Ludwig van Beethoven’s music served as a connecting bridge from the classical era to the romantic era. The compositions of the later years of Beethoven’s career provided the groundwork for the styles and ideals that were common from 1820-1900. His music was filled with an intense force that had never been heard before. In the romantic era there was a great fascination with the power of nature. The paintings of James Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) show how the artistic mind interpreted the devastating potential of the sea or of a storm. Beethoven paid homage to nature in his sixth symphony, titled the “Pastoral Symphony.”
It set new standards for program music — music that represents a thing, event, or idea through strictly musical means. In this piece, Beethoven represented nature by imitating birdcalls with the flutes and clarinets. He also included his musical impression of a thunderstorm — a powerful movement that does not require musical genius to realize that “this is a storm.”
There was a new emphasis on individual expression in the romantic era. The nineteenth century saw revolutions and revolts in Poland, Belgium, Italy, and Germany, as people were fighting for freedom and human rights. In the world of music, composers began expressing their individual emotions, passions, and desires. In Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) gave a musical depiction of the fantastic story that he created about his love for an ideal woman. This topic was certainly not one that classical or baroque audiences would be interested in, but to the romantic mind, this idea had a much greater appeal.
To create a wider range of expression in their pieces, composers specified on paper exact terms to let the performer know what was intended. Words like “passionately,” “lovingly,” “furiously,” and “forcefully,” are frequently found on the pages of romantic music.
Individual performers were treated to a newfound respect and admiration from their audiences in the romantic period. Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886) were two men who were as popular in their time as some rock stars are today. They both had remarkable, showy technique, and they dazzled their audiences with their performances. Liszt was especially popular with women, who would crowd to the front of the stage, hoping to catch his gloves or scarf, which he often would throw to the audience.
Composers in the romantic era developed two new genres in which they could express themselves. The symphonic poem is a one-movement work for orchestra. Sometimes called a tone poem, it is a programmatic composition that gives a musical depiction of an event or story. Richard Strauss (1864-1889) was the master of the symphonic poem. His piece Don Quixote presented a music version of the story about a knight who battled windmills.
The art song — a piece for solo voice and piano — became a standard genre in the romantic period. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed over 600 art songs in his short lifetime. His Lieder — the German name for songs — combined the popular poetry of the time with his own beautiful melodies. Almost every nineteenth century composer after him tried his or her hand at this romantic genre.
While Schubert and many other composers focused their efforts on songs that only lasted a few minutes, other romantics were creating huge works that lasted much longer. Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was the most influential German opera composer of the nineteenth century. One of his operas takes over five hours to perform. Gustave Mahler (1860-1911) composed symphonies that take over one hour to perform. Both Wagner and Mahler were responsible for expanding the number of musicians in orchestras. They also wrote significant parts for the bass clarinet and other instruments that were not frequently used in orchestras.
Romantic melodies, like those of Johannes Brahms (1883-1897), are often long and sweeping and are rarely symmetrical. Many nineteenth century composers wrote very lyrical melodies which are quite “catchy” even to our modern ears. Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is probably the most famous romantic writer of melodies today as proven by the yearly performances of his Nutcracker Suite during the holiday season.