The Romantic Period in Music

Bro. R. Spurgeon's Fundamentals of Music Class

Compiled By
KL Paulson

November 13, 1993

   Romanticism was not the sole accomplishment of the nineteenth century. Throughout most of the century romanticism was a progressive tendency which was advanced by composers and performers in opposition to an "establishment" of school classicism not only by lesser composers, but also by important critics, theorists and some great and near-great composers. Later in the century even the "establishment" began to teach the "rules" of romanticism.

   Neither romanticism nor classicism per se is either good or bad; it is the intrinsic value of a work of art which is relatively good or bad--and this value is subject to change; there is really no absolute--one need only to study the reactions of various generations to Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and countless others.

   The nineteenth century was only a part of the romantic period, which began at least as early as 1789 (the French Revolution) and lasted at least until 1925.

   Romanticism is almost always present in Western music, since one aspect of romanticism is the "going out-of- bounds" to find beauty. A larger number of composers turned to this style after 1800, in part due to the new sociological import of "music for the masses"--can the man in the street really identify with music intended for the nobility and an educated audience? The composer in many instances looked upon himself as the spokesman for the masses, even though they did not always cater to them but preferred to write unproblematic music--music not too different from that of the immediate past.

   There were many journalistic arguments, with Ludwig Rellstab, Gottfried Wilhelm Fink, John Sulivan Dwight and others on the side of the "establishment," and Hector Berlioz, Schumann, and Franz Liszt and their followers in favor of new misc and romanticism. The great Eduard Hanslick actually fell in between. He appreciated the beauties of Richard Wagner's music but disapproved of its underlying philosophy (that music could express something other than itself).

   Romanticism was the prime force which overthrew the tonal system of traditional keys. The world's greatest (and worst) music is written in the standard key system, a system which was discovered by our Western civilization. No other culture can claim it, but other cultures have copied it and in some instances have added something vital.

   "Well-tempered tuning" and "equal temperament" were great forces in uniting all the keys into one massive structure, a device soon used by composers in all forms of composition--not only in keyboard writing (one can find complete chromaticism used earlier in string writing). Heinrich Bach (1615-1692), in his cantata Ich danke dir, Gott, uses all twelve tones in a dominant function within the framework on one tonality. This facet of musical creation begins with J.S. Bach, the first truly great composer to use it.
   Bach laid the foundations of the chromatic "new" music of the nineteenth century. There is a direct line through Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin and the rest; this facet of music contributed mightily to the ultimate downfall of common-practice harmony by the end of the century. This view is shared by many writers on music.

   The out-and-out romantics can be surprisingly classical, and the classicists can be surprisingly romantic (consider any work of Berlioz sans program and the sheer sound of composers such as Luigi Cherubini).

   Sheer sound becomes of utmost importance. Many of the best composers realize that music is sound and not just signs on paper. Composer pursue sonorities and the flow thereof, rather than age-old harmonies and harmonic progressions employing figured bass?.

   Aggregate sounds other than mere triads are considered stable entities, especially if the chord is voiced as if overtones of the lowest tone serve as a fundamental. Instability results from violating this principle, and using strong dissonance in the classical sense, parallelism, pungent orchestration or odd rhythms.

   Composers discover ethnic music and use modes and rhythms foreign to the textbook. The great music of the past is also discovered and becomes a strong influence.

   Theorists approach music pragmatically and write prose descriptions for use by all music students, not just for speculation. The influential harmony texts are those by Hugo Riemann (1849-1919), Solomon Jadassohn (1831-1902), Ebenezer Prout (1835-1909) and others; outstanding counterpoint manuals are those by Cherubini, Johann Fux, Frederick Marpurg and Johan Kirnberger (among others), while the best fugue texts are those by men such as André Gedalge, and Anton Reicha. There is, however, an apparent dichotomy between "school" harmony, counterpoint and fugue, and the actual practice of the best composers.

   Melody becomes more chromatic and more "angular", and is no more longer judged by its "singability"--a true instrumental technique develops. Melodies are, of course, important per se, but the fate of melodies and their orientation of genes, chromosomes and cells is equally--if not more-- important. Themes in the same work are related through the Urkeim principle. Related and similar (but not congruent) terms are: germ motive, generating cell, cycle, Leitmotiv, idée fixe, Grundgestalt and others.

   Sheer sound and new uses of harmony inspire composers to write treatises on the art of orchestration. Those of Berlioz, Charles Widor and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov are among the most important. Orchestral advances are also made through the new esthetic of program music, the new "virtuoso" technique, the mechanical improvements in instruments and the development of a new concept of the conductor--who now directs the whole orchestra and concentrates on the sheer sound of the ensemble, and does not merely "beat time" (either by beating a large stick on the floor, by bobbing and weaving from a clattering keyboard where he plays a figured bass or--even worse--by trying to conduct while playing the first violin part). It becomes apparent that the conductor's psychological gestures are more important than his gyrations as a "human metronome."

   The rate of change in music increases throughout the century, so that a "common practice" is difficult (if not impossible and misleading) to delineate. Since romanticism by its very nature is (whether Brahmsian or Wagnerian) a subjective facet, it follows that there are personal styles which do conform to general principles but are very difficult to classify in every single aspect. For example, a composer may be programmatic or not, but not always; he may be nationalistic or not, but not always. There is a "Dvorák" style, a "Tchaikovsky" style or a "Brahms" style, but each of these is individual. There are similarities, but the differences are more significant.

   All aspects of music are eventually affected by the inroads of romanticism--quietly in some types (church music) and unruly in others (orchestral music).

   The century is unified only in its departure from past practice, in its cultivation of individual differences, in the increasing importance it places upon subjectivity and in its increased use of equal temperament. All of these developments are brought about by inclination and rapid communication.

   Music, then, begins to act as the recorder of the passion and philosophy of an age as never before. This paper has presented facts, speculations, opinions and--above all--the fascinating paradoxes of the times, from the Fall of Bastille to World War I.

   USEFUL DEFINITIONS from Webster's Dictionary --

Chromatic - Proceeding by half steps.
Counterpoint - the combination of 2 or more melodies into a harmonic relationship while retaining linear character.
Form - The design or style in musical composition.
Fugue - A musical composition in which the theme is elaborately repeated by different voices or instruments.
Harmony - The combination of musical tones into chords and progressions of chords.
Melody - A succession of and esp. a pleasing succession of musical tones : tune.
Tonality - The arrangement of the tones and chords of a composition in relation to a tonic.


RPM = THE ROMANTIC PERIOD IN MUSIC by Kenneth B. Klaus. (Allyn and
             Bacon, Inc., 470 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, 1970).

          EUROPE by Leon Plantinga. (W.W. Norton & Company, New York,

           Raeburn and Alan Kendall. (Oxford University Press, Oxford,