Music Eras: The “Romantic” Period

William Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845. Oil on canvas.

The 19th century was a period when musicians tried to make their instruments “sing.” It is no accident that themes from Romantic symphonies, concertos, and other instrumental works found their way into popular songs, for Romantic melody was marked by a lyricism that gave it an immediate emotional appeal. We find this quality in the music of Chopin, Puccini, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Verdi among others. Through innumerable songs and operas as well as instrumental pieces, Romantic melody moved a wide audience more than ever before.

Music is the melody whose text is the world
Arthur Schopenhaeur

Art mirrors the great undercurrents of social forces as Arthur Schopenhauer implied. The Romantic period (1820 – 1900) was no different. Momentous changes were taking place in the 19th century at every level of human existence. First, there was the social and political upheavals brought about by the French Revolution, which came into full force in the second quarter of the 19th century. The Revolution signalled the transfer of power from a hereditary landowning class to the middle class firmly rooted in the city. Like the American Revolution before it, this upheaval ushered in a social order, one shaped by the Industrial Revolution. New social values emerged, emphasizing free enterprise, with the individual at the center. The slogan of the French Revolution – “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – also inspired hopes of a new freedom of expression in the arts. The snootiness of the landed aristocracy was viewed with disdain; sympathy for the oppressed, interest in simple folk, faith in humankind and its destiny, and celebration of uninhibited emotional expression, defined the democratic character of the Romantics. This new confidence pervaded all the arts, producing poets like Bryon, Shelley, Keats in England, and Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo in Germany and France. It also produced artists like Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) whose Orientalist paintings captured the wonderful, strange and exotic lands of the East.

Music, too, evolved with the times. Whereas music in the Classical period (1750 – 1820) sought order, objectively and poise,  Romantic music longed for subjectively in the expression of personal feelings. To be sure, both Classical and Romantic music have existed side by side from the beginning of time, for they satisfy two of our basic impulses: the need for structure, and the desire for “fire in the belly.” Both are essential to our human nature. These needs explain why people who find classical music “difficult” are nevertheless moved by compositions and arrangements that blend classical and Romantic elements, as is the case with some popular and film music.

Coming up next: The “romantic” music of contemporary pianist and arranger, John Bayless,

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