A lot of Medieval music was for an audience of one.
Cloistered monks sang for the Lord.
There were no fans, no public performances, no world tours. Definitely no groupies. They sang religious songs in a religious setting. Period.
Over the course of the Baroque and Classical periods and into the Romantic, music venues shifted from the churches of the pious to the castles of the royals, to the chateaus of the rich, to the theaters of the public, and to the parlors of the middle class. Even new religious music was written for the concert hall, not for the church.
When the Romantic period started around the end of the 1700s, music was for any audience. It was written to be heard.
This change reflects what was happening in western society at the time. For centuries, there had been only two classes. There were a very few ultra-mega-super-unbelievably-wealthy people, and then there was the poor.
Over the change from the Enlightenment into the Industrial Revolution, a middle class grew.
Ordinary factory workers could earn enough money to support their families and have enough left over to go to the occasional concert.
Just as importantly, they had the leisure time to do so. People didn’t have to be somewhere in the line of succession to the throne to hear some music.
The middle class could have music in their homes. It’s still decades before people had record players, or even electricity, but they had the money to buy instruments and the time to learn how to play them.
The instrument of choice was the piano.
It was a relatively new instrument, based on the harpsichord. We’re pretty sure it was invented around 1698 by Bartolomeo Cristofori.
He had already invented the spinettone and the oval spinet. Both were keyboard instruments and had the same problem as the harpsichord. They could only play at one volume. The piano could be played loudly or quietly depending on how hard the player hit the keys. It was quite an innovation.
Early pianos were smaller and quieter than today’s. They had only five octaves instead of the eight we’re used to.
Bach wasn’t a fan and said he didn’t think the high end sounded good. That pissed off Cristofori, but it helped lead him to redesign the piano for the better.
The industrial revolution’s improved metalworking and woodworking allowed piano frames to be built stronger and hold the strings under more tension. The strings were made stronger, too, so they could take the punishment of getting hit with hammers all the time, even though the hammers were covered in felt.
The result was that pianos were louder and projected their sound farther. That kind of strength and versatility was exactly what the musicians and composers of the Romantic period needed.
Metalworking and woodworking also led to other new instruments.
The oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet were each added to the orchestra. Percussion in the Classical period had been pretty much limited to the timpani. The Romantic period brought in the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, chimes, gong, and triangle.
And in the case of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture:
Likewise, new manufacturing techniques improved the valves used in brass instruments. Horns got louder and overwhelmed the strings, so orchestras added more string players. The standard orchestras doubled in size, though it depended on the composer and what he wanted for each composition. Some of Mahler’s pieces sometimes require more than 100 orchestral and choir members.
With so many players, a new role was added.
In the Classical period, the job of keeping everyone in sync usually fell to the pianist or first violinist. There were conductors here and there, but they became mandatory with a giant-sized Romantic orchestra.
The conductor isn’t just a glorified metronome. He or, more recently, she: is the emotional leader, too.
With body language and facial expressions, he leads the musicians through each piece’s moods and drama. She’s not just waving his arms around madly. She’s helping the musicians tell the story.
The Enlightenment admired reason, but people got tired of looking at everything so clinically.
Being rational all the time is exhausting and can be a little boring. They wanted some entertainment.
There was also some consensus that the sonata form, which had been popular through the Classical period, was passé. It was time for something new. But what?
All the arts — painting, writing, architecture, etc. — got more personal, post-Enlightenment. Everyone was tired of intellectual, over-refined art and wanted something more in tune with actual human emotions. The Romantic period has a lot of different sounds and structures because there’s a lot of different emotions.
Composers became freer to experiment with form. That old-fashioned sonata form, with its ABA structure, was replaced with
- song cycles, two or more pieces that tell different parts of a story or idea
- etudes, short pieces designed to hone, and show off, the players’ technique
- rhapsodies, pieces with multiple sections representing different moods
- nocturns, invented by Irish composer John Field, representing nighttime
- and looser definitions of symphonies, sonatas, and concertos.
There was also a move into what’s called program music, which tries to represent something tangible, or even ephemeral, in music. It could be a sunrise or an ocean or a raging battlefield.
This is exactly what Beethoven tried to do with Moonlight Sonata. He was trying to make music that sounded like moonlight.
The change from Classical to Romantic was gradual, and there was significant overlap. Haydn is considered to be in the Classical period but was still composing at the end of his career as the Romantic composer Rossini was starting his. Beethoven and Schubert worked in both periods and their music changed with the times.
Schubert popularized the Lied, an art song with piano and poetry, and a single melody line over piano music.
It seems ordinary to us today, since most of our current pop hits are a single melody line over simple chords, but it was another big step away from the complexity of the Baroque and toward the simplicity of folk music.
Romantic music is not the polar opposite of Classical, but it emphasizes different things:
- Emotions over reason
- Subjectivity over objectivity
- Freedom of expression over balance and order
- And excess over restraint.
Where Classical music was neat and tidy and well-thought out, Romantic music was messy and exuberant – and even chaotic.
For all of the obsession with novelty and originality, there was also an increased interest in older music.
This started on March 11, 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in Berlin.
It was a century old at that point, but it started a wave of performances of older pieces and helped shine a new light on Bach.
Bach was not a superstar during his life. Georg Phillipp Telemann was much more popular, but Mendelssohn’s concert brought Bach back to the fore. It helped everyone see that our ancestors did great stuff, too. We still play old music. We still play Bach and Telemann.
If you dig into the chord structure of Classical pieces, you’ll find a lot of I and V chords.
Classical composers liked the balanced yin and yang of these two chords.
Romantic composers, on the other hand, used more minor keys, more dissonance, and huge dynamics.
As I mentioned in the article on Classical, composers indicate the volume that a phrase should be played with the letters p and f.
The p stands for piano which is Italian for quiet and the f is for forte, which means loud.
As the Romantic period went on, composers got a little nuts with these symbols. It makes sense to us ff to mean very loud and fff to mean very, very loud, but going beyond that is a little ridiculous.
It’s easy to imagine a trombone player looking at the ffff on his sheet music for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and thinking, “Yeesh, I’m already blowing as loud as I can!”
The purpose of these big volume changes was, of course, to express emotions. Composers also used changes in tempo or key, and unusual harmonies, chords, and rhythms. These artists were pushing the envelope, and all for the purpose of covering the wide range of emotions.
The term “romantic” comes from the word “romance”, which is a prose or poetic heroic narrative.
It originated in the Medieval. There was a new emphasis on heroes, adventure, and tortured souls.
Some of these heroes were the main character in whatever story was being told, but the performers might also be seen as heroes. They were the rockstars of the day.
And of course, composers saw themselves as these heroes, too. There’s some egotism in this idea, but it makes sense. The composer, no longer a hired hand on some rich person’s staff, is baring his emotional and artistic strengths and weaknesses for all to hear.
Hector Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique about a man obsessed with a woman who isn’t interested so he attempts killing himself with an opium overdose.
It was based on his own infatuation with a famous actress. He was open about it and suffered some backlash.
Exposing your personal life takes guts. Just ask Taylor Swift. It’s the kind of heroism the Romantic period loved.
Even as orchestras got bigger, solo recitals were popular, too. It could be a solo pianist, or a solo violinist or cellist, perhaps with piano accompaniment, but solo performers were heroes like our current pop stars are heroes.
As the middle class grew, so did parlor music. This was when you hired a musician to play in your living room, or you played it yourself, for family and a few friends.
Salon music was like parlor music but was for bigger house parties. Frédéric Chopin did a lot of salon performances, and hated large concert venues. He liked the intimacy of small rooms.
Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and was one of the first to write in pianistic style. It was a new instrument, after all, and he wrote to take advantage of its dynamics and expanded keyboard.
He was just one of the heroes of the period. Niccolò Paganini was a virtuoso violin player, a fiery and popular live performer.
Franz Liszt saw a Paganini performance. He was penniless and almost gave up music to go into the priesthood.
But seeing Paganini inspired him to become a charismatic virtuoso pianist. He trained for years, and succeeded.
He was popular on the salon music circuit and was so compelling and mesmerizing that women fainted at his performances.
Chopin was from Poland and used mazurkas, which are Polish dances, in his pieces. He was not the only Romantic composer to use his country’s music for inspiration. The Romantic period saw a rise in nationalism in the music.
In most cases, it was just national pride, as in Jean Sibelius’ piece Finlandia. In other cases, great music was a factor in leading people to think that their country or race was superior to others.
It was used as propaganda to help the Nazis rise to power.
Since nationalism is such a big part of the Romantic period, some consider John Phillips Sousa as a Romantic composer.
His patriotic marches, like “The Stars And Stripes Forever,” are certainly nationalistic. They have stirring melodies and beautiful orchestration, but military marches are military marches, and some say they’re not really part of the Romantic realm.
Of the six periods of classical music, the Romantic is the most popular.
This is true not only for audiences but for musicians, too. Audiences like it because it’s familiar. Musicians like it because it’s challenging. Romanticism is more emotional than Baroque or Classical, and closer to the use of chords and harmonies in today’s pop music.
It’s a genre of extremes, from loud to soft, from solo performers to massive ensembles, and from the most wholesome emotions to the most degenerate.
The Romantic period is said to have ended around 1900 or 1910.
However, many of its aesthetics are still in use.
Modern composers are still pushing the envelope, still expressing emotions, and still valuing freedom of expression over anything else.
Some have suggested the Romantic period hasn’t ended yet. Maybe.
We’ll just have to wait another couple centuries to find out.
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
Appassionata Sonata (Sonata no. 23 in F minor) 1st movement “allegro assai”
Ludwig van Beethoven
Nocturne No. 1 in E Flat Major, H.24
Der Erlkönig, Grand caprice Op. 26
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61/4: Scherzo
Symphonie Fantastique, V. Dream Of The Witches’ Sabbath
Overture in C
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
Nocturne Opus 9, no 2
Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 17: III. Andante
Symphony No.3, “Rhenish,” Movement I
Mephisto Waltz no. 1
Symphony No 4, Movement 1 Allegro non troppo
Symphony no. 6 in B minor, op. 74 Pathétique, Movement 1 |
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The Stars And Stripes Forever
John Philip Sousa
Finlandia, Op. 26
Poème de l’extase
Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand,” Finale
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