Exploring Music's Complexities

Classical Music Period Part 3 – Romantic and Modern Periods



Daniel Kobialka with Leonard Bernstein

        As noted in the first of this series, the music classification system describing the evolution of Western music follows that generally accepted by Music History Scholars.  To date these newsletters have provided a look into the key periods of musical development including:

Early (prior to 9th century)
Medieval (9th to 14th century)
Renaissance (15th to 16th century)
Baroque (1600 to 1750)
Classical (1750 to1820)

This post describes Western music created in the Romantic (1820 to1920) and the Modern (1920 to present) periods.

Music of the Romantic Period

 As you read this article you will soon discover that the Romantic Period produced many more composers whose names are familiar to you.  Some examples include Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Chopin and Wagner.  Others such as Ludwig van Beethoven are more difficult to place, as their early works were from the Classical period and their later music is clearly Romantic.

If one has to describe the differences between Classical and Romantic periods it would be the rules developed during the pervious periods to produce symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and operas served as boundaries and limits that needed to be explored, tested, and defied.  During this period romanticism’s response to the Classical Period took the shape of remoteness and strangeness.  Its appeal centered on the disproportionate and excessive.

Scholars have divided the romantic era into two schools of composers (1).  Some took a conservative approach in style and feeling without straying far from the Classical rules.   Composers such as Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms are examples of this approach.  Others pushed the boundaries of the acceptable.  These include Berlioz, Strauss, and Wagner whose music challenged the concertgoers of their day.

When you listen to music of this period note the music has acquired poetic or philosophical meaning (2).  In other cases it strengthened the feeling of the spirit of nationalism for Poland by Chopin, and Hungary by Liszt.

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In Romantic music you might find long sections or movements continue as one unbroken rhythmic pattern.  It also is more lyrical than the absolute music of the Classical period.  Another characteristic of Romantic period music is the use of orchestral tone colors.  This period was considered the “golden age of the Virtuoso “(2).  It is also the most popular orchestral music in the world and remains the most popular style for epic film soundtracks. (3).

The final years of the Romantic period were from the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth.  This post-romantic period witnessed Sibelius, Bartok, and Vaughan-Williams concentrate on the traditions of their own countries.  Others, such as Mahler and Strauss pushed the limits.  In France, Debussy and Ravel were thought to produce musical equivalents of impressionistic paintings.  These classical music composers felt free to experiment and break rules for form, melody and harmony.

 Music of the Modern Period

 With the 20th century emerging, concertgoers were exposed to a rebellion in music. The post World War I society was more concerned with experimentation than with attempting to build on what was standard.  The result was that composers were going their separate ways and creating music freely, using sounds unfamiliar to the ear.  Unlike the earlier periods the end results were music that could be vague in form, delicate, mysterious or refined.

When, in the thirties, the world faced a global economic depression and the approach of World War II, the Neo-Classical movement provided a period to bridge the gap between the “old” and the “new”.  This period also provided for numerous “isms”.  Serialism eventually came to dominate the art music tradition (4).  While the early twentieth century saw the domination of the Modernists romantic-style music still found a wide audiences.  This was also a time when chamber music saw a bit of a resurgence, allowing composers to write for smaller works, many of which can only be played by skilled ensembles (5).

Because of the wide disparity in styles of classical music it becomes difficult to identify those composers of these periods who will be remembered by history.  If one were to speculate, Bela Bartok, Dmitri Shostakovich and Arnold Schoenberg come to mind.  Still others might include Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev.

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Given the strides in technology, modern music has taken on numerous forms and styles.  This, in turn, has resulted in music that does not fit into previous categories.  Recording of musical performances has resulted in making music highly available to just about everyone.  Electronic instruments, such as the synthesizer allow for a wide variety of sound qualities.  These achievements have made it possible to execute even the most complex of rhythmic composition (5).

The rise of jazz provided a vehicle for creative and improvisatory expression.  Many new musical characteristics can be found in Modern music.  Counterpoint is significant, new chord patterns, polytonality, atonality, dissonance, short themes and many other characteristics are to be found.



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Sizes of performing groups vary from small ensembles, large orchestras, guitar, percussion and electronic instruments and devices are frequently incorporated into the music.   The track below includes performers and midi.

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Samples of these two periods of music can be found at http://www.wonderofsound.com.  in Afternoon of a Faun, Pathless Journey and Bringing it Together.  Don’t forget to visit us at amazon.com/Daniel Kobialka.

 1.  Schmidt-Jones, C., The Music of the romantic Era.   in http://cnx.org/content
  2. Music Traits of the Romantic Period.  http://www.aug.edu/shotwel4350  
 3.  Romanticism.  http://public.wsu.edu   
 4.  The Modern/20th Century Era.  http://library.thinkquest.org  

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