Theoretically Speaking: S5:E8 – What Makes Romantic Music, Romantic Music ?

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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:

Ka-boom! Cannons!

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.

Feels right.

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

Overture in C
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
1832

Nocturne Opus 9, no 2
Frédéric Chopin
1832

Mephisto Waltz no. 1
Franz Liszt
1859

The Stars And Stripes Forever
John Philip Sousa
1896

Finlandia, Op. 26
Jean Sibelius
1900

Poème de l’extase
Alexander Scriabin
1908

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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cstolliver
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October 13, 2023 5:58 am

Tchaikovsky, John Philip Sousa and Taylor Swift: I never thought I’d read about them in the same article, but you did a great job of explaining why.

I’ve always understood (but perhaps wrongly) that “Romance,” at least as applied to language, was used to acknowledge their Latin roots. Is there any suggestion of this in romantic music as well?

Have a great weekend.

thegue
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October 13, 2023 3:19 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

My favorite joke about Taylor Swift:

“This Christmas, all of Taylor’s exes are going to release their own album called Maybe You’re the Problem.”

cappiethedog
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October 13, 2023 10:39 pm
Reply to  thegue

Aimee Mann named names.

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 13, 2023 7:47 am

If they wanted to get romantic, they should have incorporated some silky croons into their works. Play in a venue with dim lighting. Maybe a nice dinner to go with it. Baddabing: romance. You’re welcome Ludwig!

I do sometimes wonder why it is that Romantic works are the most popular these days among the Western canon. After all, most of the negative stereotypes about classical music–bombastic, demanding, exhausting, long!–come from the Romantic era.

I think using music as a dramatic background in film and TV was a huge factor. The baroque and classical eras just can’t compete in terms of big emotional movements. Plus, audiences are probably more forgiving of more dissonant passages if they’re brief, especially as one component of a larger narrative moment. This logic has even extended beyond the Romantic works, making modernist music more “digestible” when used in horror films to get the skin crawling.

Still, one Classical era composer who provided plenty of cinema-ready music was Mozart. He was part of the Sturm und Drang movement, which was the precursor to Romanticism. He certainly liked his pleasantries, but he could throw in some drama with the best of them. Rock me, Amadeus!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNZGarhNKbA

Thanks for the great write-up, Bill.

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 13, 2023 10:13 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Definitiv nicht!

blu_cheez
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October 13, 2023 3:56 pm

Was going to comment w/ something similar – Romantic music is still dominant in movie / TV / play / game scores. The only time you hear those older periods is when the visual medium’s story is set in that time.

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 13, 2023 7:51 am

One of these listed composers, I will be touching on soon. Just a touch though, for reasons of safety.

cstolliver
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October 13, 2023 11:40 am

Hmm … Sousa? Swift?

Phylum of Alexandria
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October 13, 2023 12:29 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

“Safety” meaning that you should always wield magic with caution… 🤓

thegue
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October 13, 2023 9:40 am

That old-fashioned sonata form, with its ABA structure, was replaced with 

I’m glad you straightened that out for me, since I thought the ABA structure was replaced by the ABBA structure in the 1970s.

LinkCrawford
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October 13, 2023 11:10 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Ha! Abacab IS named after the structure of the song, at one point in its development. By the time they put the song to record it had been modified to a different structure (ABABCABD?), but they kept its original nickname.

Pauly Steyreen
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October 13, 2023 10:12 am

To all those pictures of the composers, I gotta say,

“Smile y’all! 😁”

JJ Live At Leeds
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October 13, 2023 1:00 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

If ever there’s some images that scream romance……

I’m sure that once they got out of the tail coats, corsets and layers of restrictive clothing they were a seething mess of passion. They just hid it well.

cappiethedog
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October 13, 2023 10:40 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

They were all writing about unrequited love.

Low4
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October 13, 2023 10:27 am

I’m completely non-musical and know nothing of theory, so articles like this are fascinating to me. Why is romantic music romantic, what makes a tune happy or frightening, why does a Bond theme work? There must be reasons, but darned if I know or understand.

I’d never heard the term “program” music in this context. For me, the most successful piece of program music has to be Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. It makes me actually feel the tempest of the storm at sea and the calm at dawn after the storm breaks and the sun rises. Amazing–how does it do this? How does it work?

LinkCrawford
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October 13, 2023 11:14 am

It is great that we went through the romantic period of classical music. A lot of classical before it was clinical and rigid. But I do feel the romantic period is the most over-rated. It does seem to have the most fans (is this Schroeder/Charles Shultz’s fault?). I really look forward to where music develop FROM the romantic period.

Bill, excellent work, as always!

JJ Live At Leeds
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October 13, 2023 12:57 pm

Came here for Barry White, stayed for Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz.

Once I got past the realisation we were dealing with a much earlier romantic phase than the Walrus Of Love it proved to be as excellent and informative as ever.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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October 13, 2023 12:59 pm

Starbuck thanks you for the joke, mt.

mt58
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mt58
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October 13, 2023 1:36 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Well, then: what say we just shoehorn in:

The farewell performance of my favorite MalletKAT solo ever?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5k7sgowa3p8

Zeusaphone
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October 13, 2023 6:41 pm

Yes, but how do you tune a cannon?

thegue
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October 13, 2023 8:59 pm
Reply to  Zeusaphone

Very, VERY carefully…

ArchieLeech
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October 13, 2023 11:08 pm

Great article, V-Dog. Your comments about parlor music in particular filled in and completed a picture I’ve been getting from playing classical guitar the last few years. The two greatest composers for guitar more or less bookend the period you discuss here, and between the two of them they tell the story of Romantic music you describe.

Fernando Sor (1778-1839) was born to a military family but early on became infatuated with music. He studied singing and took to the new 6-string guitars even as he rose in the military ranks. His early songs were patriotic, often program music of battle. But European power shifted, and Sor lost his military position, freeing him to dedicate himself to music. He created the first major classical guitar teaching method.

For the listener, Sor’s music is easy to like – tuneful and memorable. As a player, I find these songs full of quirks and tricks that make sense once you learn the song well and play it at speed. For example, both his D Major and B Minor Etudes have melodies which fall on the first beat of the measure, but bass notes which fall on the off-beats. Played smoothly, the lower tones fill in, but they float almost like a reggae bass line by not landing on the main emphasis. Sor’s songs are fun to play. Here is the great Julian Bream, nearing the end of his life, playing the B Minor Etude in the studio where he learned guitar as a boy:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49x9Csv4KPk

Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) loved his father’s flamenco guitar playing. His life-long propensity to run away almost brought tragedy early in his life when he fell into a canal and nearly lost his eyesight. His father sent him for music lessons, encouraging the safer avenue of piano, but Tarrega was drawn to the guitar, particularly as played by the Romani he kept running off to. He borrowed the structures and harmonies from the nomads, and wrote several of the most-loved classical pieces. His “Gran Vals” not only was the source of the Nokia ring tone, it’s being used in a commercial now in circulation. Tarrega is arguably the most-loved classical guitar composer.

It’s too bad that the cliche of classical guitar is of a soft, melancholy sound – wimpy at its worst. Paganini, for example, is primarily thought of as a ferocious violinist, but he claimed that the guitar was his real gift (although I suspect he used the guitar’s quieter volume as a way to bed his female fans). Much of Tarrega’s music is full of flirtation, dance, and sex – one of the Romani women he met became his guitar-playing wife, Marie. Thu Le is a gifted guitarist who never shies away from the sexiness of Tarrega’s music.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUEnfovQWhI

From Sor to Tarrega you can hear guitar music evolve from clever, enjoyable investigations in classical form to something more dynamic and dramatic. Both men were popular among the nobility of their respective eras for a reason – even as musical forms evolved, the passion remained. Thanks for another great read, V-Dog.

Last edited 8 months ago by ArchieLeech
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