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Romantic Music History Review

General Background on the Romantic Era

The Romantic Era (c1820-1900) coincided with the gradual rise of the middle class—a direct result of the political conflicts that swept across Europe and America between 1775 and 1875. The old patronage system (in which musicians were servants to the aristocracy) was destroyed, forcing composers and performers to sell their product to paying audiences that were usually more naïve in regards to standardized forms and the subtleties of previous musical styles. Thus, most Romantic composers turned to personal expression, flamboyance, and intensified drama as the means to attract audiences and express new ideas.  In Austria, Germany, and Italy (which were all under the same aristocratic authority of the Austrian Empire during this time), government censors continued to impede free artistic expression in order to squelch potentially subversive ideas.

Some Musical Considerations in the Romantic Era

Around 1820, musical Romanticism took its non-establishment impetus from Beethoven's experimental late works, Rossini's colorful Italian operas, and Schubert's daring harmonies.  Over the next 80 years, almost every aspect of Western art music underwent tremendous expansion—especially through the innovations of the German theatrical composer, Richard Wagner. Increased flamboyance led to the rise of celebrity musicians—such as the virtuoso performer-composers Franz Liszt, Fréderic Chopin, and Nicolo Paganini, and the renowned conductor-composers Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss Jr., and Gustav Mahler—who were all quite famous and wealthy during their careers. Today's notion of glorified concert artists and recording stars is an extension of this trend. Vienna continued to be an important musical center; however, the focus on romanticized personal expression led to a wave of nationalism, in which smaller countries began to promote their own individual musical traditions, native tongues, and politics.

Following the precedents set by Beethoven in his late experimental phase, many Romantic composers abandoned Classic aesthetics of balance and order:

Colorful Approaches to Form, Instrumentation, Melody and Harmony

Although conservative Romantics continued to use standard Classic forms (such as Theme and Variations Form, Scherzo and Trio Form, Rondo Form, and Sonata Form), the more progressive Romantics abandoned standard Classic forms and genres in favor of less restrictive approaches that allowed for greater personal expression. Ternary form [ABA], which is easily recognized and very flexible, was quite popular with Romantic composers.

Romantic composers also took greater advantage of the color contrasts of woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, English horn, bassoon, etc.). Brass instruments (trumpets, trombones, horns, tubas, etc.) became a regularl component of the Romantic orchestra, and took on particular significance at the hands of Richard Wagner. Later Romantics, especially Tchaikovsky, made significant use of percussion instruments. Chromaticism (motion by half-step) was widely employed by Romantic composers to add drive and intensity to their melodies and harmonies, and to allow modulation to more distant keys.

The Interactive Timeline on Romantic Music

You may begin your chronological review of Romantic music by clicking the "Interactive Timeline" link on the left index.