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Romantic music is a musicological term referring to a particular period, theory, compositional practice, and canon in European music history, from about 1800 to 1900.

Romantic music as a movement does not refer to the expression and expansion of musical ideas established in earlier periods, such as the classical period, nor does it necessarily refer to romantic love, though that theme was prevalent in many works composed during this time period. More appropriately, romanticism describes the expansion of formal structures within a composition, making the pieces more passionate and expressive. Because of the expansion of form (those elements pertaining to form, key, instrumentation and the like) within a typical composition, it became easier to identify an artist based on the work. For example, Beethoven favored a smooth transition from the 3rd to 4th movement in his symphonies, and thus his pieces are more distinguishable.

The era of Romantic music is defined as the period of European classical music that runs from 1803, when Beethoven wrote his "Eroica" Symphony, to around the end of the 19th century, as well as music written according to the norms and styles of that period. The Romantic period was preceded by the classical period, and was followed by the modernist period.

Romantic music is related to romanticism in literature, visual arts, and philosophy, though the conventional time periods used in musicology are very different from their counterparts in the other arts, which define "romantic" as running from the 1780s to the 1840s. The Romantic movement held that not all truth could be deduced from axioms, that there were inescapable realities in the world which could only be reached through emotion, feeling and intuition. Romantic music struggled to increase emotional expression and power to describe these deeper truths, while preserving or even extending the formal structures from the classical period.

Trends of the 19th century

Musical language

Composers of the Romantic period sought to fuse the large structural harmonic planning demonstrated by earlier masters such as Haydn, and Mozart with further chromatic innovations, in order to achieve greater fluidity and contrast, and to meet the needs of longer works. Baroque music and J. S. Bach were not part of the ideas that helped spawn romantic music because they were ignored and completely out of practice even starting before his death, at the beginning of the classical period circa 1730. Baroque theoretical ideas on chromaticism and counterpoint were not resurrected until 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn performed Bach's St Matthew Passion for the first time since Bach's death in 1750. Chromaticism grew more varied, as did dissonances and their resolution. Composers modulated to increasingly remote keys, and their music often prepared the listener less for these modulations than the music of the classical era. The properties of the diminished seventh and related chords, which facilitate modulation to many keys, were also extensively exploited. Composers such as Beethoven, and later Richard Wagner, expanded the harmonic language with previously-unused chords, or innovative chord progressions. Much has been written, for example, about Wagner's Tristan chord, found near the opening of Tristan und Isolde, and its precise harmonic function.

Some composers analogized music to poetry and its rhapsodic and narrative structures, while creating a more systematic basis for the composing and performing of concert music. Music theorists of this era codified previous practices, such as the sonata form, while composers extended them. There was an increasing focus on melodies and theme, as well as an explosion in the composition of songs. The emphasis on melody found expression in the increasingly extensive use of cyclic form, which was an important unifying device for some of the longer pieces that became common during the period.

The greater harmonic elusiveness and fluidity, the longer melodies, poesis as the basis of expression, and the use of literary inspirations were all present prior to this period. However, some composers of the Romantic period adopted them as the central pursuit of music itself. Composers were also influenced by technological advances, including an increase in the range and power of the piano and the improved chromatic abilities and greater projection of the instruments of the symphony orchestra.

Non-musical influences

While program music was common before the 19th century, the conflict between formal and external inspiration became an important aesthetic issue for some composers.

During the 1830s Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which was presented with an extensive program text, caused many critics and academics to pick up their pens. Prominent among the detractors was François-Joseph Fétis, 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, saying that bad titles would not hurt good music, but good titles could not save a bad work. Franz Liszt was one of the prominent defenders of extra-musical inspiration.

This rift grew, with polemics delivered from both sides. For the supporters of "absolute" music, formal perfection rested on musical expression that obeys the schematics laid down in previous works, most notably the sonata form then being codified. To the adherents of program music, the rhapsodic expression of poetry or some other external text was, itself, a form. They argued that for the artist to bring his life into a work, the form must follow the narrative. Both sides used Beethoven as inspiration and justification. The rift was exemplified by the conflict between followers of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner: Brahms' disciples took him to be a pinnacle of absolute music, while Wagnerites put their faith in the poetic "substance" shaping the harmonic and melodic flow of his music.

Examples of music inspired by literary and artistic sources include Liszt's Faust Symphony, Dante Symphony, his symphonic poems and his Annees de Pelerinage, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, Mahler's First Symphony (based on the novel The Titan), the piano cycles of Robert Schumann and the tone poems of Richard Strauss. Schubert included material from his Lieder in some of his extended works, and others, such as Liszt, transcribed opera arias and songs for solo instrumental performance.

Events and changes that happen in society such as ideas, attitudes, discoveries, inventions, and historical events always affect music (Schmidt-Jones & Jones 2004, 3). For example, the Industrial Revolution was in full effect by the late eighteenth early nineteenth centuries (Schmidt-Jones & Jones 2004, 3). This event had a very profound effect on music: there were major improvements in the mechanical valves, and keys that most woodwinds and brass instruments depend on (Schmidt-Jones & Jones 2004, 3). The new and innovative instruments could be played with more ease and they were more reliable (Schmidt-Jones & Jones 2004, 3). The new instruments often had a bigger, fuller, better-tuned sound (Schmidt-Jones & Jones 2004, 3).

Another development that had an effect on music was the rise of the middle class. Composers before this period lived on the patronage of the aristocracy (Schmidt-Jones 3). Many times their audience was small, composed mostly of the upper class and individuals who were knowledgeable about music (Schmidt-Jones & Jones 2004, 3). The Romantic composers, on the other hand, often wrote for public concerts and festivals, with large audiences of paying customers, who had not necessarily had any music lessons (Schmidt-Jones & Jones 2004, 3). Composers of the Romantic Era, like Elgar, showed the world that there should be "no segregation of musical tastes" (Young 1967, 525) and that the "purpose was to write music that was to be heard" (Young 1967, 527).

19th-century opera

In opera, the forms for individual numbers that had been established in classical and baroque opera were more loosely used. By the time Wagner's operas were performed, arias, chorus, recitatives and ensemble pieces often cannot easily be distinguished from each other in the continuous, through-composed music.

The decline of castrati led to the heroic leading role in many operas being ascribed to the tenor voice. The chorus was often given a more important role.

In France, operas such as Bizet's Carmen are typical, but towards the end of the Romantic period, verismo opera became popular, particularly in Italy. It depicted realistic, rather than historical or mythological, subjects.


The increasing importance of nationalism as a political force in the 19th century was mirrored in music and the other arts. Many composers expressed their nationalism by incorporating elements unique to their native cultures, such as folk song, dances, and legendary histories. In addition to these exterior elements, there was an increasing diversification of musical language, as composers used elements of rhythm, melody, and modality characteristic of their respective nations.

Many composers wrote nationalist music, especially towards the middle and end of the 19th century. Mikhail Glinka's operas, for example, are on specifically Russian subjects, while Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák both used rhythms and themes from Czechmarker folk dances and songs. Late in the 19th century, Jean Sibelius wrote music based on the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, and his piece 'Finlandia' became a symbol of Finnish nationalism. Chopin wrote in forms like the polonaise and mazurka, that were derived from Polish folk music. Many Russian composers, for example Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov shared the common dream to write music that was inspired by Russian folk music.

The main characteristics of Romantic music

  • A freedom in form and design; a more intense personal expression of emotion in which fantasy, imagination and a quest for adventure play an important part.
  • Emphasis on lyrical, songlike melodies; adventurous modulation; richer harmonies, often chromatic, with striking use of discords.
  • Denser, weightier textures with bold dramatic contrasts, exploring a wider range of pitch, dynamics and tone-colours.
  • Expansion of the orchestra, sometimes to gigantic proportions; the invention of the valve system leads to development of the brass section whose weight and power often dominate the texture.
  • Rich variety of types of piece, ranging from songs and fairly short piano pieces to huge musical canvasses with lengthy time-span structures with spectacular, dramatic, and dynamic climaxes.
  • Closer links with other arts lead to a keener interest in programme music (programme symphony, symphonic poem, concert overture).
  • Shape and unity brought to lengthy works by use of recurring themes (sometimes transformed/developed): idée fixe (Berlioz), thematic transformations (Liszt), Leitmotif (Wagner), motto theme.
  • Greater technical virtuosity – especially from pianists, violinists and flautists.
  • Nationalism: reaction against German influences by composers of other countries (especially Russia, Bohemia, Poland, Norway).


Early Romantic (1800-1850)

By the second decade of the 19th century, the shift towards new sources of musical inspiration, along with an increasing chromaticism in melody and more expressive harmony, became a palpable stylistic shift. A new generation of composers emerged in post-Napoleonic Europe, among whom were Beethoven, Ludwig Spohr, E.T.A. Hoffman, Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert.

These composers grew up amidst the dramatic expansion of public concert life during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which partly shaped their subsequent styles and expectations. Beethoven was extremely influential as among the first composers to work freelance rather than being employed full-time by a royal or ecclesiastic patron. The chromatic melodies of Muzio Clementi and the stirring operatic works of Rossini, Cherubini and Méhul, also had an influence. The setting of folk poetry and songs for voice and piano, to serve a growing market of middle-class homes where private music-making was becoming an essential part of domestic life, was also becoming an important source of income for composers.

Works of this group of early Romantics include the song cycles and later symphonies of Franz Schubert, and the operas of Weber, particularly Oberon, Der Freischütz and Euryanthe. Schubert's work found limited contemporary audiences, and only gradually had a wider impact. In contrast, the compositions of John Field quickly became well-known, partly because he had a gift for creating small "characteristic" piano forms and dances.

Early Romantic composers of a slightly later generation included Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, and Hector Berlioz. All were born in the 19th century, and produced works of lasting value early in their careers. Mendelssohn was particularly precocious, and wrote two string quartets, a string octet, and orchestral music before even leaving his teens. Chopin was similarly precocious, his famous Op. 10 Études being written while still a teen, although he focused on compositions for the piano. Berlioz broke new ground in his orchestration, and with his programatic symphonies Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy, the latter based on Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

What is now labelled "Romantic Opera" became established at around this time, with a strong connection between Paris and northern Italy. The combination of French orchestral virtuosity, Italianate vocal lines and dramatic flare, along with texts drawn from increasingly popular literature, established a norm of emotional expression which continues to dominate the operatic stage. The work of Bellini and Donizetti was immensely popular at this time.

Virtuoso concerts (or "recitals," as they were called by Franz Liszt ) became immensely popular. This phenomenon was pioneered by Niccolò Paganini, the famous violin virtuoso. The virtuoso piano recital became particularly popular, and often included improvisations on popular themes, and the performance of shorter compositions as well as longer works such as the sonatas of Beethoven and Mozart. One of the most prominent exponents of Beethoven was Clara Wieck, who later married Robert Schumann. The increase in travel, facilitated by rail and later by steamship, created international audiences for touring piano virtuosi such as Liszt, Chopin and Thalberg. Concerts and recitals were promoted as significant events. Such was also the case with other instruments than the piano such as the harp. The best illustration can be found with the popular and eccentric French composer and harpist Nicolas Bochsa who travelled most of his life giving hundreds of harp "recitals" and concerts.

During the late 1830s and 1840s, music of Romantic expression became generally accepted, even expected. The music of Robert Schumann, Giacomo Meyerbeer and the young Giuseppe Verdi continued the trends. "Romanticism" was not, however, the only, or even the dominant, style of music making at the time. A post-classical style exemplified by the Paris Conservatoire, as well as court music, still dominated concert programs. This began to change with the rise of performing institutions, along the lines of the Philharmonic Society of London founded in 1813. Such institutions often promoted regular concert seasons, a trend promoted by Felix Mendelssohn among others. Listening to music came to be accepted as a life-enhancing, almost religious, experience. The public's engagement in the music of the time contrasted with the less formal manners of concerts in the classical period, where music had often been promoted as a background diversion.

Also in the 1830s and 1840s Richard Wagner produced his first successful operas. He argued for a radically expanded conception of "musical drama." A man who described himself as a revolutionary, and who was in constant trouble with creditors and the authorities, he began gathering around him a body of like-minded musicians, including Franz Liszt, who dedicated themselves to making the "Music of the Future."

Literary Romanticism ended in 1848, with the revolutions of that year marking a turning point in the mood of Europe. With the rise of realism, as well as the deaths of Paganini, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and Liszt's retirement from public performance, perceptions altered of where the cutting edge in music and art lay.

Late Romantic Era (1850-1900)

As the 19th century moved into its second half, many social, political and economic changes set in motion in the post-Napoleonic period became entrenched. Railways and the electric telegraph bound the European world ever closer together. The nationalism that had been an important strain of early 19th century Romantic music became formalized by political and linguistic means. Literature for the middle classes became the publishing norm, including the rise of the novel as the primary literary form.

In the previous 50 years numerous innovations in instrumentation, including the double escapement piano action, the valved wind instrument, and the chin rest for violins and violas, were no longer novelties but requirements. The dramatic increase in musical education brought a still wider sophisticated audience, and many composers took advantage of the greater regularity of concert life, and the greater financial and technical resources available. These changes brought an expansion in the sheer number of symphonies, concertos and "tone poems" which were composed, and the number of performances in the opera seasons in Paris, London and Italy. The establishment of conservatories and universities also created centers where musicians could forge stable teaching careers, rather than relying on their own entrepreneurship.

During this period, some composers created styles and forms associated with their national folk cultures. The notion that there were "German" and "Italian" styles had long been established in writing on music, but the late 19th century saw the rise of a nationalist Russian style (Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin), and also Czech, Finnish and French nationalist styles of composition. Some composers were expressly nationalistic in their objectives, seeking to rediscover their country's national identity in the face of occupation or oppression, as did for example the Bohemians Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, and the Finnmarker Jean Sibelius.

See also


  • Schmidt-Jones, Catherine, and Russell Jones. 2004. Introduction to Music Theory. [Houston, TX]: Connexions Project. ISBN 1411650301
  • Young, Percy Marshall. 1967. A History of British Music. London: Benn.

Further reading

  • Cavalletti, Carlo. 2000. Chopin and Romantic Music, translated by Anna Maria Salmeri Pherson. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series. (Hardcover) ISBN 0764151363 ; ISBN 978-0764151361
  • Plantinga, Leon. 1984. Romantic Music: A History of Musical Style in Nineteenth-Century Europe. A Norton Introduction to Music History. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393951960 ; ISBN 978-0393951967
  • Samson, Jim. 2001. "Romanticism". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

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