Characteristics of the Romantic Music Period

Category: Music, Piano, Romanticism
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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It is arguable that some Romantic music made greater demands upon its listeners than did music of previous historical periods. What were those demands? Why did these changes come about? And what strategies can you formulate for listening to this music today? In consideration of the musical changes present in the Romantic era, this essay will contend that these changes are very much related to the wider social and technological changes in society around that time. Thus, it is important to identify the broad time period encompassed by this era.

The definition of Romanticism in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is: “A movement or, more commonly, period of cultural history. When understood as a period, Romanticism is usually identified with either the first half or the whole of the 19th century. The term is used with reference primarily to the arts, but it can also embrace philosophy, socio-political history and, more widely, the ‘spirit’ of the era. ” [i] Consequently, this essay views that Romantic music encompasses the whole of the nineteenth century and will consider some of the key changes which occurred around that time period.

It has been argued that these changes have resulted in music which makes greater demands upon its listeners and this essay will highlight these demands and how they were influenced by those social and technological changes of that time, concluding with strategies for listening to this music today. Some of the music which can be used to illustrate these changes are specific works by Beethoven, a composer, who is viewed as a major influence on the music of the nineteenth century. This can be evidenced by the Grove article on Romanticism, which deems it to be widely accepted that Beethoven “inaugurated a ‘Romantic era’”[ii].

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The demands of Romantic music are characterised by several key changes. These changes can be summarised as follows: an increased intensity, both technical and musical; a greater use of radical contrasts in the music and a significant increase in the length of musical compositions. The increased intensity of Romantic music can be demonstrated by an analysis of the Diploma syllabus of the ABRSM[iii]. This syllabus provides an “authoritative assessment framework” [iv] for technical and musical ability and one can see that the vast preponderance of its pieces fall into the Romantic category.

Furthermore, as one progresses through the levels of syllabus, the “repertoire becomes more demanding” [v] and the volume of Romantic pieces increases steadily. A major factor in this change is the related technological advancements of that time period which resulted in the upgrading of a number of musical instruments to more advanced forms. This can be illustrated with reference to the specific example of the piano, an instrument refined considerably during the Romantic period.

Key changes incorporate the introduction of modern style pedals, greater string diameters and tensions, an extended number of octaves, the double escapement action and the cast iron frame[vi] [vii]. Thus, the instrument of the nineteenth century is far superior to its eighteenth century counterpart. The resultant musical changes include a greater quantity of octaves available and a greater range of power and dynamics made available to the composer. This had the obvious corollary of composers producing pieces with greater use of radical dynamic contrasts. According to Winter[viii], Romantic composers used their new piano to great effect: The single most important development in the sound of the Romantic piano was doubtless the new emphasis on the sustaining (or damper) pedal. ” These key changes of distinctive contrasts and increased intensity were aided by the accompanying social change in music around the Romantic period, which can be characterised by the rise of the virtuoso. Franz Liszt, the legendary pianist, dazzled audiences across Europe, garnering rave reviews wherever he travelled, considered by The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians to be “the greatest piano virtuoso of his time” [ix]. The improved piano was critical to his displays of technical prowess.

Without it he would not have been able to play pieces as demanding on the instrument. The “hitherto unimagined difficulty” [x] of his Vingt-quatres grandes etudes pour le piano[xi], was considered too much by the composer, he revised the Etudes and later published his Etudes d'execution transcendante[xii], – the latter still ferociously difficult but surpassed in that respect by the former. Given that a key feature of Liszt’s playing style and compositions was technical skill, one could argue Liszt could not have been the performer, or composer, he was, in the preceding century.

Nicolo Paganini was another virtuoso of the highest calibre – a violinist[xiii]. He, too, gave fantastic performances to rapturous crowds in numerous countries. William Ayrton, editor of The Harmonicon, remarked that: “[H]is powers of execution are little less than marvelous, and such as we could only have believed on the evidence of our own senses; they imply a strong natural propensity for music, with an industry, a perseverance, a devotedness and also a skill in inventing means, without any parallel in the history of his instrument. ” [xiv]

Paganini, similar to Liszt, composed works for his instrument, which were considered some of the hardest in its repertoire[xv] - pushing the boundaries of the Romantic violin to previously unseen heights. An excellent way for a virtuoso to show off their talents is a concerto. The concerto provided a perfect vehicle to showcase the new technically advanced instruments and the music that could be performed on them[xvi]. One characteristic of Romantic concertos is their length. Indeed, this increased length is another key aspect of Romantic music as a whole.

To take one concrete example of this, Vladimir Askenazy’s interpretations of Beethoven’s piano concertos[xvii] are significantly greater in length than his interpretations of Mozart’s concertos[xviii]. Further illustration of this is the opening movements of Beethoven’s piano concertos numbers 4 and 5, which both last longer than a number of Mozart’s concertos in their entirety and are longer, by far, than any of Mozart’s first movements. Similarly, other forms of musical composition demonstrated increasing length during the Romantic era.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata number 29 ,‘Hammerklavier’, being a case in point, according to Marston[xix], the extremely long solo piece was “most likely the longest ever written at that time”. The Hammerklavier sonata is also a perfect example of the other previously stated Romantic characteristics. The use of pianississimo and fortissimo a bar apart in the final section of the first movement is but one example of the radical contrasts present in the piece as a whole[xx]. Another hallmark of Romantic music is present in this piece: extreme technical difficulty - Andras Schiff declared Hammerklavier “virtually unplayable” [xxi].

This increase in length was also evident in the Romantic symphony. One striking example being Beethoven’s Symphony number three, ‘Eroica’, first published in 1804 [xxii], at the very dawn of musical Romanticism - its opening movement “dwarf[s] any comparable previous movement” [xxiii]. According to Bonds[xxiv], Eroica is the start, for Beethoven at least, of music displaying profound Romantic characteristics: “Particularly from the ‘Eroica’ onwards, Beethoven was seen to have explored a variety of ways in which instrumental music could evoke images and ideas transcending the world of sound. Overall, these properties of Romanticism were influenced by the social changes of the nineteenth century. These changes meant that composers of the Romantic era had greater freedom than ever before. Unlike their counterparts in previous historical periods, they no longer had to be almost entirely dependent on the church or the state or wealthy, upper-class patrons[xxv] [xxvi]. As highlighted previously, musicians could support themselves by giving public concerts, “Paganini earned so much money in one year that he could have bought 300 kilos of gold. [xxvii] [xxviii] As we can see in this example from Grove, the orchestra of the Romantic age was distinctly different from its predecessors in that it was not for the personal amusement of royalty or a symbol of status: “During most of the 18th century orchestras had been an accompaniment to and an expression of aristocratic court culture; in the 19th century the orchestra became a central institution of public musical life. ” [xxix] Given the demands illustrated through these changes, several strategies are suggested.

One possible strategy would be to learn a piece. As reading music is a necessary precursor to this, it would be a required and fruitful use of one’s time to learn to do so if the skill has not already been learnt. Learning to play a piece of music would be the ideal realisation of this strategy. However, this is not always possible and would be impractical for a piece with a large number of parts - a symphony, for example. Nevertheless, one can study and appreciate the technical or musical difficulty involved in a piece without being able to master it.

Once able, listening to a piece of music whilst consulting the score is also a useful tool for following a piece and picking out specific parts. This is especially true of any orchestral piece. Another related strategy would be to try and put oneself in the shoes of a listener of the Romantic era. Listening to recordings performed on period instruments would be an ideal method of doing this. Also, learning more about the people of the period and what it would have been like for a nineteenth century person to listen to a certain work for the first time would be a further way to pursue this strategy.

To learn, and appreciate, any other art forms linked with a piece of music is another strategy for listening to Romantic music - for example, Beethoven’s Symphony number 9. Beethoven based the final movement on the poem ‘Ode to Joy’ by Friedrich Schiller[xxx] – the movement is scored for orchestra, four vocal soloists and a choir - who sing the words of the poem. The case can be made that, to fully appreciate this work, one must appreciate the poem on which it is based. Additionally, understanding of the language the words are in – German - would take this strategy even urther. Separating a piece of music into parts is another strategy for listening to Romantic music. For example, a symphony or sonata can be listened to as individual movements, easier to absorb than, perhaps, thirty minutes or an hour’s worth of music. Exploring huge compositions or collections at one time is not the correct strategy, the sheer volume of notes can be daunting and there is a danger that listening to too much music dulls one to the finer points of that music, it simply becomes noise.

The distinct movements many composers put in their music should be utilised when first discovering a work, only once more understanding is cultivated should one attempt to listen to an entire concerto, sonata or symphony. Conclusively, it has been shown that Romantic music made greater demands upon its listeners than did music of previous historical periods. These demands were: increased technical and musical intensity; the use of bold, vivid contrasts and a considerably augmented duration of musical compositions.

These changes came about due to technological advancements of the period, less reliance on patronage and the ‘musician’ became a respected and viable profession in the nineteenth century. There are many strategies which can be devised for listening to Romantic music, in the present day. These are: learning how to read and play music; to put oneself in the shoes of a listener of the time period; to study any art forms which are linked to a piece of Romantic music and dividing a composition into more easily manageable sections. These strategies will further aid the listener in appreciating and understanding Romantic music. ---------------------- [i] Jim Samson, “Romanticism”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] [ii] Jim Samson, “Romanticism”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (1. History of usage) [iii] ABRSM, “Music Performance Diploma Syllabus from 2005”, [Accessed 2 December 2009] [iv] Ibid. [v] Ibid. [vi] Philip R. Belt, Maribel Meisel/Gert Hecher, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (5. The Viennese piano from 1800. ) [vii] Michael Cole, “Pianoforte”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (6.

England and France, 1800–60. ) [viii] Robert Winter, “Pianoforte”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (2. Romantic period) [ix] Alan Walker, et al. , “Liszt, Franz”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, , [Accessed 2 December 2009] [x] Howard Ferguson and Kenneth L. Hamilton, “Study”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] [xi] Franz Liszt, Vingt-quatres grandes etudes pour le piano, 1839, Vienna: Haslinger [xii] Franz Liszt, Etudes d’execution transcendante, 1852, Leipzig: Breitkopf & Hartel xiii] Edward Neill, “Paganini, Nicolo”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] [xiv] Edward Neill, “Paganini, Nicolo”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (7. France and Great Britain, 1831–4, and last years, 1835–40. ) [xv] Ibid. [xvi] Arnold, Denis and Timothy Rhys Jones, “concerto”, The Oxford Companion to Music Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] [xvii] Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven: The Piano Concertos, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. by Georg Solti, (Decca, 1995) xviii] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mozart: The Piano Concertos, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. by Vladimir Ashkenazy, (Decca, 1995) [xix] Nicholas Marston, “Approaching the Sketches for Beethoven's ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), p. 404-450, University of California Press on behalf of the American Musicological Society, p. 404 [xx] Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 29 ‘Hammerklavier’, 1891, Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta Final three bars of first movement – “Allegro” [pic] [xxi] Andras Schiff, Lecture on Piano Sonata no. 9 ‘Hammerklavier’ by Ludwig van Beethoven, Wigmore Hall, May 2006, Published by The Guardian, [Accessed 2 December 2009] [xxii] “‘Eroica’ Symphony”, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] [xxiii] Mark Evan Bonds, “Symphony”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (II. 19th century, 2. Beethoven) [xxiv] Ibid. [xxv] Joseph Dyer, “Roman Catholic church music”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (V. The 19th century, 1. Catholic church music and the Romantic aesthetic. [xxvi] Joseph Dyer, “Roman Catholic church music”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (IV. The 18th century) [xxvii] John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw, “Orchestra”, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (7. The Romantic orchestra (1815–1900). ) [xxviii] Edward Neill, “Paganini, Nicolo”,Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, [Accessed 2 December 2009] (8. Playing style. ) [xxix] John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw, loc. cit. [xxx] Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 9, ca. 1925, Leipzig: Ernst Eulenburg

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