Styles & Forms | Early Romantic | Classical

The early Romantic era was a period that saw a move in all the arts towards greater expression and a loosening of structures and forms. In music this meant an expanding and freeing up of existing classical forms such as the symphony, and the development of newly expressive genres such as the symphonic poem.

Opera took on bigger, more confrontational issues, often drawn from history, and instrumental as well as vocal works were frequently inspired by extramusical ideas. Technological advances in instrument manufacture enabled composers to make more extreme demands of performers, and there was also a new interest in virtuoso composer-performers.

Distinctive ideas which characterized the period, in terms of inspirations and texts, included a preoccupation with Nature and the supernatural, a fascination with the recent (rather than ancient) past and an interest in establishing national identity following the upheaval of the French Revolution. Music was used variously to draw pictures, describe events and convey specific emotions. Moreover, in response to the growing interest in performing musics of the past, Romantic composers, with an eye towards posterity, became more interested in creating a distinct personal language.

Italian Opera

By the beginning of the nineteenth century comic and serious genres had come closer together in Italian opera, often combining in a hybrid opera semiseria; the leading composers at this time were Mayr and Paer. But the early years of the century were essentially a period of transition, and it was not until 1813 that Italian opera found a new identity in the works of Rossini. He effectively codified practice for both serious and comic opera: a complex and ornate, bel canto, melodic line was underpinned by a simple but strong harmonic structure; musical numbers were combined to make composite scenes, and the freedom of singers to ornament at will was curbed – instead their particular talents were written into the score. In his best-known comedy, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini combined the brilliant virtuosity of ‘patter songs’ (in which humour is created by uttering a great number of words in a short space of time) with the gentle sentiment of arias and the confusion and momentum of ensemble scenes. His personal battery included a brilliant orchestral style, ornate flourishes in the vocal line and the ubiquitous crescendo.

Italian Opera after Rossini

Rossini’s successors in the 1830s and 40s, Bellini and Donizetti among them, remained somewhat in his shadow, developing the bel canto style that he had established. But they also focused more keenly on characterizations and evolved personal styles. Bellini was known for his long, elegant and exquisite melodies, as typified by ‘Casta diva’ in Norma (1831); his emphasis on emotional power and his attention to the nuances of sentiments paved the way for Verdi and Puccini. Donizetti was known for his effortlessly appealing tunes, but he also brought a more complex and confrontational sense of drama into his operas, and developed pathos into a structural element of both the drama and the...

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