Music History

Romantic Period Music: Composers, Characteristics & Sheet Music

By Hannah Kendall
Illustrated characters of romantic period composers Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Johannes Brahms

Learn about Romantic Period music, including famous composers and pieces

The Romantic Period in music was a time of exploration, drama, and passion. Composers explored new ways to express themselves and pushed the boundaries of convention by experimenting with form, dynamics, and emotions. In this article, you will learn about characteristics of Romantic music, the movement that influenced Romantic composers, and some of the artists of the time. 

When was the Romantic Period in music?

The Romantic Period of music covers the time period from 1830-1910. During this time, composers moved away from the rigid rules dictated by the Classical Period (1750-1830). The Romantic Period in music is closely linked to Romanticism, an intellectual, artistic, and literary movement from the late 18th to mid-19th century. The movement began as a reaction to Enlightenment ideals and the values of the Industrial Revolution. Artists no longer held rationality and logic above everything else. Instead, people wanted to explore and feel the full spectrum of human emotion. Here are some characteristics of the Romantic movement that heavily influenced Romantic music: 

  • A deep appreciation for nature.
  • A fascination with the supernatural 
  • Emotion over reason. Senses over intellect.
  • Introspection – studying one’s inner moods and mental states
  • Fascination with the Virtuoso – people began to view highly skilled musical artists as unique creators. Niccolo Paganini was one of the first violin virtuosos of the time. His performances drew huge crowds of people. He was so good people believed he had sold his soul to the devil to become a legendary violinist! Listen to the virtuosity of Paganini’s pieces. 

What are characteristics of Romantic Period music?

To understand Romantic Period music, we must first understand the music and composers of the Classical Period. Why? Romantic music is a reaction to the musical ideals of the Classical Period; Romantic composers challenged the musical trends in the Classical Period in pursuit of fresh, unexplored avenues of expression. 

During the Classical Era, less is more in music. Composers strived for a clean, balanced, elegant sound and closely followed form. Rules were rigid and had to be followed, and music from earlier periods, such as the Baroque, was seen as overly ornamented and unrefined.

Enter the Romantic Period. Tired of the simplicity and rules of the Classical Period, composers wrote with unrestrained drama and passion. In this era, composers began to view music as a way of expressing their innermost thoughts. Composers did this by experimenting with form and weaving a narrative into their music to tell a story. In Classical music, form was important. In the Romantic Era, the emotional narrative became more important than form.

Here are some of the most important characteristics of Romantic Period music:

  • Emotional expression – expressing emotion became more important than following form and structure. 
  • Expansion of orchestra – composers began to compose for larger orchestras and for many more types of instruments. 
  • New forms of music were introduced – rhapsody, song cycle, and nocturnes.
  • Programme Music – composers wrote music with a programme. In the programme would be a literary idea, description of nature, or an ancient legend to go along with the music. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote “The Carnival of Animals” as a 14 piece movement, each movement representing a different animal. 

Who were some romantic period composers?

Franz Liszt was another virtuoso musician who amassed a devoted fan base in the 19th century. Liszt began playing piano at 5 years old and started performing for audiences by age 12. Not only was he technically skilled, he was also charismatic and sent audiences into a hysteria. Hence the term “Lisztomania.” Women would wear his image on brooches, tore at his clothes when he was leaving concert halls, and turned his broken concert piano strings into bracelets. 

Influenced by Niccolo Paganini’s performances, Liszt purposefully placed the piano in an area where his face could be viewed by the audience. He’d whip his hair while playing to emphasize the drama of his music. He was also the first performer to enter the stage from the wings of the hall to take his seat at the piano. Liszt’s stage presence defined how pianists perform in modern piano recitals today. Just listen to any of Liszt’s compositions and it’s easy to understand the fervor for his performances. 

Clara Wieck Schumann is another influential Romantic Era pianist, composer and virtuoso. She began playing piano concerts as a young child and by the time she was an adult, she was widely recognized for her technical skill and mastery of the piano. Married to composer Robert Schumann, who was relatively unknown at the time, Clara’s endorsement of his works brought more attention and fame to his compositions. Her endorsement of Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn in the concert hall likewise brought their compositions to a greater audience. Her compositions were bold, virtuosic and original. When she was 14 years old, Clara composed Piano Concerto in A minor.

A friend of Clara’s, Johannes Brahms is also revered as another one of the great Romantic composers. Brahms’ Lullaby is perhaps one of his most famous, recognizable pieces. Brahms originally wrote it to commemorate the birth of his friend’s son.

By the time he was a teenager, Brahms performed regularly, earning a living by playing at local inns and along city docks. Brahms leaned heavily on the form of Classical music and composed symphonies, chamber music, and solo piano pieces. Another beloved composition from Brahms is Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118.

We can’t talk about the Romantic Period without talking about Ludwig van Beethoven!  Although much of his repertoire was composed in the late classical era, his compositions heavily influenced Romantic musicians, especially his Symphony No. 9.

Other famous Romantic composers include Sergei Rachmaninoff, Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. 

Romantic era sheet music in the Hoffman Academy Store

For early intermediate pianists, explore our Robert Schumann repertoire.  Enjoy pieces like “The Wild Horseman,” which utilizes arpeggios with plenty of repetition, making it a quick piece to learn. 

Our Peter Tchaikovsky repertoire also provides intermediate pianists with lots of fun explorations. “Old French Song” is an emotional, slow piece that challenges pianists to play with ties, staccatos, and legato phrasing. This piece also leans heavily on repetition!

For the advanced pianist, we have our Frédéric Chopin collection. Although only 13 measures, Prelude in C Minor Op 28 No 20 is a dense but engaging exploration of C minor. 

You can also find Romantic composers Johannes Brahms , Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn in the Hoffman Academy store. 

We hope you enjoyed learning about Romantic Period music and developed a new appreciation for the style. Pick a Romantic Period piece and start learning how to play Romantic Period music today! 

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