Essay Romantic Music

The nineteenth century brought great upheaval to Western societies. Democratic ideals and the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe and changed the daily lives of citizens at all levels. Struggles between the old world order and the new were the root causes of conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to the American Civil War. From New York, to London, to Vienna, the world was changing and the consequences can still be felt to this day.

The lives of musicians, composers, and makers of musical instruments were greatly altered by these social changes. In earlier times, musicians were usually employed by either the church or the court and were merely servants to aristocratic circles. Composers wrote music for performances in these venues, and musical instrument makers produced instruments to be played by wealthy patrons or their servant musicians. With the rise of the middle class, more people wanted access to music performances and music education.

A new artistic aesthetic, Romanticism, replaced the ideals of order, symmetry, and form espoused by the classicists of the late eighteenth century. Romantics valued the natural world, idealized the life of the common man, rebelled against social conventions, and stressed the importance of the emotional in art. In music, Romanticism, along with new opportunities for earning a livelihood as a musician or composer, produced two seemingly opposite venues as the primary places for musical activity—the large theater and the parlor.

Music as Public Spectacle
One result of the Industrial Revolution was the creation of a middle class. This new economic strata consisted of a larger number of people with more disposable income and more leisure time than had ever existed before. Musical extravaganzas that triumphed the musician or composer gained popularity with the masses of concertgoers. Beginning with Beethoven, composers began to arrange large concerts in order to introduce their works to the public. As audiences desired more, composers wrote larger musical works and demanded more of performers and their instruments.

The “bigger is better” mentality led to new musical forms such as the tone poem and large-scale symphonic and operatic works. Orchestras grew, including larger string sections with a full complement of woodwinds, brass, and ever more percussion instruments. New types of orchestral winds (2003.150a–g) and brass (2002.190a–n) that allowed for greater facility and more accurate playing were introduced. Composers such as Hector Berlioz, and later Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, continually pushed the limits of the available musical forms, performers, instruments, and performance spaces throughout the nineteenth century.

Musicians who could dazzle and amaze their audiences by their virtuosity became the first musical superstars. The two most famous nineteenth-century examples were the violinist Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840) and the pianist Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Both dazzled audiences throughout Europe with their performances, elevating the status of the musician from servant to demigod. Their fame grew throughout Europe, and their likenesses would be recorded in a variety of visual arts.

In order to withstand the virtuosic and often bombastic playing of these soloists, as well as to provide the type of volume needed in large concert venues, more powerful instruments were needed. Larger and louder violins like those by Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) or Guarneri del Gesù (1698–1744)—preferred by Paganini—replaced the quieter and subtler violins of earlier masters like Jacob Stainer (ca. 1617–1683) or the Amati family. The demands of pianists like Franz Liszt pressed the technology and design of pianos to ever-larger instruments, eventually replacing the internal wooden structures of the eighteenth century with cast-iron frames that could withstand thousands of pounds of pressure.

Parlor Music
Conversely, music gained popularity in the intimate nineteenth-century parlor. At the time, home life was centered in the salon, or parlor, where children played and learned with adult supervision, and where the family entertained company. Musical performances for small groups of people became popular events, and some composers/performers were able to support themselves financially by performing in these small venues and attracting wealthy patrons. Most famous among these was Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849).

Music in the parlor was of a very different sort than in the concert hall. Solo performances and chamber music were popular, and included everything from operatic and orchestral transcriptions to sentimental love songs and ballads. In the United States, hymns and folk songs by composers like Stephen Foster (1826–1864) supplemented the European repertoire.

With the rise of the parlor as the center of family life, music education became increasingly important. Children were often taught to play musical instruments as part of a well-rounded education; for girls, playing an instrument was more important than learning to read. When guests and potential suitors visited, the children and teenagers would entertain with performances of the latest popular works.

All sorts of musical instruments were used in the home, and at various times the guitar, harp (2001.171), concertina, and banjo were extremely popular. However, the most important musical instrument in the home was the piano, because it was useful as both a solo instrument and as accompaniment to a group of singers or instrumentalists. To accommodate home use, smaller pianos were created, first square pianos and later uprights. Small pianos took up less space and, although they were not as powerful as larger types, they were also less expensive. With the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, the mass manufacturing of musical instruments—especially pianos—provided a seemingly endless supply for the huge markets of both the United States and Europe. The piano would remain a central component of domestic life until it was replaced by the phonograph, radio, and television in the twentieth century.

Jayson Kerr Dobney
Department of Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

Romantic Period Classical Music Essay

“To say the word romanticism is to say modern art - that is, intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by every means available to the arts.” Charles Baudelaire. The Romantic era in classical music symbolized an epochal time that circumnavigated the whole of Western culture. Feelings of deep emotion were beginning to be expressed in ways that would have seemed once inappropriate. Individualism began to grip you people by its reins and celebrate their unique personalities and minds. Some youth began to wear their hair long, their beards scraggly and unkept, and their clothing was inspired by the outlandish and the flamboyant. Music morphed from a once tangible aural stimulant into music marked by its decent into the depths of human emotions most of which were not rational. Classical music became a stream of consciousness, a vehicle to convey their countless emotions. In the Romantic Period, music now voiced what, for centuries, people had been too afraid to express. The culture, the composers, and the music of the Romantic era changed classical music profoundly. The Romantic era classical music manifested itself as a time of the irrational and peculiar, a time that allowed many people the opportunity to express their inmost convictions through the music.
The culture of the Romantic Period marks an era shrouded in astonishing and rapid change, socially and economically. In Europe, between the years 1825 and 1900, enormous technological developments occurred. With the Industrial Revolution full force, the inventions of railroads and steamboats satisfied an insatiable desire for speedy travel and transportation of goods. Photography was changing the way in which history was recorded. The invention of the telegraph and the telephone provided a means for faster communication and the proliferation of the practical usage of electricity headed by Thomas Alva Edison in America forever changed the home lives of Americans and others around the globe. New jobs in these industries, including factories and mines helped to create multiple layers of economic classes. There were no longer just wealthy and poor; there was now a distinct middle class that was gaining strength. Advances in medical sciences also created more jobs that further created more class layers. The growing middle class led to a popularization of Classical music, because now non-wealthy people could attend concerts. The number of concert halls and professional orchestras increased greatly to satiate the public’s desire to attend Classical music concerts. Many of the world’s greatest orchestras were formed during the Romantic Period. Europe also sheltered a revival of Gothic styles, which can be seen in architecture and the penchant for elaborate castles and palaces. Philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Hegel developed their distinct views of man’s relationship with the world, other people, and nature itself. ...

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