Romanticism and Music | Music, Literature & Politics

Analyzing the Romantic Period in Music.


The Romantic Period which spanned for more than a century, roughly falling between late 18th century to late 19th century has had a tremendous impact on the way things are perceived and felt in life in general and art in particular. The Romantic Movement provided a fertile ground to inculcate and aid the maturation of a particular type of sensibility inherent in man.

Like any other movement in art, Romanticism was a product of and a contributor to the socio-politico-economic scenario of the time. It is true that the Romantic streak has pervaded the pages of history both before and after the Romantic Period. However, the time period where this Romantic streak found its fullest expression in the three forms of art namely literature, music and the visual arts falls within a particular timeline which has been designated as the Romantic Age. Whether it has been done out of necessity or convenience is a subject of another debate. What the analysis will proceed with is the notion that Romanticism as an approach is fluid and has found its manifestation before and after the nineteenth century but that the Romantic Period being a distinct Euro-centric phenomenon, has a historical existence with a beginning and an end. The analysis also tacitly acknowledges that though there certainly was a vibrant interaction among literature, art and music in terms of ideas and modes of expression, the three forms of art also bore their share of discrepancies and that the Romantic Period in literature while coinciding with the Romantic Period in music does not necessarily follow the same pathway of its emergence and decline.

The essay focusses on three broad aspects of Romanticism i.e. Spontaneity and Individualism, The Nature and Nationalism. It further attempts to locate certain contradictions inherent within the Romantic Movement which had an impact on its decline.

The time period between late 1700s to early 1900s has been regarded as the Romantic Period, especially in relation to music. The Romantic Movement is traditionally seen as a reaction against the project of Enlightenment and Industrialization. Aesthetically, it arose in opposition to the strictures of the Classical Period. However, the veracity of this notion should be accepted in its entirety. Romantic Music in Russia for example did not arise in reaction to the two erstwhile mentioned factors as much as it did due to the reaction against West European Romanticism itself. The Russian Stravinsky therefore did not define himself against the Classical Bach as much as he did against the Romantic German Wagner. We see then, besides the pitting against of Passion and Nature to Reason and Industrialization, both very strong socio-economic drivers of an enlightened and an industrialized age, an emergence of a third factor – Nationalism, a distinct political ideology which proliferated on the basis of its sheer romantic drive revitalized by historical events.


Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.. – Wordsworth


This often quoted line by Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads brings to our notice two major themes of romantic music: spontaneity and feeling. Classical music was to Enlightenment what Romantic Music was to the Romanticism. The rigid adherence to form, a feature which had been immanent in Classical music came under criticism during the Romantic Period where the traditional observance of rational order and poise was slowly replaced by the emotive style of an individual which, rather than being impressed upon by the existing canonical tradition strove to express one’s own imagination and individuality. Nietzsche almost equates this view of the Classical and Romantic to the Apollonian and Dionysian forces respectively in his book The Birth of Tragedy.

Romantic Period saw the replacement of objectivity by subjectivity and the reinforcement of the individual self, an idea which had already gained currency when the French Revolution gave way to Napoleonic rule.

Romantic Music also carried with it the democratic drive which is seen in not only in the manner in which musicians relied on subjective expression over objective rules but also in the rise of non-professional musicians who emerged, destroying musical hierarchies . Examples of this breed of artists would be Wagner, Berlioz and Mussorgsky to name a few. However, it is interesting to note that the establishment of Musical conservatories during the late Romantic age which encouraged imitation of these artists ran counter to the very idea of individual style and spontaneity which Romanticism tended towards.

The rise of the middle class around the same time also provided the artist an accessibility to a much larger market audience and vice versa. The rise of concert performances which boasted of a “Paganini –The Wizard of Violin” or a “Liszt- The Dazzler” demonstrates how the rise of the middle class instilled a democratic element to music for both the artist and the audience: the artist on one hand, released from the obligation to pander to the taste of one patron could now make music as he desired whereas the audience on the other had an access to the live performances of the artist which had erstwhile been reserved for the private pleasure of the aristocracy; liberty for the artist, equality for the audience.

Norman Lloyd in The Golden Encyclopedia of Music says that the rising middle class were more attracted to the showmanship than the artistic merit of the artist. Composers like Chopin and Berlioz were greatly celebrated in their own times through such concerts. It is during this period that the figure of the popular Artist not only emerges but is also romanticized.

The importance of the individual not only translated into the individuality of the composers but also of the compositions themselves. Whereas the previous compositions from the Classical period were largely given numeric titles such as Mozart’s Sonata No. 11 or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 , those pertaining to the Romantic Period were christened with artistic and expressive names such as: Schumann’s “Child Falling Asleep” and “The Devil’s Laughter” by Paganini. The dignity of an individual is seen on rise not only in music but also in other forms of art such as literary texts and paintings. One might here mention the character of ‘Flaneur‘ introduced to us by Baudelaire who ascribes a certain dignity to this wanderer which had erstwhile been denied him. However, the “Flaneur” necessarily depended on the urban spaces and derived his distinct identity very much from the space which he was critiquing. An intriguing contradiction with the Romantic Age is that it was that very luxury of reflection and ease of life that modernity brought along with it which provided one with enough time to wonder and ponder and indulge in nostalgia, harking back to the ‘Good Ol’ Days’.

Towards the mid Romantic Period, we see developments in the individual musical instruments to match the growing size of the orchestra and assert their individual tones. The piano increased in size, valves were adjusted in the French Horn and the bridge of the stringed instruments were heightened. The inclusion of ‘minor’ instruments like piccolo, trombone, snare drum and the triangle in the grand orchestra fell in line with the democratic spirit of the Romantic Music: expression of each. Due to the technological advancements, we also have the invention of new musical instruments around the same time. Advancements in metallurgy made possible the invention of the Tuba. Adolphe Sax came up with the Saxophone and instruments like the Celesta made its appearance in the Romantic Period. Another contradiction in this Period is that the same rise of industries and technological advancements aided the Romantics with more resources to critique the idea of ‘progress’ and forward motion. The superstructure of culture did derive from the foundation of the material reality of the times.


“I love not Man the less, But Nature More”
Lord Byron


Supposedly designed to provide a ‘natural’ mode of education, Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education catalyzed the process of romanticizing children. Poets like Wordsworth and William Blake did not only write about children as their subject but also idealized them. In music, the idea of the ‘natural’ nature of children as being superior to the ‘cultivated’ one of the adults found its resonance in the exaltation of child prodigies. From Bellini to Bizet, Chopin to Liszt, the Romantic Period had a regiment of child prodigies. (All the four took up their instruments aged below ten. Bellini supposedly began studying music theory at two, the piano at three and could play well by five!) Nevertheless, the Big Five among the Russians (which include Mussorgsky, a civil servant and Borodin, the chemist) who take up music later in life provide a different picture. The idea of children being a glorious individuals in the natural form was also linked to the notion of being ‘natural’ in one’s composition. This idea of spontaneity was in turn connected with the idea of ‘being natural’ or ‘being oneself’ which was at the heart of the highly romanticized figure of the artist with an otherworldly persona and a “Man speaking to men” . The privileged position which the Romantics had with children finds its expression in all the three forms of art : Wordsworth’s “Child is the father of Man’’, Brahm’s ‘Lullaby’ and Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Orphan Girl at the Cemetery’. Perhaps, the privileged representation of children during the Romantic Age was one of the reasons for the inclusion of Romantic Music, especially those by Liszt, Brahms and Chopin in cartoons like Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny. All said and done, one cannot overlook the fact that while Brahms was composing his “Lullaby” which would be one of the most recognized Romantic pieces among White children, Germany was witnessing an emergence of ‘human zoos’ where African and Native American children were displayed as objects of curiosity.

The romanticized Nature over Man is seen many compositions of the time which attempted to evoke the mysterious and the Sublime as seen Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The fateful results of man’s attempt to tower over nature and the plight of the over-reacher is reflected in both music and literature. La damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz and Frankenstein by Mary Shelly serve as pertinent examples.

The Romantics not only attempted to represent nature but also tried to imitate natural sounds. The numerous books on bird music during late 1900s hark back to the use of bird songs in the Romantic compositions. Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky and John Bladwin were among the many composers who either incorporated or mimicked birds in their compositions. This was done more by the Romantic realists who believed that music should have extra-musical elements and that it should tell a story as opposed to the Romantic idealists who were of the view that music should exist for its own sake. Witchwell in The Evolution of Birdsong and Gashtrag in The Song of Birds talks about how most of the birds sing in tunes which have been handed over by their preceding generations whereas birds like the jackdaws, nightingale and the blackbird have an inventive ability to make their own tunes. Blackbird and the thrush have even been said to belong to the ‘artistic aristocracy’ among birds. One often detects in the writings of these authors, through their examples and references, the hint of an obsession with the Romantics which should serve as a pointer to discern from whence the diction of these authors arrive. Besides birds, the Romantics also incorporated sounds of the waterfall, the gushing streams, thunder and lightning and sounds made by other natural creatures. The Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky would be a fine example of natural imitation by a Romantic artist. Owing to their distinct geographical location of many countries, the natural surroundings were often symbolic of the nation states. This politics of geography is demonstrated in the intricate intertwining of Nature and Nationalism in the music of Russian Romantics .

“And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
William Wordsworth

With the rampant growth of industries and urbanization, the crisis which the Romantics found themselves embroiled in was in many ways what gave them a solid opposition to define the Self and aided them to express their opposition through music. It is true that the Romantics tried to locate values like bravery and heroism in the Middle Ages instead of viewing it as the ‘dark ages’ like Enlightenment did. However, its failure to recognize the benefits of urbanization and industrialization is remarkable. The technological advancements in music has already been established in the previous section. To it, one may add the advancement in the printing press which not only broadened the readership of poets writing about the rise of the ‘Satanic mill’ but also made the dissemination of sheet music a lot easier, not to mention the employment opportunities associated with the rise of music journals across Europe. However, the same industrialization which elicited romantic responses slowly subdued it for , with the increasing advancements in transportation and communication, the scope of the undiscovered and the mysterious narrowed down which finally collapsed into a singular event whose sheer reality banished every critique of industrialization, Romantic or otherwise : World War I.


“ Oh, how hard it must be to die anywhere but in one’s own birthplace.”
Frederic Chopin


The post-Napoleonic years had imbued many European nations with a strong sense of nationalism. Interestingly, the rise of nation states in Europe also coincided with the Romantic Period. The superiority of German-Austrian Romanticism was challenged by composers from different parts of Europe, be it the Polish Chopin, the Hungarian Liszt, the Czech Dvorak or the Russian Tchaikovsky. The Hungarian folk-tunes introduced by Liszt and the polonaises and mazurkas by Chopin were imbibed within the Romantic Music with considerable significance. Here, Chopin rises as an interesting figure, the artist who becomes the battleground where the personal and the political meet. The “poet of the piano” was also known as the only “political pianist” whom the Poland of post-November Uprising (1831) never saw in its territory but definitely heard his mazurkas and polonaises which asserted the Polish spirit in music. The contrast between his personal nocturnes with the spirited mazurkas produced an effect where the political was contrasted by the personal. Also, R Larry Todd in his book Nineteenth Century Piano Music suggests the mingling of the personal and the political in Chopin’s supposedly apolitical Nocturnes. He cites Nocturne in G minor as an example of how the “nationalistic” mazurka and the “religious” chorale met. The “Big Five” of Russia, the same country which had taken away the Polish independence transcribed and popularized the techniques of Chopin. They also restructured the Polish mazurkas while defining Russian nationalistic music. So strong was the political appeal of this “poet of the piano” that both Hitler and Stalin had to use force to clamp down the nationalistic spirit in his music. During World War II, the Nazis forbade playing of Chopin’s polonaises in Warsaw due to the “powerful symbolism residing in these works”. USSR on the other hand felt the need to reprimand the pro-Soviet musician Shostakovich for participating in the International Chopin Festival held in Poland.

Russian Romanticism owes much to Romantics of central Europe for its existence. It grew out of a response to not so much as to Enlightenment or Industrialization as to the nationalistic tone of European states in their music and politics. Glinka (1804-57), the foremost bearer of the Romantic beacon in Russia who is also known as “The father of conscious nationalism in music” began his compositions in reaction against Italianism which had plagued the Russian court. Glinka was able to function with his nationalistic compositions thanks to the fresh memories of Napoleonic invasion of the motherland in the Russian popular imagination .The Russian Romantic Period which identifies Glinka’s A life for the Tsar as its first major composition finds its last in Stravinsky’s Rite of the Spring . Again, like Glinka, Stravinsky’s efforts were greatly focused on removing elements of another European nation : Germany. Stravinsky’s “Rite of the Spring” a piece considered to be the last major work of Russian Romanticism was composed in 1913, a year before World War I where Russia would be pitted against Germany. Unsurprisingly, Stravinsky’s new school found instant acceptance in Paris which was a part of the Triple Entente.

Ironically, the same nationalism which gained from and contributed to the growth of Romanticism, in Europe would eventually fester into a disease , greatly contributing to the World War and eventually bringing to a realistic end an age that was a romantic.

As seen above, the Romantic Period contributed to the history of mankind some amazing works of art. With regard to music, it marked a new defining point for the musical traditions of many countries. Romanticism carried within itself sets of contradictions which amplified during the course of time and got subsumed within the World War. Like many other movements, Romanticism was a product of the social political and economic factors of the time and this musical expression of the superstructure, changed with the changing material realities, a process not only necessary but also inevitable.


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Works Cited and Referred


Lloyd,Norman – The Golden Encyclopedia Of Music
Brockway and Weinstock – Men of Music,
Scholes, Percy – The Oxford junior Companion to Music
Toddc R .Larry – Nineteenth Century Piano Music
Witchwell – The Evolution of Birdsong
Gashtrag – The Song of Birds
Shelly, Mary – Frankenstein
Rousseau, Jean Jacque – Emile, or On Education
Nietzsche, Friederich – The Birth of Tragedy.
rMcKay,Cory – Chopin and Poland
Szabolesi.B – The Decline of Romanticism : End of the Century,Turn of the Century
Wordsworth, William – Preface to Lyrical ballads
Wordsworth, William – And did Those Feet in Ancient Time
Byron, Lord – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Glinka- ” A life for the Tsar ”
Stravinsky – Rite of the Spring
Brahms – Lullaby
Rimsky – The Flight of the Bumblebee
Paganini – The Devil’s Laugh
Chopin – Nocturne in G Minor
Schumann – “Child Falling
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique & La damnation de Faust












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