The revolutionary spirit ushered in by the Enlightenment infused Western artists with ideals of liberty and individualism. Musicians grew impatient with the restraints of Classicism and sought their own voice, creating divergent schools of musical thought. Thus, there is no exact definition of the Romantic style like prior eras where composers conformed to an accepted core of beliefs and practices. However, there is one characteristic central to all Romantic music: the evocation of emotion as a primary goal.
Soldier Playing a Theorbo 1865 | Ernest Meissonier (1832–1883) | Metropolitan Art Museum
Idealists and Realists
There were two main schools of musical thought during the Romantic era: Idealists and Realists.
Idealists believed that music was complete in itself, i.e., stories, poetry or suggestions of atmosphere were not needed. Their ideas embody the essence of absolute music. Here's a sample of music written by an Idealist Romantic composer:
Ländler in A Minor | Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Realists insisted that music could and should communicate extra musical ideas: tell a story, suggest a mood or scene, imitate nature, champion political ideals, etc. Their ideas embody the essence of program music. These works normally have a descriptive title or an accompanying poem, program, etc. Within the realist camp, Nationalism strove to evoke patriotic feeling through use of folklore, folk and popular music, or by creating music suggestive of folk and popular music. Here's a taste of Nationalistic music:
Orientale | César Antonovich Cui (1835-1918)
Nineteenth Century Audiences
Grand spectacle and intimacy opposed one another. Many composers favored vast numbers of performers and brilliant technical display, appealing to the tastes of the middle class with opera, concerto, symphony and ballet. On the other hand, a smaller group of composers preferred intimate forms with delicate textures: solo song, solo piano works, chamber music, etc. These works were written for performance in exclusive salons for highly cultured audiences. Most chamber music evolved to levels of difficulty beyond amateur performance and was mainly played by professionals.
Most musical forms of the Classical era were in use during the Romantic era: the sonata-form was still one of the most important formal structures. However, these forms were not as clear and precise as they were in the Classical era: boundaries were often vague and overlapping. Often the strong cadences common at the end of major sections during the Classic era were missing. Moreover, forms often not symmetrical or balanced as in the Classic era: consecutive phrases vary in length and development sections tend to be longer than their Classical counterparts.
New and somewhat freer one-movement forms for piano solo—ballad, nocturne and fantasy—appeared. The writing often felt spontaneous, as if improvised. These one movement works were still based on the presentation of contrasting melodies but were shorter and lacked full-blown development sections. Forms such as preludes and etudes may have only one theme but achieve contrast through changes in texture, rhythm and harmony.
Le Concert champêtre c. 1844-1857 | Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1822-1897)
Harmony was becoming increasingly complex and chromatic. Modulation to remote keys became common: modulation was often used to create musical tension and tonal ambiguity, not only as a means to reach a particular key. The tendency towards constantly shifting keys and chromaticism was linked to the emotional content of the music.
Melody is characterized by an intensity of personal feelings. Exciting climaxes and frequent changes in dynamics served to create the tension needed for this type of expression. Melody is often fragmentary, filled with rhythmic interruptions and may use irregular phrases. Here's a short example of romantic harmony and melody:
Prelude Op. 28 No. 4 | Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) | This short piece exhibits extreme dynamics, chromatic harmony and intense emotional expression.
The nineteenth century saw the introduction of many mechanical improvements on musical instrument: keys on woodwinds, valves on brass, metal frame on piano, larger guitar, etc. These changes increased the technical potential of performers. Many of these improvements are still standard in modern instruments.
B-Flat Trumpet | Wikimedia Commons | The addition of valves on brass instruments to change pitch extended range and improved intonation.
Nineteenth century orchestra increased greatly in size, growing from the twenty-five piece orchestras of Haydn and Mozart in the late eighteenth century to the one thousand piece orchestras of Mahler in the late nineteenth century.
Larger orchestras and fuller orchestration techniques meant musical texture in symphonic music tended to be heavy and opaque. The larger orchestra produced a richer, thicker texture and increased the range of available timbres. Timbre became an important part of expression: melodies and chords were often created with specific instruments in mind.