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Romantic music

Romantic music can be defined as music in which expression of feelings is given more importance than formal balance and internal order. The use of the phrase in this sense is generally limited to the context of European classical music.

Although there are moments of pieces through history where this can be said to be the case, it became the dominant musical trend in classical music during the 19th century, and the period roughly from 1800 to 1900 is often called the "romantic period". Many composers after 1900, however, have continued to write music in a style typical of the romantic period.

Although the word "romantic" now most usually means "something related to love", "romantic music" as spoken about by musicologists and academics is not necessarily about this and does not always sound like what would nowadays be thought of as "romantic" in the general sense. It is instead related to the wider concept of romanticism which flourished in the arts around this time.

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Musical language The musical language employed by the romantic composers was a good deal more extensive and flexible than that of the classical composers, allowing for the greater range of expression these composers sought.

Composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, often regarded as the first romantic composer, and later Richard Wagner expanded their harmonic language to include chords previously unused, or to treat existing chords in different ways. Wagner's Tristan chord[?], found in Tristan and Isolde, has had much written about it attempting to explain exactly what harmonic function it serves.

Composers modulated to increasingly remote keys. Modulations were not always as extensively prepared as they were in the classical era, and sometimes instead of a pivot chord, a pivot note was used. Franz Liszt and others sometimes enharmonically "spelled" this note in a different way (for example, changing a C sharp into a D flat) to modulate into even more distant keys. The properties of the dimished seventh chord, which enables modulation to almost any key, were also extensively exploited.

The forms[?] which had been dominant in the classical era, such as sonata form, began to be stretched and sometimes rejected. The relatively genteel minuet, which had been the usual third movement in a symphony, sonata, or similar work, was replaced by the scherzo, which allowed for more intense expression.

Influence from non-musical sources Whereas instrumental music of earlier times was almost always absolute, that is concerned with nothing apart from music itself, much romantic music is programme music[?] - it is based on some other source.

Several composers wrote music based on books, poems or paintings or created their own stories. Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, for example, has a programme written by Berlioz himself. Some composers took an interest in describing nature in their music, a well known example being Beethoven Symphony No. 6[?], the Pastoral. Yet others were interested in the supernatural, with Carl Maria von Weber's operas Der Freischutz and Oberon[?] both having supernatural themes.

On a smaller scale, many composers wrote "character pieces", short works, often with evocative titles, usually for solo piano, which express a particular mood or idea and which are not in a fixed form. The first such works were John Field's nocturnes, which greatly influenced Frederic Chopin and a number of other composers. Felix Mendelssohn's "Songs Without Words", Edvard Grieg's "Lyric Pieces" and various works by Robert Schumann are in a similar mould.

The romantic period also saw the establishment of song as an important part of classical music. Songs with keyboard accompaniment had been written before, but Franz Schubert is often held to be the first significant writer of them. Robert Schumann and, later, Hugo Wolf were also significant song writers.

Romantic opera In opera, there was a tendency for the forms usual in classical and baroque opera to be loosened, broken, and merged into each other. This reached its climax in Wagner, where arias, choruses, recitatives[?] and ensemble pieces cannot easily be distinguished from each other. Instead there is a continuous flow of music.

Other changes occurred as well. The decline of castrati led to tenors being given the heroic lead in operas as a rule, and the chorus took on a more important role.

Nationalism A number of romantic composers wrote nationalist music, music which had a particular connection to a particular country. This manifested itself in a number of ways. The subjects of Mikhail Glinka's operas, for example, are specifically Russian, while Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak both used rhythms and themes from Czech folk dances and songs. Late in the 19th century, Jean Sibelius wrote music based on the Finnish epic, the Kalevala.

Instrumentation and scale As in other periods, instrumental technique was developed in the romantic era. This was a trend that was begun by Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony[?], the Eroica, and continued through the period. Composers such as Hector Berlioz orchestrated their works in a way hitherto unheard, given a new prominence to wind instruments. Instruments previously rare, such as the piccolo and cor anglais, came to be parts of the standard symphony orchestra, and the orchestra as a whole grew. Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 is known as the Symphony of a Thousand because of the large number of people required to perform it.

In addition to using larger orchestral forces, works in the Romantic era tended to become longer. A typical symphony by Haydn or Mozart will last twenty to twenty-five minutes; Beethoven's Eroica, once again, will last at least forty-five minutes, a significant increase; some of Beethoven's later symphonies are even longer. The trend towards long, large scale works which require substantial orchestral forces probably again reached its peak in the later symphonies of Mahler.

The instrumental virtuoso also became more prominent. The violinist Niccolo Paganini was one of the musical stars of the early 19th century, his fame usually put down as much to his charisma as his technique. Franz Liszt was also a very popular virtuoso pianist. Typically in the 19th century, virtuosi such as these were more likely to attract an audience than some particular composer's music being on the programme.

Romanticism in music, in the end, represented a trend that made larger and larger demands on the orchestras playing it, on individual performers, and on the listeners. These trends tended to more sharply distinguish what we have come to call "classical music" from "popular music."

Romanticism in the 20th century Romanticism survived into the 20th century, and a number of composers, among them Sergei Rachmaninov, Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss, continued to write music in a romantic style. However, new tendencies such as neo-classicism[?] and serialism challenged the preeminence of the romantic style, and by the middle of the century, very few significant composers were writing in a style that would have been recognised by the romantics.

Later in the 20th century, a number of pieces and composers have been described as "neo-romantic", John Adams' Violin Concerto being one example.

Composers of the romantic era



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