melodies (lyrical), as well as many chromatic harmonies and discords.
  3. Dramatic contrasts of dynamics and pitch.
  4. Big orchestras, due mainly to brass and the invention of the valve.
  5. Wide variety of pieces (i.e. songs up to five hour Wagner operas)
  6. Programme music (music that tells a story)
  7. Shape was brought to work through the use of recurring themes.
  8. Great technical virtuosity.
  9. Nationalism (a reaction against German influence)
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