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Music In The 19th Century

Dramatic Thought and Action

Peter Kun Frary


In European music, most of the 19th century is referred to as the Romantic Era. The stylistic change from the Classical to Romantic was gradual but most scholars date the mainstream Romantic style as 1820 to 1900. This era was the time of the Manifest Destiny (c. 1845), American Civil War (1861–1865) and the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi (1893). In Europe the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the Meiji Era (1868-1912) heralded Japan's modernization and emergence as a world power.

The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State | Thomas Cole (1801–1848) | Metropolitan Art Museum | Landscape and nature scenes were an important inspiration for Romantic art and music.

What Was Romanticism About?

Romanticism was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that began in Europe during the early 19th century, peaking mid-century. It was characterized by dramatic thought and action but, at the same time, filled with contradictions: capitalism and socialism, freedom and oppression, fantasy and reality, logic and emotion and science and faith. In other words, it was diverse and complex, being less unified than previous eras. However, there was a general emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of the distant past and nature.

Nineteenth Century Society

The Industrial Revolution produced major changes in the social-economic structure of society: movement towards cities and increased trade and employment. The growth and power of the middle class, especially the wealthy middle class, accelerated. There was also a leveling of social classes. Aristocratic patronage waned due to a decline of noble political and economic prominence. Thus, the middle class became the musician's primary audience.

Liberty Leading the People | Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) | Louvre Museum | In art, Romanticism moved away from the balance and neoclassicism of the eighteenth century, preferring bolder, brighter colors and dramatic motion over graceful poses.

Music Industry

The business of music resulted from the musician’s shift from noble patronage to the general public. Music was actively marketed by publishers, concert agents, composers and performers. Dazzling showmanship and dynamic personalities were often more important than artistry. Composers such as Paganini, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner fed the lust of middle class audiences for the bizarre and extravagant. The mainstay of the Romantic composer was the vast but unsophisticated public; subsequently, he or she was sensitive to public likes and dislikes. Audiences saw music as an escape from daily life. Thus, they craved extravagant spectacle such as symphony, opera and ballet and virtuosic displays by famous personalities.

The music critic's role became extremely important for the music industry. Whether right or wrong, the critic often had the influence to cause rejection or acceptance of new works. Most innovative composers were constantly in conflict with critics.

The Tempest | Thomas Cole (1801–1848) | Metropolitan Art Museum | Romanticism glorified the distant past and nature.

The teaching of music became an established profession. Many of the finest conservatories and music schools were founded during this era. Much pedagogical material for advanced students was published by the era’s best composers. At the amateur level, the publishing market was flooded with method books and "Easy and Brilliant" parlor solos for piano. The piano was the most important instrument of the era and a symbol of middle class achievement.

Here's a little taste of the romantic style:

Serenade, 1826 | Franz Schubert | Leeward Coast Guitars

Analytical Instructor 1826 | Benjamin Carr (1768-1831) | Sales of piano music, instruction books and piano were big business in the 19th century.

Social dance provided a huge publishing market for dance music. Johann Strauss and his sons aroused the envy of many artistically progressive composers due to their full bank accounts and wide public recognition.


Romanticism, Romantic Era,

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