1.8 THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (1820 – 1900AD)

There was a fairly dramatic change at the start of the 19th Century, and this not only applied to the arts. Revolution was in the air – the end of the 18th Century had seen revolutions in France and America, and there were more revolutions to come. It gave people across the world a sense that thing were changing. In the arts in general a new sense of ‘personalised’ art was evolving, which came to be termed Romantic. This change occurred in every art form but most notably in literature and music.

The seeds for Romanticism had been sowed by the political climate and by the way that artists responded to these changes. Most notable in music was the composer Beethoven, who followed political events closely and felt keenly about the nature of human beings and the need for ideals such as liberty. This humanitarian sensibility is best expressed in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, known as the Choral (1824), an appropriate beginning to the Romantic era. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which includes a setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, was performed many times in the early years of the Romantic period and undoubtedly inspired many of the subsequent developments in the 19th Century.

‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th SymphonyPlay

Equally, Schubert’s 9th Symphony, composed just after Beethoven’s 9th in 1826, was discovered a few years later by Schumann (he had been given the score by Schubert’s brother), and not only did Schumann organise performances of the work but it also inspired Schumann to compose his First Symphony. Whilst there is no vocal element in Schubert’s 9th Symphony (which is in the key of C, and has become known as ‘The Great’), it is unusually grand and long and employs expressive harmonies and unusual orchestral effects – all aspects that appealed to the early Romantics.

Opening of 4th movt of Schubert’s 9th SymphonyPlay

As with the Baroque period, the Romantic period falls into two almost equal halves. In the first half, the composers are beginning to embrace the idea of Romanticism, whilst retaining some of the sensibilities of Classicism. In the second half, largely a result of the wider vistas (particularly in their use of a greatly-expanded orchestra) opened up by the music of Berlioz and Wagner, composers explored more distinctly individualistic styles. Through the whole of this was an increasing trend to focus on Nationalism, initially inspired by Chopin and Glinka.

The basic contrasts between Classicism and Romanticism are shown in this schematic:


Romantic versus Classical

The importance here is the idea of the experiences of the individual, which come to the foreground in the music created, were previously (in the Classical and indeed the Baroque), the individual’s experience was observed indirectly – inferred, rather than stated by the created work, or viewed in reflection of the comments of others. The other aspects of Romanticism are the greatly expanded orchestra, giving scope for great emotional expression and the general trend to write works that are longer and longer (as for example the Symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler in the late Romantic period, many of which run for well over and hour).

A summary of the main composers who comprised the first half of the Romantic period is shown here:


The Heartland

The importance here is to understand that these composers were creating music with the Romantic ideal in the context of Classical (and sometimes Baroque) music. Hence there is a constant reference to the Classical predecessors (as for example, the reference to Beethoven’s music and achievements by many – particularly Schumann and Wagner).

A similar schematic can summarise the composers from the second half of the Romantic period, with its various parallels:


The Late Romantics

The Late Romantics had preferences similar to the Early Romantics: some were more conservative; others more progressive. Of the conservatives, Brahms is the most significant, reflecting initially the music of Beethoven and his mentor Schumann in his music. Later he included references to Haydn and Bach (the Haydn Variations and the Passacaglia in the Fourth Symphony respectively). For his part, Tchaikovsky virtually ignored the Nationalist trend of some of his contemporaries (see below) and held Mozart’s music as his ideal.

Tchaikovsky Suite No4 Mozartiana excerptPlay

Of the more progressive composers, we note particularly Richard Strauss, who (against his father’s wishes) took the musical developments of Wagner to a new level, with an even greater range of orchestral virtuosity, dynamics and expression. (His long life qualifies Richard Strauss to be part of the 20th Century composers list as well.)

Both Dvorak and Verdi were Nationalists in different ways: Dvorak through his use of Czech idioms; Verdi through his use of texts that specifically related to Italy and the political situation in that country, as well as (to a certain extent) traditional Italian song idioms.

As mentioned, through the Romantic period ran an increasing trend of Nationalism, nowhere more clearly illustrated than in Russia, where there was a group of composers who came to be known as ‘The Five’ – as can be seen in the following schematic:


The Russians in the Romantic period

‘Nationalism’ is essentially the use by composers of Classical or ‘art’ music of the folk songs, rhythms and idioms associated with a particular cultural tradition. In the case of the Russians, there were a number of linked traditions, which were put under the umbrella of ‘Russian’, representing the various regions of that country. Elements of the various regional folk songs in Russia were incorporated into the composers’ musical style. In the 19th Century (which covers, in effect, the Romantic period), there was no ‘ethnomusicology’ – the study of folk traditions was quite informal. For this reason, most of the composers relied upon folk and traditional songs they knew first hand.

‘Nationalism’ also included musical setting based on characters from the nation’s history and setting of stories and poems familiar to the citizens of the country. This was the approach adopted by Glinka (shown above) who decided, in the 1830’s, that Russia needed material in its operatic productions that reflected the nation: hence he produced two operas ‘A Life for the Tsar’ (1836) and ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’ (1842) which reflected national themes. The first of these operas, in particular, was a great success and inspired the following generation of composers (who were collectively known as either The Five or The Mighty Handful, as above).

Glinka, Ruslan and Ludmila OverturePlay

The works that are best known by The Five, with their associated employment of Russian themes and idioms, are shown in the next diagram.


Major works of The Five

1.9 THE MODERN PERIOD (1900AD – present day)
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