Styles & Forms | Early Romantic | Classical Music

Beethoven’s shadow looms large over the Early Romantic period. Many of the age’s most remarkable composers – Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner, Brahms – revered him above all. He had stretched the logic of tonal harmony, weakening its tonic-dominant foundations. In the process, the dramaturgy of the Classical sonata had been altered.

Schubert’s Lieder

The Romantic imagination was more confessional than any previous artistic mindset. The extended tonality and proliferation of new forms suited the exploration of new states of feeling. One of the paradoxes of the age was the public celebrity now afforded to composers whose minds were often withdrawn into private imaginative worlds. Some of the most characteristic public statements of the Early Romantic period were in the realms of tragic opera and the increasingly virtuosic solo concerto, both highly individualistic styles.

Above all, the Romantic period was a literary age. Its most distinctive genre in the field of chamber music was the song with piano accompaniment. In different forms, the German Lied had existed since the Renaissance, but as an intimate medium for solo voice and piano it dated back to the mid-eighteenth century. The great Viennese composers of the Classical period had all contributed to the genre, but it was another Viennese, Franz Schubert (1797–1828), who, with Robert Schumann (1810–56) in the 1840s, raised the Lied’s profile so that it ranked alongside the established chamber forms of sonata and string quartet. Schubert was the first of the Early Romantic composers, though his music still bears certain hallmarks of the late Classical period in which he lived.

In his short life, which ended only a year after Beethoven’s, Schubert wrote an astonishing amount of music, including more than 600 Lieder. He set texts by a wide range of German Romantic poets, including Goethe and Heine, but his two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827), use poems by the lesser-known Wilhelm Müller. Schubert’s gift for melody and constantly surprising harmonic sense pervade all his music, but perhaps his greatest legacy to the Lied was to make the piano accompaniment an active part of the song, further dramatizing the poetry through the allusive use of musical imagery. In these two cycles, there are many examples of this practice, a technique that became crucial to much of the music composed in the Early Romantic period.

Chopin’s Piano Music

If the piano virtuoso is the stereotypical Romantic musician, the most characteristic genre of piano music is the piano miniature or character piece. Along with the Lied, these pieces, also known as intermezzo, ballade, nocturne, prélude, étude – saw the greatest range of innovation in nineteenth-century chamber music. The standard of piano manufacture improved a great deal during the Early Romantic era, affording the pianist a wider range of dynamics and subtleties of tone, and the composer more possibilities for poetic expression. Frédéric Chopin (1810–49), himself a celebrated virtuoso, stands out among nineteenth-century composers in having written...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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