New Forms, New Colors, New Logic: Writing Music in the Romantic Era
Music has always been an essential part of the arts, with classical music in particular holding a special place. And like most of the arts, classical music exemplifies and affects the general worldview of a given period in history. Because of this, Western classical music is typically divided into four periods- Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary- with each period differing from the others greatly in sound, mood, and emotion. Yet one period especially stands out from its predecessors when it comes to the art and science of writing music, and that is the Romantic Period, an era which dates roughly from 1830 until 1910 (Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis p. A71). During the Romantic Period, great changes were made to the way Western music was written. Composers defied the conventions of the previous era by refusing to regard old forms and rules with respect, instead changing them and in some cases departing from them entirely. Three great composers of this era- Chopin, Schumann, and Berlioz- provide perfect examples of this in their work. Frederick Chopin is known as one of the greatest composers for the piano in music history, at least in part due to the fact that he was the only major composer to ever limit himself so consistently to one instrument. (Vintage Guide to Classical Music 249) His style is quintessentially Romantic: sophisticated, beautiful, often passionate, and full of the gorgeous melodies and complex rhythms that characterize this period. Chopin himself was physically delicate and often sick, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 39, but his attitude towards writing music was anything but weak. He boldly reinvented forms and used dissonance with great freedom; indeed, even the sensitive listener Mendelssohn complained that “one does not even know at times whether the notes he plays are right or wrong” (The Romantic Generation 246). But one of Chopin’s most startling musical inventions was his use of monophony.
In earlier eras, one strong convention was that of harmony use. In works for piano or orchestra, lines of music, especially motifs that were repeated, would almost always be harmonized with some aspect of the harmony varying in each repetition. Works for “melody-only” instruments like flute, violin, or cello simply wouldn’t have unvarying repetition of a note or small series of notes- it was not that it was passé, it was just musical common sense. Indeed, one of the greatest tests of a composer was the ability to compose a single unaccompanied line that implied four-part harmony, such as Bach’s violin partitas. (Romantic Generation 290) Yet Chopin, a master in the exacting art of writing harmony known as counterpoint, chose to depart from these conventions in favor of the physiological impact of repetition. Chopin’s Polonaise in F sharp Minor op. 44 unequivocally employs this repetition in the form of monophony. What makes it have such “shock value” to a listener is that certain of the elements of music are reduced to zero- but that allows a listener to see more clearly how other elements work, and how they can replace the vanished ones. Chopin does this in this finale through a middle section in which there are almost no dynamic markings other than a single indication for forte (loud) and accents on every first beat. Instead of the flowing lines and emotions of the previous section, this section is almost pure rhythm, with some arbitrary cadences that only emphasize the driving beat. Chopin meant this section to sound military, and it does: in each bar, there are four very quick (thirty-second) notes to imitate a snare drum roll, and then four sharp eighth notes to reproduce hard timpani strikes. (Romantic Generation 289) This would be unthinkable in earlier music; a drum does not have pitch so repetition had always been allowed, but confining a pitched instrument to rhythm, much less actually imitating a...
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