The Romantic Era was the music of Western civilization in the 19th century. Some of the most notable composers of the Romantic Era were Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, and Wagner. Beethoven is the most difficult to place because much of his earlier compositions were in the classical style, while his later compositions were romantic. The ultimate goal of Romantic music was to attain freedom of design to express powerful human emotions through music.
Romantic music had its foundations in classical music, or music written in the classical style. Romantic composers did not seek to stray from classical form, but to manipulate the rules in order to create more expressive and passionate music. The structure of the classical form was very strict and limiting with what the composer could do musically. The romantics appreciated the form, but broke the limitations, adding or expanding sections of music that would not normally be allowed. Beethoven, for example, was the leader of separating from the classical form and tradition. In his controversial Symphony No. 9, Beethoven introduced vocalists, and a chorus into his final movement. In the classical form, this would not have been allowed. If a piece began as an instrumental piece, it was to remain and end as an instrumental piece.
The Romantic era did not only try the limits of classical form, but it also changed the form of the orchestra. As the musical range of work increased, the size of the orchestra increased with the addition of new instruments and larger sections. The tuba was added to the brass section. New valves for brass instruments were introduced and utilized to give the instruments a more flexible sound. The string section was enlarged to accentuate the sound and dramatic richness of the strings. Bongos and other less conventional percussion instruments were added to the orchestra as well.
Another aspect of Romantic music that separated it from its predecessor was its integration of literature and art into the pieces. This was called Program Music, or music that tells a story. There are three types of program music; the program symphony, the concert overture and the symphonic poem.
The program symphony is characterized by a recurring theme, as in Berlioz’s Symphonic Fantastique where a young man dreams about a woman who comes in the form of a melody which recurs in his mind indefinitely. The concert overture is a one movement piece intended for a performance at a concert. An example would be Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Romeo and Juliet. The final type is the symphonic poem. The symphonic poem was invented by the romantic composer Franz Liszt. It is a one movement piece for orchestra, but the main theme is transformed (thematic transformation) in mood and character. The piece which introduced this type of program music was called Hamlet.
Two very popular forms of music during the Romantic Era were suites and waltzes. Suites were related pieces gathered together for a performance of a play, such as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. The waltz was the most popular dance in the nineteen century, so the composers responded to demand and produced many.
The chief characteristics of the Romantic Era are the dramatic contrasts of dynamics and pitch, large orchestra (due mostly to brass), the freedom of powerful emotional expression, new shape and form from recurring and transforming themes and nationalism.