Early Romantic Period Music Guide for Beginners

Music, Styles, Instruments and Composers of the Romantic Period

Composer Richard Wagner conducts an orchestra in 1872.
Richard Wagner conducting the orchestra at the theatre in Bayreuth, May 22, 1872. De Agostini/A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

Romanticism or the Romantic movement was a concept that encompassed different art mediums from music to painting to literature. In music, Romanticism contributed to a status shift in the role of the composer. While composers were merely a servant of the wealthy before, the Romantic movement saw composers become artists in their own right. 

The Romantics believed in allowing their imagination and passion to soar spontaneously and interpret it through their works.

This was different from the preceding Classical music period, which held the belief of logical order and clarity. During the 19th-century, Vienna and Paris were the centers of musical activity for Classical, then Romantic, music.

Here is an easy-to-digest introduction to the Early Romantic Period, from its music forms to famous composers of the time.

Music Forms/Styles

There were 2 major music forms in composition during the Early Romantic Period: program music and character pieces. 

Program music involves instrumental music which relays ideas or narrates an entire story. Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony is an example of this.

On the other hand, character pieces are short pieces for the piano that depicts a single emotion, often in ABA form.

Musical Instrument

Like during the Classical period, the piano was still the main instrument during the Early Romantic period. The piano underwent many changes and composers brought the piano to new heights of creative expression.

Notable Composers and Musicians of the Early Romantic Period

Franz Schubert wrote about 600 leaders (German songs). One of his most famous pieces is titled Unfinished, named so because it only has 2 movements.

Hector Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony was written for a stage actress he fell in love with. He was known for including the harp and English horn in his symphonies.

Another Franz, Franz Liszt was an Early Romantic composer who developed the symphonic poem, which makes use of chromatic devices. These great composers were also colleagues and learned from each other. Liszt's Fantastic Symphony was inspired by one of Berlioz' works. 

Frederic Chopin is best known for his beautiful character pieces for solo piano.

Robert Schumann also wrote character pieces. Some of his works were performed by Clara, his wife, who was also a talented pianist, composer and a central figure in the Vienna music scene.

Giuseppe Verdi wrote many operas with patriotic themes. You may have heard of 2 of his most famous works, Otello and Falstaff.

Ludwig van Beethoven briefly studied under Haydn and was also influenced by the works of Mozart. He played a large role in shifting music from the Classical to the Romantic period. Composing choralchamber music, and opera, Beethoven used dissonance in his music which intrigued his listeners. He began to lose his hearing at age 28, losing it completely by age 50, a tragedy for a musician. One of his most popular works is the Ninth Symphony. He influenced a new crop of young composers guided by the ideals of Romanticism.

Nationalism and the Late Romantic Period

During the 19th-century, Germany was a center of musical activity. By 1850s, however, music themes shifted to focus more on folklore and folk music. This nationalist theme can be felt in the music of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavian countries.

The "Mighty Handful", also known as "The Mighty Five," is a term used to distinguish the five great Russian nationalist composers of the 19th-century. They include Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Other Music Forms and Styles

Verismo is a style of Italian opera wherein the story reflects daily life. There is an emphasis on intense, sometimes violent, actions and emotions. This style is particularly evident in the works of Giacomo Puccini.

Symbolism is a concept introduced by Sigmund Freud that influenced various art mediums. This concept revolves around the attempt to convey a composer's personal struggles in a symbolic manner. In music, this can be felt in the works of Gustav Mahler

Other Notable Composers

Johannes Brahms was influenced by the works of Beethoven. He wrote what is called "abstract music." Brahms wrote character pieces for the piano, leaders, quartets, sonatas, and symphonies. He was a friend of Robert and Clara Schumann.

Antonin Dvorak is known for many symphonies, one of which is his Symphony No. 9, from The New World. This piece was influenced by his stay in America during the 1890s.

A Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg drew upon the national folklore of his beloved country as the basis for his music.

Richard Strauss was influenced by the works of Wagner. He wrote symphonic poems and operas and is known for the lavish, sometimes shocking, scenes in his operas.

Known for his expressive style in music, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote concertos, symphonic poems, and symphonies during this time.

Richard Wagner was influenced by the works of Beethoven and Liszt. Composing operas at age 20, he coined the term "music dramas." Wagner took the opera to a different level by making use of larger orchestras and applying musical themes to his work. He called these musical themes leitmotiv or leading motive. One of his famous work is The Ring of the Nibelung.