Common Musical Forms During the 1890s

The 1890s saw a dramatic change in the types and kinds of music available. This music period came about toward the end of the Romantic period. Composers of this time were seeking a new kind of music, especially in America. The country was trying to differentiate itself from the music of Europe and create a national style it could call its own. Composers felt free to experiment with new forms and create original music that was not dependent on the Germanic tradition of concert music of this time.


In 1890, there was growing interest in marches. John Philip Sousa is the most well-known march composer, and he wrote 136 marches in his lifetime. During the 1890s, he wrote seven marches including "The Liberty Bell," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "El Capitan." Known as the "March King" he produced more marches than any other composer in history. The form of the march is fairly standardized and includes an introduction, followed by a repeated first strain, a repeated second strain, a trio that includes a key change, a break strain and a final section that includes a singer. Formally, the American march can be thought of as: |: A :||: B :| C (trio) |: D | C :|. The colons represent a repeated section and each letter represents new material. Marches proceed very quickly in half time with two beats per measure and the trio section with three beats per measure.


With the advent of modern piano-making techniques, it was becoming less expensive to mass-produce them. As a result, pianos became a common item in many American homes. This led to the rise of sheet music publishing companies and a demand for songs performed at home. Songs celebrated war heroes and acknowledged the struggles of countries abroad, according to the Public Broadcasting System. Songs played a central role in distributing information and providing entertainment. The song form is typically a 32-bar form that is understood as an introduction and then AABA. The A sections are repeated sections melodically but with different lyrics. The B section is a new section that utilizes related but new melodies.


Antonín Dvorák visited the United States in 1892 and was inspired to write a symphony known throughout the world. He wrote the piece in 1893 and used a standard symphony form. Symphonies were still quite common during this time. Another famous composer of symphonies was Gustav Mahler. At this time, he was finishing his first period of works that included four major symphonies. The symphony is most commonly a four-movement form that consists of four contrasting movements that alternate between slow and fast. Many symphonies also include a scherzo in the third movement.


Ragtime is both a form and musical genre. Ragtime is partially based on the marches of John Philip Sousa, but it uses complex rhythms and heavier bass lines. Ragtime is a style of music that lends itself to any time signature. There are several types that include the cakewalk, two-step, foxtrot, coon song, folk and classic ragtime. Ragtime songs include three main melodic ideas repeated in different ways. The most common form is: AABBACCC′. With the final C' section slightly modified. One of the most popular ragtime songs is "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin.


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