Characteristics of the Romantic Music Period

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It is arguable that some Romantic music made greater demands upon its listeners than did music of previous historical periods. What were those demands? Why did these changes come about? And what strategies can you formulate for listening to this music today?

In consideration of the musical changes present in the Romantic era, this essay will contend that these changes are very much related to the wider social and technological changes in society around that time. Thus, it is important to identify the broad time period encompassed by this era. The definition of Romanticism in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is:

“A movement or, more commonly, period of cultural history. When understood as a period, Romanticism is usually identified with either the first half or the whole of the 19th century. The term is used with reference primarily to the arts, but it can also embrace philosophy, socio-political history and, more widely, the ‘spirit’ of the era.” [i]

Consequently, this essay views that Romantic music encompasses the whole of the nineteenth century and will consider some of the key changes which occurred around that time period. It has been argued that these changes have resulted in music which makes greater demands upon its listeners and this essay will highlight these demands and how they were influenced by those social and technological changes of that time, concluding with strategies for listening to this music today. Some of the music which can be used to illustrate these changes are specific works by Beethoven, a composer, who is viewed as a major influence on the music of the nineteenth century. This can be evidenced by the Grove article on Romanticism, which deems it to be widely accepted that Beethoven “inaugurated a ‘Romantic era’”[ii]. The demands of Romantic music are characterised by several key changes. These changes can be summarised as follows: an increased intensity, both technical and musical; a greater use of radical contrasts in the music and a significant increase in the length of musical compositions.

The increased intensity of Romantic music can be demonstrated by an analysis of the Diploma syllabus of the ABRSM[iii]. This syllabus provides an “authoritative assessment framework” [iv] for technical and musical ability and one can see that the vast preponderance of its pieces fall into the Romantic category. Furthermore, as one progresses through the levels of syllabus, the “repertoire becomes more demanding” [v] and the volume of Romantic pieces increases steadily.

A major factor in this change is the related technological advancements of that time period which resulted in the upgrading of a number of musical instruments to more advanced forms. This can be illustrated with reference to the specific example of the piano, an instrument refined considerably during the Romantic period. Key changes incorporate the introduction of modern style pedals, greater string diameters and tensions, an extended number of octaves, the double escapement action and the cast iron frame[vi] [vii]. Thus, the instrument of the nineteenth century is far superior to its eighteenth century counterpart. The resultant musical changes include a greater quantity of octaves available and a greater range of power and dynamics made available to the composer. This had the obvious corollary of composers producing pieces with greater use of radical dynamic contrasts. According to Winter[viii], Romantic composers used their new piano to great effect:

“The single most important development in the sound of the Romantic piano was doubtless the new emphasis on the sustaining (or damper) pedal.”

These key changes of distinctive contrasts and increased intensity were aided by the accompanying social change in music around the Romantic period, which can be characterised by the rise of the virtuoso.

Franz Liszt, the legendary pianist, dazzled audiences...
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