Romantic music: a beginner's guide

Around 1830, the Romantic period slowly emerged from the delicate form of the Classical period, breaking musical boundaries and expanding orchestral forces to embody emotions and extra-musical ideas they had never embodied before. How was this possible? Learn more and listen to the best pieces with our guide.

Romantic Period Sound

If you expect the music to have a regular, eight bar phrase, think again. It might have uneven phrases to throw you off course, like in Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony No. 8. If you thought the piece would end in the key it started in, it may well be that composers like Mahler jump to an unexpected musical ending, like in his Symphony No. 2. If in doubt, be prepared to forget anything and everything you previously thought about music, and expect to be surprised, intrigued, and amazed by the unexpected twists and turns of the Romantic period. 
Composers embraced their passionate side and attempted to use music to express deep emotions like love, grief and tragedy, and simply found the rigid forms used by their musical forefathers too restrictive to convey these massive ideas. Don't believe us? Have a listen to the vast expressive forces in Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, 'From the New World'.

Romantic Instruments

As music grew more expressive, the standard orchestral palette just wasn't rich enough for many Romantic composers. Woodwind instruments like the contrabassoon, bass clarinet and piccolo made guest appearances in the orchestra to add some much needed colour, and the percussion section exploded in size with the addition of xylophones, drums, celestes, harps, bells, and triangles - when it comes to the Romantic period, the bigger, the better. Listen to how Tchaikovsky makes use of the twinkly celeste and the eerie contrasting bass clarinet in the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' in his ballet, The Nutcracker.

Romantic Pieces

Despite often being labelled as a Classical period composer, Beethoven's style really straddled the two periods. His later works are pretty expansive, conjuring life, death, joy, peace, and even the concept of a universal brotherhood in the symphony of all symphonies, his choral Symphony No. 9, written in 1824. The period also saw the development of the tone poem, a one-movement work evoking a story or poem, like Debussy's dreamy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune or Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice.

With the musical rule book now firmly out the window, composers had more freedom to write music like it had never been written before - cue Liszt and Chopin, and their virtuosic piano writing. And now music could effectively express any range of emotion, it's no wonder big-hitting opera composers like Verdi and Puccini captured the spirit of the age with their popular operas like La traviata and La Bohème.

So, if it's possible to summarise the vast Romantic period in a nutshell, composers used ever-increasing subject matter in their works, and expanded the orchestra to express the full gamut of human emotion through music. But, understandably, this over-indulgent expression had its critics who favoured absolute music – music for music's sake, without a programme or story – and these critics led music into the ever-diverse 20th Century period.