May 29

The MyMusicTheory Guide to Music; Part 6 – The Romantic Era


The Romantic Era  1830-1910


As the emphasis on elegance and form began to dwindle, emotion became the driving force behind composers from around the turn of the 19th century. By the time of Beethoven’s death in 1827, “Classical” music was considered old hat, and Romantic music had arrived. In the Romantic era, imagination was king – fantasy  and adventure, dreamscapes and tragedy, the supernatural and romance were all common themes. Whereas in the Classical era music had been written simply for the beauty of sound, in the Romantic era it became much more common for a piece of music to be about something.

Form and Style

All the main types of composition which had been perfected during the Classical era (the string quartet, sonata, concerto and symphony) continued to be popular, although composers were more flexible with their structure.

Some new types of composition were also developed – for example, several dances such as the waltz, polonaise and mazurka; pieces with a certain “character”, such as the nocturne, prelude and rhapsody; and songs became widely popular, particularly a German type of song called a Lied (pronounced “leed”). For the orchestra, a new kind of symphony called the programme symphony was invented – a symphony which tells a story, and the concert overture, which was a one-movement piece, again with a story in mind, designed simply to be performed at a concert.

The composer most associated with the dance forms mentioned above is probably Chopin (1810-1849). He wrote a vast amount of piano music, being a virtuoso pianist himself. Here is an early (1832) Chopin mazurka:

Notice how much drama the music contains, compared to say, Mozart.

One great master of German Lied was Schubert (1797-1828). He died right at the beginning of the dawning of the Romantic era, but his compositions are clearly of a Romantic nature. Lieder lyrics were based on literature, and were normally written for a solo voice with piano accompaniment. Listen to this famous lied by Schubert, which was published shortly after his death, in 1829. “Schwanengesang” means “Swan Song”, and “Standchen” means serenade.

A very interesting programme piece for orchestra is the “Carnival of the Animals”, by Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Saint-Saens, a French composer, wrote the piece in 1886, but it wasn’t performed in full until after his death. Each movement of the work (there are 14 in total!) represents a particular animal. I’d really recommend listening to the whole work (this clip has all the movements), but for now, here is “The Swan”, which was the only part performed while Saint-Saens was still alive:


Contrabassoon - used in Romantic era MusicThe piano had become by far the most popular instrument by the Romantic era. The symphony orchestra, which had been standardised to a certain extent in the Classical period, started to be extended by the more adventurous composers. In addition to the “standard orchestral instruments“, several more exotic members were introduced.
In the woodwind section, we begin to find the bass clarinet, cor anglais and contra-bassoon, and many interesting percussion instruments were experimented with, such as the celeste in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. In the brass section, technological advances made the instruments more versatile, and larger numbers of all brass instruments were used, with a resounding effect. You can see how the general size of the orchestra was expanding here.


Romantic music was a true flowering of creativity. Composers enjoyed experimenting with the “rules” of harmony and form set down by their predecessors, and poured out their emotions into their music. By the end of the Romantic era, the boundaries of tonality were also beginning to be crossed: the major/minor key system which had been in place since JS Bach’s time was re-examined and other possibilities were explored. This brings us to the latest period in musical history – the modern period, a turbulent time of change, controversy and diversity like no musical period before has seen!



1 comment

  1. Tracey Lea

    Words cannot express how good this website is!!! And to think I stumbled upon it when looking for something else!
    Thank you, thank you, thank you etc
    Carry on the brilliant work.
    Tracey Lea

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