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Music History - The Romantic Period
(1825-1900)

"Romanticism" was brought about by the social and political stresses following the French Revolution, and the resulting nationalistic trends. It was a period of dramatic thought and action, also involving contradictions between capitalism and socialism, freedom and oppression, logic and emotion, science and faith. This resulted in a change in the thinking of people, especially creative artists. There was a general impatience with the rules and restraints of Classicism, and music "revolted" against the practices of Mozart and Haydn. The goal was to be different and individualistic. The ideal for the Romantic composer was to reflect his own feelings and emotions in his compositions in order to instill in the listener certain preconceived moods. The expression of emotion and the "sparking" of the imagination were a primary goal.

The center of musical activity shifted from Vienna to Paris, and musicians were no longer attached to patrons. However, while composers during this time did not write for the lower classes, their music was addressed to the masses to a far greater degree than before in the history of music. Music became more and more disassociated from real life, while expressing the splendor and pride of the human spirit. In the effort to capture audiences, a dynamic and colorful personality became an important asset. Such examples can be found in such individuals as Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. The concert manager, or "impresario" as he was often called, was also an important figure in the business of music. Another important person behind the scenes of music was the music critic.

Function of Music: Romanticism still served a sophisticated and aristocratic society, as had been the case with Classical music. Aristocratic patronage was smaller, but the intimacy of the exclusive salon was still the ideal setting for performances. Performance, however, was no longer by mere amateurs, for Romantic music was usually too technically demanding for unskilled performers. Standing outside the circle of the exclusive salon was a large, but unorganized and unsophisticated, concert-going public, which loved music. Romantic composers were constantly striving to gain recognition of this large audience and, in an effort to win acceptance, they were very sensitive to the likes and dislikes of these music-lovers. Performers, as well as composers, had the urge to be acceptable and to dazzle audiences. Composers were often fine performers as well, such as Liszt and Chopin, who wrote a large number of virtuoso pieces to thrill the public with technical display. The Romantic composer expressed his own feelings and convictions, writing music to express himself in personal "documents of art". The church was no longer considered a patron of music, with very little music written for liturgical purposes. The teaching of music, however, became an established profession. Many fine conservatories and schools of music were founded for the education of the performing and creative musician. Research in music history and theory was introduced into programs of many universities by the end of the 1800's. Many prominent composers and performers such as Liszt, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann achieved wide recognition as teachers. Thus, to meet pressing needs for pedagogical (instructional) material, such composers wrote etudes (studies) and other short pieces for teaching.

Historical Events: Louisiana Purchase, Monroe Doctrine, McCormick invents the reaper, Morse telegraph, Daguerre takes first photographs, California gold rush, Darwin writes Origin of Species, Civil War in the United States, Germany united under Bismarck, Edison invents electric light and phonograph, Roentgen discovers the x-ray, Spanish-American war.

Visual Arts: Goya, Gericault, Corot, Turner, Delacroix, Millet, Daumier.

Literature: Buron, Austen, Shelley, Keats, Pushkin, Heine, Cooper, Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal, Sand Lytton, Dickens, Poe, Dumas, Thackeray, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, Whitman, Tennyson, Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Browning, Twain, Ibsen, Stevenson, Wilde, H. James, Maeterlinck, Zola, Kipling.

Philosophy: Hegel, Mill, Comte, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Marx, Engels, Thoreau, Spencer, Huxley, Emerson, Haeckel, Hietzsche, Berson.

Prominent Composers: Beethoven (late period), Paganini, von Weber, Rossini, Schubert, Donizetti, Bellini, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Franck, Smetana, Bruckner, Borodin, Brahms, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Tchaikowsky, Dvorak, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Faure, Puccini, Wolf, Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, Czerny, Field, Elgar, Offenbach, Saint-Saens, Massenet, Rubinstein, Rachmaninov, Scrabin (early), Albeniz, Gottschalk, MacDowell.

Practice and Performance: Dynamics were more explicit than those of Classicism. Smaller changes of color and gradations of loudness were indicated by more definite terms. Tempi were more accurately designated by the use of metronome markings. Even the conductor became a performer whose instrument was gigantic and capable of every Romantic expression. This was an era of massive festival performances. The middle-class love for music making led to the establishment of the choral society. Improvisation was generally discarded in the practice of Romantic music, due largely to the complexity of its composition and the complete directions for performance. A few individuals like Chopin and Liszt, continued to make brilliant use of it however.

Prominent Musical Characteristics: There were Romantic idealists and Romantic realists. The idealists insisted music must exist for its own sake without extramusical devices. The realists were the champions of program music, believing that music could (and should) tell a story, imitate sounds of nature or express a visual scene. Some Romantic composers excelled in spectacular virtuosity, which was expressed by brilliant technical performances. Other composers emphasized the intimacy of miniature forms and delicate textures to express their personal feelings. There were composers whose aim was to extol national characteristics and evoke patriotic feelings using folklore, folk songs and dances. There were also Romanticists who avoided nationalistic devices in the search for a universal musical language. But there was one concept that all Romanticists had in common, giving their music a sense of unity: their music was aimed at the evocation of emotion as its primary function. All Romantic music concerns itself with the problem of creating musical tension to achieve a corresponding intensification of emotional response.

Forms are not as precise and clear as in Classicism, but are often overlapping, vague and often without strong cadences. Sections of larger works often "melt" into one another. It was also a common practice to use some of the same thematic material in each movement as a means of maintaining a constant expressive character (this is sometimes called "cyclic" form). Folk melodies were also used a great deal in Romantic music. Melodies are characterized by an intensity of personal feelings, sometimes extremely long with dramatic and dynamic climaxes. Rhythmically, music became more interesting. There are often changes in the number of beats in a measure, cross-rhythms, syncopations, etc. Tempo in Romantic music is not always constant, but may fluctuate in order to achieve emotional effect (rubato). The rich harmony makes great use of chromaticism, nonharmonic tones, altered chords and larger chords (such as ninths and thirteenths). Timbre, or texture, was heavy and thick. Basically, there are six chief musical characteristics in Romanticism:

  • Subjectivity: Music was not objective (outside of human emotions) as in the Classical period, but had to be joined with extramusical ideas. In this respect, some of Beethoven's later music was held to be the model to be emulated. Because music could not convey pictures or ideas, some composers resorted to "objective" devices which imitated natural sounds. Much of the music during the nineteenth century has a sentimental quality.

  • Emotionalism: All music has some degree of emotionalism. However, the Romantic composer sought to intensify this aspect of his music. By the use of chromaticism (progression by half steps) in melodies and chords, and modulations (changing keys) and by exploiting tension in the music (by not resolving dissonances immediately), the composer was to keep the listener in a state of suspense for long periods of time.

  • Nationalism: Composers were greatly influenced by the intense nationalistic feelings that developed after the Napoleonic wars. Some composers were political outcasts (Chopin and Wagner), while others promoted a love for their country (Russian Five). The main areas of nationalistic music during the nineteenth century were Germany, Italy, France, Central Europe and Russia.

  • Programmatic Compositions: The development and use of descriptive music became an important part of the Romantic movement. The trend from the subjectivity of the composer to the emotionalism in the listener was natural. As mentioned previously, composers resorted to "objective" devices in their music. The devices included descriptive titles, melodic formulas, harmonic cliches and instrumental effects.

  • Thick Timbre: The availability of improved musical instruments allowed composers to experiment with novel orchestral effects. The timbre and texture of the orchestral color became more evocative as the nineteenth century progressed. The use of chromaticism and dissonance led to a very complex orchestral timbre by the end of the century:

    1. At the beginning of the century, the woodwind parts often doubled those of the strings. Brass instruments were mainly used to "fill in" louder passages.

    2. About the middle of the century, the woodwinds were combined with the strings in all registers. The brass instruments were generally used to double other parts and to play for louder passages.

    3. In the second half of the century, complete instrumentation was employed in each section of the orchestra. Each section tended to be treated on a more equal footing.

  • Chromaticism: The harmonic system established by Rameau in 1722 began breaking down during the Classical period. The Romantic composers exploited the use of altered chords and modulation to such a degree that the feeling for a central tonality often became obscure. This is especially true of music written after about 1850. The increased use of dissonance and half step movements in all the voices, and the avoidance of a "too-well-defined" tonality, paved the way for the Impressionistic and Expressionistic movements of the twentieth century.
Instrumentation: During the Romantic period, the piano (pianoforte) became the most popular single instrument. It became a musical symbol of Romanticism, and was enlarged to give it a wider range and more tonal power. The piano reached such heights of popularity that it became the favorite household instrument with every family that could afford it. The orchestra grew to be the favorite large instrument of the century. Added were the English horn, the clarinet, more brass and percussion. Opera was also a major medium of expression.

Vocal Compositions: Lied, choral music (sacred and secular), Te Deums, Requiems, Beatitudes, Opera (Italian, French, German Nationalistic), Oratorios.

New Large Forms: Symphonic Poem, Sonata, Symphony, Concerto, Ballet, Ballade, Impromptu.

New Small Forms: Waltz, Nocturne, Etude, Fantasy, Mazurka, Variations, Rhapsody.

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