Romantic music era

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Where words fail, music speaks” – Hans Christian Andersen

The Romantic era brought forth some of the most beloved music from the most prevalent classical composers. European Romanticism was a stylistic movement that related to literature, music, and art, but Romantic era music was said to be mostly German. The Romanticism movement began in the late 1700s and was a response to the rationalism that the Age of Enlightenment brought around.

The first recognised musical era, the Medieval era, saw the Gregorian Chant as the earliest form of music on record. It was a predominantly sacred form of music used in church services and ceremonies. After this came the Renaissance era during which the motet and German hymns became very popular.

 

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Where words fail, music speaks” – Hans Christian Andersen

The Romantic era brought forth some of the most beloved music from the most prevalent classical composers. European Romanticism was a stylistic movement that related to literature, music, and art, but Romantic era music was said to be mostly German. The Romanticism movement began in the late 1700s and was a response to the rationalism that the Age of Enlightenment brought around.

The first recognised musical era, the Medieval era, saw the Gregorian Chant as the earliest form of music on record. It was a predominantly sacred form of music used in church services and ceremonies. After this came the Renaissance era during which the motet and German hymns became very popular.

The motet was sometimes sung completely a cappella and was a very important form of music during the Renaissance. German hymns were also made popular during this time because the simplicity of the songs made it easier for worshippers to sing along with. Oratorios and cantatas were developed in the Baroque era. Oratorios were the main source of sacred music for the church along with various other compositions, sung either as a solo or choir. The cantata was an Italian genre of secular music that could be sung in a choir with instrumental accompaniment, or as a solo cantata, very similar to opera. The sacred cantata sung in church services was much like the oratorio.

Opera was also created in the Baroque period, by a group called the Camerata. Fashioned after the music found from ancient Greece, the opera continued to be popular through the Classical era, too. The Classical era was one of the only music periods that prioritised instrumental music over vocal music.

The Age of Enlightenment was something that took place during the Classical era and greatly influenced music because it meant the separation of church and state. The most influential composers of that time – notably Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert – all contributed to the way classical music took form – mostly because they defined various forms of orchestra.

The Romantic era of music was especially sweet. If the Renaissance was a time of artistic and creative expression, the Romantic era was a time for individual and emotional expression. Though the Baroque also explored different forms of expression, it was considered ugly and exaggerated compared to the lovely music of the Romantic period. At that time, European Romanticism considered music to be the top art form to fully express human emotion and so music was expected to communicate to the audience, mostly by narrative.

It is hard to say when the Romantic era of music began and ended because some of the Classical era composers – Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn – were all said to breathe “one in the same romantic spirit,” (Hoffmann, 1810). It was Hoffman’s essays and reviews that really separated the emotional Romantic period from the Classical period, which upheld restraint and formality. The characteristics attributed to Romanticism, including musical Romanticism, were ‘a preoccupation with and surrender to nature, fascination with the past, longing for the infinite, a focus on the nocturnal and terrifying, national identity, emphasis on extreme subjectivism, discontent with musical formulas and conventions, and the development of programmatic music designed to evoke specific ideas and atmospheres,’ (Kravitt, 1992).

The Romantic period was less formal than earlier music periods. It did not particularly develop any of the musical composition styles from the Classical era, but it was a lot freer flowing. Because of this, composers created a variety of new genres of classical music. In addition to the sonata and symphony, Romantic composers created forms such as the rhapsody, nocturne, overture, prelude, Polish mazurkas that were re-stylised by Chopin, and the intermezzo.

The rhapsody is defined as an enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling, and this is definitely conveyed in the Romantic era rhapsodies. Within music, it is a single-movement piece that is sporadic, yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, and features a range of contrasting emotions, moods, and tonality. It is a piece of music that holds true to the Romantic period ideals of emotional connectivity. Undoubtedly, a modern song that would spring to mind is Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Described as symphonic rock, Freddie Mercury called it a ‘mock opera’ and many musicologists have mused over whether it is a rhapsody. Personally, I think it is, because it has all the tell-tale signs of a rhapsody with one difference: it is not a classical piece – but it all comes down to interpretation.

John Field

The nocturne was a musical composition inspired by the moods and feelings of the night. Irish composer John Field is viewed as the father of Romantic period nocturnes, but Chopin is the more famous composer, with Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 being his most well-known. The nocturne is typically a piano piece that features a songlike melody with arpeggiated accompaniment. Arpeggiated means the chords of the songs are split into sequences of notes similar to a guitar. Nocturnes are generally considered quite tranquil, expressive, and lyrical, though sometimes they are regarded as gloomy, too.

An overture is what is generally played before a ballet or opera. ‘Overture’ is French for ‘opening’ because it opens a show. It usually has a similar tune to what people will hear during the show, so it prepares the audience for what is to come. Likewise, a prelude in the Baroque period was a piece of music played as an introduction to another larger musical piece. But in the Romantic period, a prelude is a short piece of standalone music that has a varying form.

Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) wrote 59 piano mazurka pieces that built on from the already established Polish mazurka. The mazurka is a lively musical composition made for folk dancing that usually has a lot of repetition, whether that means repetition of a single measure, a group of measures, repetition of a theme, or repetition of an entire section (Kallberg, 1988). Though Chopin did not compose his mazurkas so they could be danced to, he still kept true to most of the traditional conventions of the Polish mazurka. Because of this, he ended up creating more stylised and self-contained dance pieces (Samson, 1985). Through this, he created an entirely new genre called the ‘Chopin genre’.

 

Chopin’s work was a prime example of the nationalistic music created during the late Romantic period. Chopin was one of the first composers to incorporate nationalistic ideals into his compositions – mostly because he escaped from Poland a month before the November Uprising of 1830 where Poland fought against Russia to gain independence. There were a few other composers, such as Bedřich Smetana from the modern-day Czech Republic, who followed along the same lines with nationalistic works that musically described their homelands.

Intermezzos were musical pieces that sat between acts or scenes of opera or other dramatic works during an interlude or break. An intermezzo usually has two different meanings in music: the operatic and the instrumental.

The operatic intermezzo sometimes used characters from the opera or commedia dell’arte, an early form of professional theatre originating from Italy. The intermezzo was quite often burlesque in style and characterised by slapstick comedy, disguises, dialect, and ribaldry or blue comedy.

The intermezzo spread quickly throughout Europe in the 1730s, and sometimes even became more popular than opera itself – not only because people found it so enjoyable, but it was also very easy to produce and stage. Cities like Moscow recorded visits by troupes performing intermezzo years before any opera seria (a serious style of opera that developed during the high Baroque period) were shown. They were usually complete works within themselves, but provided comic or dramatic relief from the bigger opera seria around them.

In the 19th century, the instrumental intermezzo became a stand-alone piece that had different functions. In some instances, it served as background action music for Shakespearian plays and in others, it was used as a small connecting piece of music between larger compositions. Both the instrumental and operatic intermezzos were usually melodic and lyrical.

From opera seria emerged the opera buffa. While intermezzos were short, one-act interludes, the opera buffa or ‘comic opera’ was a genre that grew popular in the Romantic era. It was characterised by everyday settings, local dialects, and simple vocal writing. It was essentially done in a way that the common man could relate to more easily. Opera buffa faded as the Romantic era advanced, even though opera itself held significant cultural importance throughout most of the following musical eras.

In all, the Romantic era was less of an advancement of technique and more an advancement of ideas. It is pretty rare nowadays where a song does not bring up the topic of love, or hate, or happiness, or betrayal or any range of human emotion. This emotional exploration was something created and perfected in the Romantic period. It paved the way for today’s musicians and songwriters to create the kind of emotional music that makes us sing along at the top of our lungs.

 

Sources: 1. Recension: Sinfonie pour 2 Violons, 2 Violes, Violoncelle e Contre-Violon, 2 Flûtes, petite Flûte, 2 Hautbois, 2 Clarinettes, 2 Bassons, Contrabasson, 2 Cors, 2 Trompettes, Timbales et 3 Trompes, composée et dediée etc. par Louis van Beethoven. à Leipsic, chez Breitkopf et Härtel, Oeuvre 67. No. 5. des Sinfonies. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung [Leipzig] 2. Romanticism today. The Musical Quarterly 3. The music of Chopin

 

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