10 of the best Romantic composers in classical music history

23 November 2020, 08:56

Romantic composers: Liszt, Fanny Mendelssohn and Verdi
Romantic composers: Liszt, Fanny Mendelssohn and Verdi. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

From the year 1800 to around 1910, Western Classical Music was defined by its soaring melodies and ever-expanding orchestras, its originality and self-expression. Here are the composers who made it all happen.

The Romantic period. “So good, they named it twice”, in the great words of composer and Classic FM presenter, John Brunning.

The ‘Early’ Romantic period began around the year 1800 with then-Classical great, Ludwig van Beethoven, whose revolutionising of the symphony gave life to a new era in music history.

Fast-forward to the turn of the century, and music was looking wildly different to how it did in the Classical era (1730-1820). The Late Romantics, composers like Rachmaninov and Mahler, were expanding the orchestra to unprecedented proportions, adding more colours and instruments and turning music into a vehicle to express the full spectrum of human emotion – from sorrow to joy, passion to grief.

Here, we explore some of the Romantic period’s greatest contributors.

  1. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

    Frédéric Chopin was a virtuoso pianist, who wrote almost exclusively for the instrument.

    The piano went through significant changes during the 19th century as composers grew more ambitious in range, colours and dynamics. It became a symbol of Romanticism and was enlarged to suit the needs of music-makers like Chopin.

    Of his repertoire, the Polish Romantic’s own favourites were the Preludes, along with which his Nocturnes, Waltzes, Etudes, Mazurkas, Sonatas and Concertos are still among the most beloved repertoire of pianists today.

  2. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

    Another composer indelibly linked with the piano, Franz Liszt – dubbed “The World’s First Rock Star” – took virtuoso pianism to new heights.

    The great Hungarian composer, among whose repertoire you’ll recognise the mind-bogglingly fiendish La Campanella, was a showman who revolutionised the art of performance. At his piano recitals, Liszt’s fans would tear off their clothes and scream out his name, a phenomenon the German poet Heinrich Heine styled ‘Lisztomania’.

    You’ll often hear Liszt’s enduring and beautiful Liebestraume No. 3 in A flat major played at recitals today.

  3. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

    The undisputed King of Italian opera, Verdi is known primarily – along with his monumental Requiem – for his great stage works La traviata, Rigoletto, Nabucco, Aida, La forza del destino, Il trovatore.

    Verdi’s operas, mostly written around the time of the unification of Italy, became an essential part of Italy’s national identity, and his choruses were adopted as anthems of Italian freedom-fighters.

    To Italy in the 19th century, Verdi was a musical monarch, and his death in 1901 brought grief to a national population who connected deeply with the passion of his operas.

  4. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

    New instruments, bespoke venues, ridiculously long works – the list of Richard Wagner’s innovations in 19th-century music goes on.

    Wagner, a rather controversial character mostly because of his association with Nazism – more on that in our fact gallery here – was a musical visionary known primarily for his operas. His most enduring works include The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde and of course, his monumental Ring Cycle, a work of four operas that takes 15 hours to perform.

    To opera, he gave the ‘leitmotif’, a now widely used musical signature designed to represent a character or theme. Think of Darth Vader’s music in Star Wars, and you’ll see what we mean.

  5. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

    Fanny Mendelssohn was a truly great composer, but getting her work published in the 19th century was an almost overwhelming ordeal.

    Her brother Felix Mendelssohn, whose Violin Concerto in E minor and The Hebrides regularly make appearances in 21st century concert programming, believed that as a woman, Fanny shouldn’t be publishing music. He decided that many of her works, including her rather wonderful song ‘Italien’, should be published under his name.

    Overall, Fanny wrote 460 pieces of music including many Songs without Words, a genre of piano music for which her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, became famous. Musicologists now believe Fanny pioneered this form.

  6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

    Tchaikovsky is one of the most successful composers Russia has ever produced.

    He was a prolific composer of symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets and chamber music, whose Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleepy Beauty are guaranteed sell-outs for ballet companies around the world, and whose symphonies and concertos are mainstays of today’s international concert stage.

    Tchaikovsky was also a deeply troubled man, and his works were shaped by the emotional consequences of his disastrous marriage, multiple amorous liaisons and homosexuality, which was illegal in Russia at the time.

  7. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

    Is there something in your eye, or have you just been listening to the German Requiem? Brahms is one of the Romantic era’s most revered and popular composers, his symphonies, piano and violin concertos, joyous Academic Festival Overture and deeply affecting German Requiem, which he wrote after the death of his mother, among his most played works.

    Discovering Brahms’ music also means diving into his fascinating marriage of classical tradition with folk and gypsy influences, the inspiration for his 21 dynamic and varied Hungarian Dances.

  8. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

    You say ‘sob-inducing aria’, we say Puccini. This great Italian composer wrote La bohème, Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Turandot – all among today’s most performed operas, all with absolutely heartrending music at their centre.

    In fact, his final opera Turandot, which includes the great tenor aria ‘Nessun dorma’, is one of the few 20th-century operas to have sustained a firm foothold in opera houses across the world. When working on his last work, Puccini said: “Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said, ‘Write for the theatre – mind, only for the theatre’.

    “And I have obeyed his supreme command.”

  9. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

    Moving into the late Romantics now, Rachmaninov is your go-to turn-of the-century guy for swelling melodies and virtuosic pianism, whose masterpiece was surely the Second Piano Concerto from 1901. Its subsequent use in the film Brief Encounter has made it a constant favourite.

    A famously large-handed gentleman, Rachmaninov could apparently span 12 piano keys from his little finger to his thumb, and was so able to write piano music grander, fuller and more expensive in tone than his predecessors.

    His Third Piano Concerto, a perennial concert hall favourite, (literally) stretches the soloist to the very limits of their ability.

  10. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

    For many, Mahler represents the culmination of the extraordinary changes Western Classical Music went through in the space of a century.

    A master of the symphony, Mahler thought “the symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything”. Whether it’s raging violence, deep sentimentality or existential ennui you’re after, you’ll find it all and more in Mahler’s symphonies.

    With his second symphony – for which the phrase ‘size matters’ has never been more applicable – Mahler was keen to emphasise life and death in all its terrifying splendour. Its emotional range and cadential tension have made it one of the pieces of classical repertoire that not only do audiences desperately want to hear, but orchestras and conductors also want to perform.

We know what you’re thinking – of course, Romantic music doesn’t end at these 10 composers.

The 19th century produced a melting pot of musical expression, to which composers including Richard Strauss, Felix Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Berlioz, Schumann, Grieg, Dvorák and Debussy were all prolific contributors. Find out more about the composers and their music by clicking on their names.