Romanticism in music

Romantic composers strove for freedom in order to write expressive music that responded to a wide range of emotions and also to nature. Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) depicts a scene from nature in each movement. The elements of magic, mystery and the supernatural were also explored in Romantic art forms. Composers often wrote programmatic works that told a story through the music.

It is important to familiarise yourself with the main features of music composed during Romantic period. These include:

  • an emphasis on expressing a wide range of feelings and emotions in music.
  • melody lines are longer and far more developed.
  • the use of extended vocabulary chords to create 7ths, 9ths, 11ths. The dominant 13th was the epitome of the Romantic chord as well as other chords including the diminished 7th, augmented 6th and neopolitan chord. 
  • the harmony is often chromatic and discordant to portray strong emotions such as grief and anguish.
  • very extreme dynamics such as pppp-ffff.
  • links to other forms (art and literature) through the medium of programme music.
  • an increased level of technical demand in the music and the related rise of the virtuoso performer.
  • the rise of the Nationalism.
  • the significant expansion of the orchestra with enlarged sections and new instruments.
  • the development of the piano.

The Virtuoso Performer

The Romantic idea of struggle of the individual in the Romantic era led to the rise of the 'heroic' soloist as a virtuoso performer. Nineteenth-century composers such as Chopin, Brahms and Liszt all enjoyed writing music for themselves to perform.

The Development of the Piano

There were many developments to the piano to give composers greater opportunities to express Romantic ideas in music. The sound and tone of the instrument, invented during the Classical era, was improved considerably to give the instruments more power over an increased dynamic spectrum. The piano became the supreme solo instrument of the Romantic era. This was achieved through the following developments:

  • the instrument was reshaped and enlarged to create a greater sound.
  • the number of notes increased both ways on the piano to register seven octaves.
  • felt replaced leather on the hammer which produced a more rounded and fuller tone.
  • strings were longer and under increased tension than before.
  • the body frame of the piano was constructed of metal to cope with the string tensions.
  • the sustaining and soft pedals were developed.