Summary of Romantic Music

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Summary of romantic music


  • Assume someone who has not taken this course asked you to summarize the Romantic era in Western music from 1825 to 1900 in your own words.

    1. In your summary (7501,000 words), include several of the important composers who were

    the first to write in the Romantic style (lessons 3 and 4) and those who composed during the

    middle and late Romantic years (lessons 5, 6, 7, and 8).

    2. List the countries and include the primary musical genres that were represented.

    3. Include a total of six characteristic Romantic works, two from the beginning, two from the

    middle and two from the late years of the period. These can be pieces discussed in the

    lessons or those included in the text Music in Western Civilization. Include at least one

    composer who is a woman.

    4. Include links to YouTube performances of each composition that you list.

    5. Read and reply with some comments to at least 2 posts by others in the class. For

    example, what did you find interesting about their summary?


    The Romantic Era was one characterized by the exaltation of feelings and emotions. It constituted a natural reaction

    against the principles of reason and thought that dominated the Classical Era. To the Romantics, the aesthetic

    experience lived and felt through emotions was the driving force behind creativity. It was also a period of

    individuality: composers would present their characters as symbols of heroism and models for the entire society,

    even sacrificing themselves to put back events on their natural course. Nature was considered as a primary source of

    inspiration and its presence weighed considerably in many romantic works. In this era, new genres were introduced,

    particularly ones that are inspired by literary works or paintings (symphonic poems) or works describing a specific

    mood (character pieces). Structure and form were approached differently: contrary to the organized, multi

    movement pieces, Romantic structures were mostly single-shaped structures built from short motives - transformed

    and retransformed - that keep appearing in different places in the music, thus ensuring unity and homogeneity. The

    harmonic language evolved: the concept of dissonance has developed in a way in which dissonant chords were used

    with greater liberty and, towards the end of the century, we witness an increasing dissolution of Riemann's

    functional harmony. An important concept born in this century was Nationalism: here composers turned to the

    music of their native land and drew from their folkloric tunes, coating their music with messages against social and

    political injustice.

    Summarized evolution

    Although the origin of Romanticism can be felt through the Sturm und Drang movement of the eighteenth century,

    music will have to wait for a rebellious Beethoven (1770-1827) to put it on the track of evolution. In its early phases,

    romanticism found refuge in Vienna, a city that embraced the great classical composers and the great Beethoven as

    well. Born in Bonn but having lived most of his life in Vienna, Beethovens hearing deficiency forged a man who is

    determined to give himself entirely to his Art. His developments could be felt mainly in the domain of instrumental

    music. He keeps the essence of the sonata as passed by his predecessors (Mozart and Haydn) but stretches the form

    into unprecedented proportions: elongated structures characterized by slow introductions, and a

    sophisticated/researched harmonic language, his sonatas will set the standards for future composers. Sonata

    Pathtique (1798) is a loyal representative of the new genre. (

  • Beethovens approach to the orchestra was a fresh one too: he uncouples the basses from cellos and gives plaintive

    melodies to the instrument that he considers close to the human voice - the oboe. Beethovens use of motives and

    intervallic similarities in the different movements of his symphonies as seen in his third symphony in E flat Major

    ( will form the nucleus of later romantic genres such as the

    symphonic poem.

    Another early romantic composer, born and lived in Vienna was Franz Schubert (1797-1828) whose predilection

    went towards vocal music. If his instrumental music falls in line of Haydn, Mozart and even Beethoven, (with the

    exception of intimate and short character pieces) his vocal music on the other hand, showcased in his lied, would

    take the genre a step forward. While earlier vocal melodies were built in simple strophic forms, Schuberts lieder

    successfully reflected the drama in the poetry and followed closely the rise of the text to a climax. Erlkonig, based on

    a text by Goethe, is a complex setting of four characters that Schubert successfully portrays musically.


    In the early romantic period, attention shifted gradually from the aristocratic Vienna to the increasingly popular

    Paris. Here, new genres were cultivated as the listeners tastes are directed towards the extraordinary and fantastic.

    A new form of opera was being produced in Paris: the grand opera which has grandiose lengths, uses chorus and

    dance with spectacular scenic effects. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) absorbs these changes and reproduces them

    instrumentally in the symphonic genre through his symphonie fantastique.

    ( Here, the genre is different from that developed by Beethoven.

    To Berlioz, the symphony has a program; it tells the story of a hero who goes through different emotional states

    because of the beloved one. These new ideas were accompanied by a significant increase in the orchestra members

    and the introduction of new instruments, among them the English horn and ophicleides. Oppositely, Fryderyk

    Chopin (1810-1849) focused on his instrument of privilege the piano to which he writes a set of character pieces.

    Chopins piano music advances the importance of the melody that flows freely away from the restrictions of a

    regular meter through the rubato technique and rich ornamentation. He explores the different sonorities of the

    instrument and supports the whole with an expressively unique harmonic language.

    In that same period, Leipzig, a city in Germany, was undergoing a musical development due to the newly established

    Gewandhaus Orchestra. There, three composers will be at the centre of musical activity: Felix Mendelssohn (1809

    1847), Robert Schumann (18101856) and Clara (18191896) his wife. With a preference and admiration to

    traditions, Mendelssohns music falls in the direct line of Beethoven, where extra-musical elements are eliminated in

    favour of absolute and pure music. Variety is simply achieved through the presentation of contrasting themes. The

    Schumanns will also adopt these principles in their music with Roberts symphonies built as independent musical

    works, free from extra-musical influences, with formal developments consisting of linking the different movements

    together as a unified entity. Johann Brahms (1833-1897), in the late nineteenth century, will be a proponent of the

    same school, with a music characterized by a developed harmonic language, expanded structure, and melodic

    sobriety, using the cyclic technique as a unifying tool in his pieces.

    Oppositely, other composers, namely Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) formed the New

    German School in the middle of the romantic era. The driving idea was that music is the result of lived experiences

    and a reaction to emotions felt through external mediums such as literature, poetry and art. Liszt utilized the

    symphonic poem, a one-movement programmatic orchestral work influenced by poetry, as a means of applying his

    convictions. He also participated in underlining the concept of Nationalism developed in this century where he

    inspired himself from his Hungarian native music. In his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 (Rakoczy March), he uses gypsy

    scales and emulates the sound of the cimbalom, a folkloric instrument, with glissandi on the piano.

    ( ). Wagner was more preoccupied with the forsaken importance

    of drama in music. To him, the perfect work is an equilibrium between both. With him opera, a true music drama,

    uses subjects inspired from myths because theyre understood by everyone, while continually reshaping the music,

  • riding on an expressive harmony. His operas, Das Rheingold among them

    ( ) were performed in Bayreuth and revolutionized the genre.

    In the late Romantic period, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a great admirer of Wagner was rethinking the symphony:

    elongated forms that avoided all accepted plans, expansion and diversification of the orchestra completed by a richly

    intense and developed harmonic language, as shows his symphony no 5

    ( His wife and muse, Alma Mahler (1879-1964), also contributed in

    shaping the music of the late nineteenth century. Her song Die Stille Stadt is characterized by a developed and

    expressive harmonic content. (

    In the same period, Paris also contributed in preparing the music of the twentieth century: Debussys (1862-1918)

    new language characterized by a suspended feeling of tonality, along with intuitive structure