The Romantic Era

(1850 - 1920 C.E.)

The Romantic era was a period of great change and emancipation. While the Classical era had strict laws of balance and restraint, the Romantic era moved away from that by allowing artistic freedom,
experimentation, and creativity. The music of this time period was very expressive, and melody became the dominant feature. Composers even used this expressive means to display nationalism . This became a driving force in the late Romantic period, as composers used elements of folk music to express their cultural identity.

As in any time of change, new musical techniques came about to fit in with the current trends. Composers began to experiment with length of compositions, new harmonies, and tonal relationships. Additionally, there was the increased use of dissonance and extended use of chromaticism. Another important feature of Romantic music was the use of color. While new instruments were constantly being added to the orchestra, composers also tried to get new or different sounds out of the instruments already in use.

One of the new forms was the symphonic poem , which was an orchestral work that portrayed a story or had some kind of literary or artistic background to it. Another was the art song , which was a vocal musical work with tremendous emphasis placed on the text or the symbolical meanings of words within the text. Likewise, opera became increasingly popular, as it continued to musically tell a story and to express the issues of the day. Some of the themes that composers wrote about were the escape from political oppression, the fates of national or religious groups, and the events which were taking place in far off settings or exotic climates. This allowed an element of fantasy to be used by composers.

During the Romantic period, the virtuoso began to be focused. Exceptionally gifted performers - pianists, violinists, and singers- became enormously popular. Liszt, the great Hungarian pianist/composer, reportedly played with such passion and intensity that women in the audience would faint. Most composers were also virtuoso performers; it was inevitable that the music they wrote would be extremely challenging to play.



The Romantic Era brought further changes in the world of vocal music. Oratorios and choral music were semi-important vocal forms of the time, while the art song was by far the most important.

Art Song

The art song became its own special category of vocal music - separate from folk song, operatic aria, and popular song. It was very lyrical. Composers made great strides during this time period to closely associate the text or words of a piece with its musical counterpart.

The art song was poetic in nature, and its tones were more lyrical than the dramatic tones of an opera. An art song would turn written poetry into something tangible that could be emotionalized through its music. Its goal was to turn specific words or phrases into a musical scene.

The piano helped to add more emotion into the Romantic art song.
The accompaniment enhanced the mood and meaning of the text by
harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic material independent of the voice part. It
also provided harmonic and melodic support to the voice. It also served
to punctuate the poetic form by interludes between stanzas and lines of the poem.

Poetic structure is responsible for the musical form of a song. Two basic forms are through-composed form and strophic form. Through-composed form is different for each stanza and the music closely follows changing ideas and moods in the poem. In strophic form, each stanza of the poem is set to the same music, whereas modified strophic form involves consecutive stanzas playing modified versions of the same music. There are other musical forms that are partly strophic, where some stanzas have the same music, while others have different music.

Song Cycle
The song cycle is a group of poems by one poet set to music by a composer. The song cycle has a central idea or mood.


The oratorio was not the main focus of the romantic era. Composers concentrated more on opera and solo song. However, some composers wrote oratorios. Felix Mendelssohn was a notable composer of oratorio. His famous oratorios are St. Paul and Elijah.


Church music had reached the height of its popularity in the