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M.Tevfik DORAK


Classicism is conservatism in creativity with emphasis on balance, control, proportion, symmetry and restraint. Romanticism is a more radical kind of expression, it seeks out the new, the curious, and the adventurous. It is characterized by restless seeking and impulsive reaction. Romantic art differs from classic art by its greater emphasis on the qualities of remoteness and strangeness. A fundamental trait of Romanticism is boundlessnes. Throughout the Romantic period, the human mind was peculiarly attracted by disproportionate and excessive features. The tiny piano piece and the brief lyrical song, forms which had been of no consequence during the Classical period, now assumed the highest significance. On the other hand, the moderate length of the classical symphony and opera was hugely extended (Mahler's symphonies, Wagner's operas). As against the classic ideals of order, equilibrium, control, and perfection within acknowledged limits, Romanticism cherishes freedom of expression, movement, passion, and endless pursuit of the unattainable (fantasy and imagination); a search for new subject matters. Because its goal can never be attained, romantic art is haunted by a spirit of longing. The creations of the romantic artist were emotional in character rather than guided by structural rules.


The Romantic movement in music coincides with a general Romantic movement in all arts. At this period, the arts of literature and painting began to influence music. In the Romantic era, music acquired poetic or philosophical meaning. Antiquity, folklore, history and exotic cultures were examined as possible sources of inspiration. Romanticism in literature appears to precede the first signs of Romantic music (for example Goethe [1749-1832] and Wordsworth [1770-1850]). The romantic movement was fostered especially by a number of German writers and poets. Their influence on musicians was pervasive and enduring. Weber and Wagner were attracted by the legends of Northern Europe; Schumann by the pseudo-philosophic romantic literature of his day; Chopin by his national poet Mickiewicz; Berlioz by the earlier romantic poet Shakespeare; Liszt by the contemporary French romantic poet Lamartine and by various French romantic painters, and so on. Thus, a fertilization of music by poetry, fiction, philosophy and painting took place, and with it was associated a further fertilization by the spirit of nationalism. Weber, Schumann, Wagner expressing the German spirit; Chopin, Poland; Liszt, Hungary; Dvorak, Bohemia; Grieg, Norway, and so on.


Romantic traits can be identified in the music of Monteverdi (Poppea), JS Bach (chromatic organ works, program music) or Handel (expressive arias). It is possible to sense the ground for the predominant Romanticism of the nineteenth century being prepared from the time in 1740s when 'feeling' came to be consciously valued when the galant style and its German counterpart Empfindsamkeit were at its height (especially in the works of CPE Bach). Another precedent for Romanticism is found in the musical connections with the literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (dramatic works of Gluck in 1760s and some of Haydn's symphonies from the early 1770s such as Trauersinfonie and the Farewell). These temporary movements, however, did not progress to Romanticism. Classicism and Romanticism represent qualities which co-existed throughout the periods of musical history (1750-1900) [concurrent tendencies] normally assigned to one or the other. The change from Classic to Romantic is, in essence, a change of emphasis, not a sudden, total transformation. Musical Romanticism is more style than language characterized by Nationalism, Realism, Impressionism, and Expressionism. It remained faithful to tonality and to metrical periodicity. Emotion became more urgent and intense as form became freer and tone color richer. Remaining mainly tonal, Romantic music became more chromatic, the melodic structure remained periodic but phrase structure became less regular. Music became more poetic than abstract, more melodic than harmonic and more organic than mosaic.

A few general observations may be made about the technical differences between Romantic and Classic music. In Romantic music, long sections -even an entire movement- may continue as one unbroken rhythmic pattern, with the monotony and the cumulative effect of an incantation. A movement of a sonata in the hands of a Romantic composer is a series of picturesque episodes without any strong bond of formal unity [expressiveness and lyricism above formal structure and key relationships = in Classical music form and order come first, in Romantic music expressive content]. A new kind of unity, however, is achieved by using the same theme in different movements. Romantic music is more lyrical/programmatic than the dramatic/absolute music of the Classical era.


The massive use of orchestral tone colors is a Romantic trait, i.e., a wide range of instruments were given solo or combined passages within an orchestral context. The Romantic era was the golden age of the virtuoso. The emotional range of music was considerably widened, as was its harmonic vocabulary and the range and number of instruments. The most characteristic orchestral form is the symphonic poem in which the music tells a story or parallels its emotions. The most characteristic new genre is the solo song with piano accompaniment (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf).


In the Romantic period, the triadic system was exploited to the farthest consequences, chromatic alterations were used extensively (see below), unprepared and -towards the end of the century- unresolved appoggiatura chords were used. Free modulation into distant keys without pivot chords became a common practice. The increasing boldness of composers in modulating to ever more distant keys, and in coloring, or altering the notes of their chords more and more together with the less frequent use of perfect cadences, the strength of a single tonal center became diluted and tonality started to disintegrate.


Earlier Romantic tendencies:

J Kuhnau: In 1700, the Kantor of the Leipzig Thomaskirsche (predecessor of JS Bach till 1723), published multi-movement programmatic keyboard sonatas based on biblical stories. Besides being programmatic, the use of unresolved harmonies, a jagged fugue subject and sequential diminished sevenths (when the program required) were early Romantic tendencies.


JS Bach: In 1703/4 in Arnstadt, JS Bach wrote a harpsichord piece (capriccio) in Bb (BWV992) on his brother's joining a military band in Sweden. It is programmatic in content and each of the four movements are labelled with their meaning. There are chromatic passages depicting the sorrow of friends as the brother Jacob takes his leave. The influence of Kuhnau pieces, which were known to JS Bach, is obvious.


Haydn: His Sturm und Drang style symphonies in the early 1770s (Trauersinfonie/44, Farewell/45, La Passion/49).


Spohr: A grand Romantic opera 'Alruna die Eulenkonigin' in 1808, and 'Faust' in 1813 placed Spohr in the forefront of progressive Romanticism. He used leitmotifs representing love and hell in Faust.

John Field: It was Field's nocturnes (the first composed in 1812) which initiated this most Romantic of genres.


Romantic harmony:

Romantic harmony uses diminished seventh frequently. Its ambiguity (lack of a tonal center) is exploited by Liszt and other composers and it is used extensively for modulation.

The German sixth (the augmented sixth chord on the flattened submediant) is another chord used frequently. Its resolution is usually onto a 6/4 chord on the dominant (i.e., Ic). It can be used for modulation too. In C major, the German sixth would be on Ab; this can be used as V7 in Db resolving to I in Db as a cadence.

The use of higher dissonances, a more innovative treatment of chromatic harmony, and a greater interest in modal techniques are the other characteristics of Romantic harmony. The use of chromatic chords without a resolution or cadence may result in 'chromatic frustration' for the listener.


Chromaticism in the Romantic era:

Romantics used chromaticism more frequently than the Classicists. They followed the same principles of chromaticism established by the Classic composers but intensified its use. As opposed to the Classical composers, however, they did not use strong cadential progressions to compensate for this in keeping the sense of tonality. Together with their tendency to avoid or delay cadential progressions and replacing perfect cadences with interrupted ones, the tonality started to dissolve. These two factors were the main reasons for the development of atonality (increased use of chromaticism, decreased use of cadential progressions). A Romantic composer introduces chromaticism in following ways:

1. A chromatic chord in a diatonic passage (anchored by two diatonic chords),

2. A chromatic passage in a diatonic context (anchored by diatonic chords),

3. By introducing a short-lived modulation to a remote key which would sound chromatic.


Characteristics of Romantic period:

*New forms: symphonic poem, song cycle, music drama,

*Study of the folk-heritage in music and imitation of folk-like melodic simplicity,

*Predilection for exotic effects through employment of foreign national coloring or the folkloristic heritage (Chopin, Tchaikovsky, the Russians) [Chopin's more than 50 mazurkas represent one of the earliest examples of overt nationalistic sentiments in music],

*Break-up of stylistic unity but more individualism,

*Higher interest in melody and color rather than harmony and form,

*Higher dissonances and a freer employment of them,

*A more innovative treatment of chromatic harmony,

*Extensive use of diminished seventh chords,

*Greater interest in modal techniques (flat seventh [common to many modes], flat second [Phrygian], augmented fourth [Lydian]),

*Assimilation of older elements, especially the revival of polyphony and Baroque forms under the influence of JS Bach [Mendelssohn, Brahms],

*Thematicism plays a more important role in a sonata movement than tonality,

*Thematic metamorphosis: A programmatic approach to composition often associated thematic material with a character or idea. Changing circumstances or emotional states were represented by the transformation of the thematic material (as in Faust Symphony or Symphony Fantastique),

*Cell development technique in nationalist music,

*Use of a cyclic device: Material from one movement recurs in another (a technique related to thematic metamorphosis, idee fixe and leitmotive) (Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky; Mendelssohn's Eb string quartet; Beethoven's Symphony No.9),

*Manipulation of sonata form, including mosaic and additive structures. More organic treatment of the form,

*Postludes in the Lieder (especially by Schumann),

*Unity on a large scale: merging of separate movements into a single span (Liszt's Sonata in B minor),

*Finishing a minor mode piece in major (from darkness to light): Egmont overture, Symphony No.5 & 9 , Piano Sonatas Opp.90 & 111, and the second act of Fidelio by Beethoven; Schumann's Fourth Symphony; Franck's Symphony in D minor; Brahms' s First Symphony.


Summary of the features of a Romantic score: Programmatic title, fuller instrumentation, wealth of dynamic and expression marks, performance directions, constantly changing orchestral color, use of the tenor registry of the cello, sharing of motives among the instruments, divided instrumental groups (divisi), frequently varying tempo, remote modulations, frequent use of diminished sevenths and other atonal implications. In piano pieces: large pitch range, use of pedal, octave doublings, brace joining.

See also: Russian Nationalism and Tonality at the End of the Nineteenth Century

Compiled by   M.Tevfik Dorak B.A. (Hons)

Last edited on 5 April 2008

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