Romantic Era Music Techniques

The Romantic period was a time of great development and change.

The Romantic period was a time of great change in the world. Between 1815 and 1910, composers found themselves responding to an increasingly complex world as a result of the Industrial Revolution. There were conveniences that came at the expense of great sacrifices. Comfort among the well-to-do was reaching an all-time high while working conditions were becoming increasingly brutal. Artists were getting their personal lives involved with politics, literature and art.


Schumann's "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" is a fragment that does not have a conventional beginning or end. It appears out of nowhere and diminishes as suddenly as it began. A characteristic technique of the Romantic period is the fragment that does not have a conventional form. Composers would introduce an idea without consideration of other musical form elements. These elements were fragments of complete musical ideas. We get a sense of what the music might have been.

Song Cycles

Song cycles about nature were characteristic of the Romantic period. These song cycles came with and without words. Composers sought to get closer to the techniques that would allow them to write in a style that mimicked a language. Song cycles typically dealt with nature themes. Gustav Mahler, a famous Romantic period composer, said, "Don't bother looking at the view - I have already composed it." Mahler wrote a series of cycles entitled "Songs on the Death of Children" and "The Song of Lamentation." Franz Schubert wrote several song cycles on nature including "Die Winterreise."


Composers were discovering new ways to develop their works. Shocking rhythms, expansive harmonies, and unusual key changes were the norms in Romantic period music. The tonal language began developing rapidly and chromaticism became a technique used in music of the time. Phrases started using dramatic effects and modulations to new keys. This was different from the Classical period as the melodies were becoming more organic and alive with their compositional uses. Contrapuntal lines were often reduced to single, relentless thoughts that often shocked audiences and created discomfort among musicians. One of the most shocking pieces of the Romantic period was Hector Berlioz in his "Symphonie Fantastique." In this work Berlioz deals with grotesque subject matter and at one point suggests the image of his beloved on a scaffolding about to be beheaded.

Program Music

Another common technique most prevalent in the early symphonies of Mahler is program music. This musical technique involved creating forms not based on standard conceptions about the development of music but the content of a storyline or image. Romantic composers used this technique often to tell a story without words. They could "paint" a picture with the music to convey a particular emotion or dramatic event. During the Romantic period, it was becoming clear that music was more than just a conglomeration of Classical triads and forms. Music was able to express emotion and composers of this time were determined to develop this to the fullest.


Finally, one of the most profound techniques of the Romantic period was virtuosity. Performers of the period had to play increasingly complex musical works and show off their instrumental abilities. Virtuosity was as relevant in the composer's works as in the individual musician's performance. The goal was to create music that had impressive, fast-paced cadenzas that stretched the musician's limits. The musicians who played this music were promoted in the same way that rock bands are today. Schubert's "Erlkönig," composed in 1815, was so difficult even Schubert had trouble with the piano part.


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