The Romantic era was a time where composers embraced virtuosity and expression. Many composers during this era tackled themes such as nature, the supernatural and the sublime through ever-expanding forms, taking inspiration from art and literature. Let's take a look at 15 of the best composers from this era and their works.
Clara Schumann was a gifted composer at a time where the profession was highly male-dominated. Her career began as a child prodigy pianist, taught by her father Friedrich Wieck who insisted on spending time teaching her harmony and counterpoint so she could go on to perform her own works.
Her talent earnt her a prestigious place at the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna. Undoubtedly her marriage to Robert Schumann influenced her music. The couple were known for sharing musical ideas with each other, and their close friend Johannes Brahms.
Three Romances for Violin and Piano, 1853
A display of sophisticated lyrical lines and daring complexity.
Piano Concerto, 1836
This concerto was written when she was only 16. The bold first movement demonstrates her original voice.
Schubert wrote over 600 songs in total, and was at the forefront of the Romantic Lieder tradition. He is also known for his thrilling orchestral and chamber works. Schubert had a gift for shaping a melody and creating beautiful themes.
Symphony No. 8 ‘Unfinished’, 1822:
The first phrase comes from the cellos and basses playing low in register and pianissimo. After a few bars, agitated shimmering strings enter alongside a more lyrical oboe and clarinet line. This dark introverted opening is unlike other symphonies of the time which often open with a bold statement.
Gretchen am Spinnrade, 1814:
This song depicts a girl, Gretchen, spinning yarn and worrying about her feelings for her new lover, Faust. The right hand of the piano accompaniment is busy yet flowing, capturing the spinning wheel but also Gretchen’s agitation. Above floats a fluid vocal melody.
Wagner was a revolutionary operatic composer. He worked according to his theory that music, poetry and drama are inseparable. He used Leitmotifs throughout his music. Leitmotifs are musical phrases that represent specific characters so listeners can identify physical action in the music.
De Ring de Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle), 1876:
An epic story of a magic ring spread across four full-length operas.
Wagner, The Ring Cycle: Ride of the Valkyries
Tristan und Isolde, 1865:
Based on a greek tragedy of two lovers, Isolde and Tristan mistakenly drink the elixir of love instead of death. This causes the pair huge trouble as Isolde is engaged to marry the King.
Wagner Tristan und Isolde, Prelude
Brahms followed the principles of form and counterpoint that were familiar to composers of the Classical era. The spirit of his music is, however, much more Romantic. At times his music is intensely dark, and notoriously difficult to play.
Violin Concerto, 1879:
This extremely virtuosic concerto, full of gypsy inflections, was written for violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim advised Brahms while he composed the concerto, as Brahms had no experience of playing the violin.
Brahms Violin Concerto, 1st movement
Ein Deutsches Requiem, 1868:
Written in response to his mother’s death, a full symphony orchestra plays with this setting of passages from the Lutheran bible.
Brahms Ein Deutches Requiem, 1st Movement 'Selig Sind'
Italian composer Puccini made his mark on opera. His music is effortlessly lyrical, influenced by Wagner and Verdi, and sharing similarities with more contemporary composers such as Debussy and Stravinsky.
La Bohème, 1895:
The tragic opera tells the story of a young poet who falls in love with a seamstress, but obstacles of poverty and illness get in their way.
Puccini La Bohème, Musetta's Waltz
Madam Butterfly, 1904:
A story of unrequited love. The emotional score of Madam Butterfly reflects the heart breaking story of a young Japanese girl Cio-Cio San.
Puccini Madame Butterfly, Un bel di vedremo
Berlioz’s music is often technically difficult. His use of harmony was seen at the time as unconventional. He treated harmony as a tool for expression rather than function. Other stylistic qualities are his use of irregular rhythms and long melodies, while still being clearly influenced by the Classical period.
Symphonie fantastique, 1830:
Considered the first tone poem, the work's main theme is notably long, running for 30 bars. A tone poem is an orchestral form that was born in the Romantic era. It is a composition which is based around a story or programme, which the title usually alludes to.
Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, 4th Movement: 'March to the Scaffold'
Les Nuits d’été, 1834-40:
A song cycle set to the poetry of Gautier. Originally written for baritone and piano, it has also been arranged for soprano and orchestra.
Berlioz, Les nuits d'été, 'Le Spectre de la Rose'
Czech composer Dvořák was experimental in his early compositions. As his primary job was as a viola player, he did not rely on these works for an income. His style became more Classical as he became influenced by the works of Liszt and Brahms. His music from the mid 1870s has a more nationalistic feel, as heard in his Slavonic Dances.
String Quartet in E minor, 1868-1869:
The height of his experimental phase, this string quartet pushes Romantic tonality to its limits.
Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’, 1892-95:
This symphony contains a range of memorable themes, hugely popular with audiences. Dvořák wrote this after taking the position as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892. The work incorporates influences from American music and culture.
Dvorak Symphony No. 9, 2nd Movement
When studying literature, the Finnish composer discovered Kalevala, a mythological epic about Finland. This influenced his composing as many of his tone poems are inspired by it, including the Lemminkäinen Suite. Sibelius’s music became very popular in Europe, and he received a salary from the government to allow him to live comfortably and keep composing.
Violin Concerto, 1904:
This work was one Sibelius wanted to play as he was a violinist himself. Sadly, he didn’t posess the technical ability to play it.
Sibelius Violin Concerto, 1st Movement
A nationalistic tone poem calling for Russia to allow Finland to remain independent. Today, the piece is regarded as the country’s unofficial national anthem.
Felix Mendelssohn was the most talented child prodigy of all time. At fifteen his teacher claimed Mendelssohn’s talents were equal to those of Bach, Haydn and Mozart. His music incorporates the elegance and balance of the Classical era, while still evoking the fantasy of the Romantic.
Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, 1826:
The music was written to accompany Shakespeare’s play, and its overture quickly became popular across Europe.
Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn. Despite often being overlooked, she composed around 500 brilliant works. As a woman, she was not encouraged to pursue music as a career in the way her brother was, so did not get the same opportunities of travelling and education. Nevertheless, her music contains the complex virtuosity exhibited by her male contemporaries. Her work is light and poised in character.
String Quartet, 1834:
The quartet begins with short phrases being passed around between players creating an echoing effect. The second movement is the most lively and shows baroque influences. The final movement is the most moving of the three.
Overture in C:
Fanny Mendelssohn's only orchestral work displays her characteristic gracefulness alongside virtuosic string parts.
11. Gustav Mahler
Mahler is best known for his nine complete symphonies. His contemporaries did not have a high opinion of him, accusing him of being morbid, self-indulgent and derivative. But Mahler is actually a synthesiser of music. He brings together folk music, military marches, waltzes, chorales and Lieder.
Symphony No. 2, 1888-94:
The symphony tells the story of life. It is huge in scale – an hour and a half long. It is written for symphony orchestra, two vocal soloists and a chorus.
Mahler Symphony No. 2, 1st Movement
Symphony No. 9, 1909:
This was Mahler’s last completed symphony. It expresses complicated feelings of someone nearing the end of their life, and is particularly poignant as Mahler himself died soon after composing it.
Mahler Symphony No. 9, 4th Movement
The Russian composer is known for his rich orchestration and tuneful melodies. He was hugely prolific, writing 7 symphonies, 11 operas and 3 ballets. He also wrote concertos and chamber music.
The Nutcracker, 1892:
Tchaikovsky’s third ballet is based on a story by the German fantasy writer ETA Hoffmann. The Nutcracker is innovative in terms of the sounds Tchaikovsky uses in the orchestra. In Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy he uses a celesta. Tchaikovsky had heard one in Paris in 1891 and asked his publisher to buy one, hoping to keep it a secret so that no other Russian would compose music for the instrument before him.
Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker, 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy'
Piano Concerto No. 1, 1874-75:
The opening chords of this concerto are some of the most famous in history. The first movement is highly virtuosic, while the second is more focused on interplay between the piano and orchestra. The final movement is a powerful rondo.
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, 1st Movement
13. Robert Schumann
German composer Robert Schumann was known for his piano music, Lieder and orchestral works. Before his marriage, Schumann was mostly seen as a miniaturist composer due to his fondness for writing short piano pieces and songs. Most of his music is inspired by literature and poems.
14. Fryderyk Chopin
The Polish composer was a virtuoso pianist, child prodigy and master of Romantic composition. Most of his musical output was for piano, writing 59 mazurkas, 27 études, 27 preludes, 21 nocturnes and 20 waltzes.
Chopin Prelude No 15, 'Raindrop'
The opening to this ten-minute piece has an improvisatory feel. The middle section is a lullaby, which then returns to the main theme. The piece ends with a bold flourish, which suddenly fades away finishing with a couple of trills.
15. Giuseppe Verdi
Verdi is best known for his 25 celebrated operas, including La Traviata and Falstaff. His career really took off after his first opera, Oberto, which was put on at the La Scala opera house in Milan in 1839. The La Scala opera house offered him a contract to put on three more operas directly after.
La Traviata, 1853:
La Traviata was based on Alexandre Dumas' play The Lady of the Camellias, and remains Verdi’s most popular opera.
Verdi La Traviata, 'Brindisi' (The Drinking Song)
Milan's cathedral put on the first performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass. He composed it in tribute to the famous novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873. The Requiem demonstrates Verdi's composing abilities outside of the field of opera.
Verdi Requiem, Dies Irae e Tuba Mirum