The ‘Romantic period’ wasn’t just a period of change in music. It was a huge upheaval in many aspects of life. It is difficult to pin down an approximate time it might have began. But the ‘Romantic period’ for literature started before The Romantic Period of Music or its artistic counterpart.
William Blake and Samuel Coleridge were producing works in the 1790s that were considered the start of the period of Romanticism in Literature. In conjunction with William Wordsworth, the Romantic age of literature became real with their work. Music followed on with many crediting Beethoven as being the first.
The Renaissance and beyond
The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ was a natural extension of the Renaissance. The ordinary man and woman were emerging from the darkness of having no education. Attitudes and even beliefs were beginning to change. There were new ideas. People were looking for alternatives.
The ‘Enlightenment’ brought into existence a philosophical movement engineered by the intellectuals of the day. It commenced in the late 17th Century. About the time that Blake and Coleridge were publishing their works. And it dominated European thinking and ideas until well into the 18th Century.
Romanticism kicked back against that. The Enlightenment emphasized challenging beliefs and championing science. The Romantics rejected that in favor of creativity, with nature being at the center of everything.
The Positive Effects
Literature changed. Taking its inspiration from the French revolution, writers pondered thought and creativity through imagination. This rather than the formal assumptions of the neoclassical era. Impressionist painters arrived through Claude Monet and his pals in Paris in the 1800s, which led to Vincent van Gogh.
It was inevitable that music would become embroiled in this. Beethoven may well have been the first Romantic composer, but others followed, as we shall see. Spurred on by realizing that the rules of the orchestra from one hundred years before were obsolete. The writing became expansive, wide, imaginative.
The rule book of the Classical period was torn up…
This culminated in works by Mahler that needed an orchestra of 120 musicians with more than 70 on strings and two choirs. Orchestras from the Classical period of Mozart and others only had about 30 musicians in the ensemble.
And, of course, Tchaikovsky, whose 1812 Overture required cannons in the performance.
There had to be a downside
This came through various forms of opposition. Not everybody agreed with the new ideas or the ‘new technologies.’ Mmm, where have we heard that before?
Science was evolving, ripping down hundreds of years of beliefs. The Supernatural took hold within the framework of Romanticism. People rebelled against the Industrial Revolution and its urban philosophy. Its factories and its mass production.
The Rise of nationalism
The French revolution had begun to change the order of things. People were becoming nationalistic. Political tensions arose that led to national unification and alliances. Seen initially as protection for each country involved, it eventually resulted in the first World War. More on that later…
Literature, some art, and, inevitably, music followed in the wake of this new fervor. And although you could argue that music was a bit late in turning up. When it did, there was an impact. Cannons on the stage? Whatever next?
The Romantic Period of Music
One could quite easily argue that this was a title applied for convenience. Hasn’t music always been romantic in its nature? After all, the first love song we have evidence for was written over 3000 years ago. There may well have been earlier examples. Love and romantic expression have always been the most written about subject in music.
A different meaning
When we look at the period of music known as the Romantic period, we are not thinking about the subject matter. We are considering an idea, a belief, and a philosophy. It was a way of expressing deep and sincere emotion through music.
In some ways, you might say that Mozart wrote because it was nice to listen to. Beethoven wrote so you could ‘feel’ it as well.
In the Beginning
It is agreed by most that Beethoven began the shift from the Classical period to what is known as the Romantic period. Whether he just lived and worked amongst a general change or led a musical revolution is hard to decide. What he did do was lay the foundation for the Romantic composers to follow him.
He didn’t reject all of the ideas of the Classical period. He used them as a basis for wider development. What he rejected, however, were the constraints that most Classical composers had to endure. He wanted freedom and used their basis for his expansion of musical ideas. Under his pen, the Symphony became a different animal.
Whereas the Classical structure was very formal, Beethoven opened the doors to new ideas and different musical designs. In that way, he became the inspiration for all those who followed him. You could therefore say that ‘in the beginning was Beethoven.’
The end of Classical formalism?
It would be easy to argue it was, but it wasn’t really. The Romantics didn’t throw away the rule book. They added to it, changed it where necessary, and just improved on it. But much of the basics were still in place.
Some of the changes were radical. Not all composers followed the ‘eight-bar phrasing’ rule, as shown by Schubert. They also were not averse to having a few key changes as per Mahler. The Romantics wanted more emotion, wanted the music to have a narrative.
They used wider ranges of tones and instruments, explored pitch and tempos. They wanted to be able to let the listener hear nature as well as feel its beauty. In that, they incorporated new instruments, which we shall look at later.
What did it mean for the musician?
The answer to that is quite a lot. The freedom composers were using brought out virtuoso performances from individuals as well as orchestras. Very quickly, they had to be very good to deal with the new ideas.
Different types of chord progressions with the use of semi-tones. Changes in tempo, often determined by the conductor, that emphasized levels of emotional intensity. There were complicated rhythms that required great technique and precision.
Even the technical elements of playing the instrument were explored to create the sound the composer was searching for. This was best manifested in techniques for the violin. Bowing near the bridge or near the fingerboard was incorporated in the score.
Freedom runs riot
Very quickly, composers were freed from the shackles of Royal patronage for their income. We shall look at that a bit later as well. But this freedom allowed far more emotion in the music.
Great Crescendos, sudden Diminuendos, raised volumes occurred to display emotions, changes in tones using the instruments. And the change in the physical makeup of the orchestra allowed even more musical development of sound.
Today guitarists use foot-pedals. Then sound change was just as prominent with the way the orchestra created sounds and atmospheres using these new ideas.
The Romantic Period of Music – The structure of the Orchestra
We have already touched upon this but let’s look a little closer. The quality of instruments was continually getting better, which improved the sound. The piano is a good example of an instrument that changed considerably and was significantly different to Mozart’s era.
The keyboard went from five to eight octaves, and the frame was beginning to be made from metal rather than wood. The industrial revolution had brought forth better materials. This improved the quality and tone of the strings.
Likewise, better manufacturing processes improved brass and woodwind instruments. In doing so, it changed the tones they could produce.
How did that change the orchestra?
We have already mentioned the size of previous orchestras to that of the one Mahler used at times. But the size and the composition was how the new expressive emotion in the music was achieved.
To achieve the sound the way the composer conceived, it was going to take extra dynamics and tonal color. Something that the small orchestras couldn’t produce. The way to do that was to increase the number of musicians and hence the chance of producing louder crescendos and a broader sound.
Whole sections increased in size. More brass, a wider diversity, and more woodwind. The inclusion of the piccolo and other instruments.
String sections still consisted of the main four instruments, but there were more of them. These were often broken down into small ensembles within the orchestra playing different subsets. That added deeper textures to the music.
It became more intense
And with these new opportunities for the composer, so their works became more intense. You had to have a larger orchestra to be able to play these new symphonies.
They were longer and more dramatic. They were louder, yet quieter in places. The size at times was almost unmanageable. And don’t forget Tchaikovsky and his cannons and church bells.
And he wasn’t the only one to add extra additional impact sounds to the performances. This all added to the cost of arranging a concert.
Not all bang, crash, and deafening
In the midst of this, some of the Romantic composers often kept their Romanticism alive. They did this with smaller and even solo pieces. A good example of that was Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata.’
That was written in 1800 when he was living back in Vienna. He had not been rendered completely deaf at that stage, but his hearing was very poor.
Were these the first ‘superstars’?
The rise of the more dramatic and ‘themed’ music led to the rise of the first Virtuosos. You could say that Mozart had been one. And possibly he was one of a very few that drew attention by their name in the Classical period.
But now, the composers were not at the beck and call of their patrons as they had been in the Classical period. Now they could go their own way. Some relied on the quality of the music.
Some composed great music but also conducted or played. Showing great gusto and much histrionics in their performances. We were seeing the first signs of ‘visual’ in the performance.
Did the Industrial revolution have an effect?
Strange as it may sound, it seems to have made a difference. We mentioned earlier that free from having to rely on patronage; composers had a new freedom. But they still needed an audience. Were the Romantics, who were fiercely opposed to such industrial developments, now feeding off it?
A growing audience
New towns were springing up, and the cities were getting larger as workers flooded in to get work. This growth in population led, of course, to a new class society. The aristocracy and the very poor still existed, of course. But it created a middle class who became interested in this ‘new’ form of entertainment. The Composers saw their opportunity.
Much like today
Composers produced work they knew would be attractive to this new audience. And they learned how to perform themselves, adding to the spectacle. Some composers didn’t like that. Artistic and personal tensions and jealousies developed, much like it does in music today.
Criticisms were aired in very public announcements. Just like they are today. Beethoven on Rossini, Mendelssohn on Berlioz, Tchaikovsky on Borodin, Brahms on Liszt. Everyone fighting for their corner of opinion on the other’s works. Just like it is today.
Bums on seats?
How much of it was just to get attention to fill the concert halls, we will never know. How much of it was actually true and not embellished by some we also will never know.
I read an article talking about the ‘bitter’ Beethoven and his criticisms of others’ work in 1820. Interesting that he was supposed to have such criticisms when he was deaf by then. He couldn’t hear the work he was supposed to be criticizing.
However, there were some real problems. Some stayed true to the ‘Romantic ‘ideal.’ Others commercialized it for profit, again, much like today.
Concerts with printed programs
Some of the pieces being produced were by now so complex in their musical storytelling that some composers printed programs to explain the plot. Berlioz was one who composed a work about a lost love that had such an explanation.
But even this idea began to change its intended path. Meant as an explanation of a plot or storyline, it came to be used in less worthy ways.
The ‘printed program’ was there to explain so the audience could understand and enjoy the musical ride. But it became used as a way of stirring emotions about a place.
And it was a very good way of stirring up emotions. It could have been used for good as with Sibelius with his ‘Finlandia.’ But it wasn’t. Liszt and his Hungarian Rhapsodies. Brahms, a German, wrote for Hungarian-Jewish violinists. Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 with cannon, and his direct attack on Napoleon and the French. Dvorak was hired to go to America and his ‘New World’ Symphony the result.
The beauty of nature and peaceful, simple existence of the early Romantics had in some quarters become lost. Nationalism was rearing its head. The Coalition wars were raising flags in parts of Europe, and we were heading straight for a conflict that would envelop most of the world. It wouldn’t be long in coming.
Inevitably it all seemed to go wrong in terms of the philosophies of the early romantic composers. The musical freedoms went too far. The expressions became so confused they lost their impact.
Some composers returned to Classical forms and styles. The Romantics were fading fast. Mahler may have been the last, but even he was experimenting outside of what most consider the Romantic ethos.
The ‘Modernists’ as they like to be known, followed. But it is the Romantics we remember.
The Greatest Period?
Some would argue that this period of Art, Music, and Literature was the greatest period of culture the world has ever seen. They weren’t concurrent, of course. In many ways, they fed and encouraged each other. But it was a period in European culture we had not seen before, and we haven’t seen since. And we probably won’t see it again.
A devastating phase of imperialist expansion started in the 1870s that culminated in war. A war in 1914 that directly caused another war in 1939. A sad aftermath for the Romantics ideal of the celebration of nature and the worth of the individual. Of freedom of expression and of creativity.
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The Romantic Period of Music – What we are left with?
For the purposes of this, the music. Some of the most wonderful music. That was their legacy. The Symphonies, the Opera, the Ballet, the small ensembles, and single instrument suites. Let’s pick just one piece that describes it, gives us the emotion, uses every bit of musical genius to create its greatness, the Beethoven: Symphony No.9 “Choral”