This semester started with two weeks of online learning (of which today is the last day before students and teachers return to campus after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), so it’s been an unusually slow start to the already sleepy January term. However, that hasn’t stopped my music classes from listening to great music; indeed, we’re now covering what is perhaps my favorite period in the history of Western music: the Romantic Era.
While I adore Baroque and classical composers and their works, Romantic music builds upon the forms established in those eras, stretching and expanding upon them to reach new heights of emotional intensity and musical expressiveness. The music of the Romantic composers delights with its musical exploration of the supernatural, the mysterious, the Gothic, and the nationalistic.
Romantic music is a study in contrasts: like the Baroque painters with light and dark, Romantic music revels in broad contrasts of mood and emotion. It’s also deeply individualistic—the image of the brooding Bohemian, the infamous “starving artist” so dedicated to his craft he goes without the most basic of necessities and comforts, is a Romantic conceit—for good or for ill. Regardless, that individuality makes generalizing about Romantic music difficult at times, but it also distinguishes composers of the era clearly. One knows one is listening to Frederic Chopin within four measures—or less—because his style is so unique.
We often think Romantic is classical music—indeed, much of it built upon the forms of the classical period—but it truly was a distinct period in the development of Western music. And what music it gave us! The pyrotechnic virtuosity of Niccolo Paganini (an influence on Eddie Van Halen!) and Franz Liszt; the sweeping natural beauty of Felix Mendelssohn; the pastoral scenery of Ludwig Van Beethoven‘s Sixth Symphony (which I wrote about here; Beethoven straddles the line between classical and Romantic; his influence on the Romantics is undeniable); the operatic glory of Richard Wagner (and the operatic playfulness of Giacomo Rossini); the programmatic works of Hector Berlioz and Camille Saint-Saens: these and more are the myriad gifts of Romantic music.
As I’ve taught Romantic music, I’ve learned more about it; in the process, I’ve learned to appreciate it even more. Many of the Romantics lived, perhaps appropriately, tragic lives—young deaths (Schubert, Chopin), unfortunate love affairs (take your pick—but Mendelssohn was happily married with four children!), persistent financial problems (Schubert), poor health (Chopin)—but despite their struggles and failures, they produced some of the most timelessly beautiful, emotional, and powerful music in the history of Western Civilization.
So I’d encourage you to take a moment this long weekend to absorb some of the great works of the Romantic Era. Click any of the composer’s names above to hear some of their works. Feel free to note your favorites in the comments below!
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