Classical Music: Beyond Romanticism

From the pre-Baroque up until the Romantic period, the history of classical music can be regarded as a pretty straightforward progression: with a little overlap as the avant garde raced ahead and the traditionalists lagged behind it goes Baroque 1600-1750, Classical 1750-1825, Romantic 1825-1875. Now it starts to get a little messy. Romantic music doesn’t simply disappear in the years following 1875 but continues to be composed even as other distinct styles enter the scene. Think of it as being a bit like popular music today. There’s pop. And there’s rock. There’s metal. Alternative. Dance. Trance. Hip-hop. Soul. Rhythm and Blues. I could go on, but you get the idea.

From where I’m sitting a major reason for this sudden burst of plurality is the cosmopolitan influence of more countries emerging onto the international musical stage. Up until the Romantic period, classical composition is pretty thoroughly dominated by the Italians and the Germanics, with France taking the lead in ballet. Now other nations start producing high-calibre composers, and they all bring their own distinct sound to the music.

Pastoral scene
Untitled English Pastoral Scene. David Johnson, 1867.

This ‘distinct’ sound gives the first and most significant post-Romantic movement its name: Nationalism. Composers in the Nationalistic movement drew inspirations from the folk-music traditions of their own countries. Chopin (who died in 1849) was a forerunner here, composing polonaises and mazurka that reflected the aristocratic dance music of his native Poland. The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák began his career in the 1870s with music which drew on the sounds of his native Bohemia before relocating to America in 1892 (to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York), where he composed his most popular work, the Symphony ‘From the New World’ drawing on the folk traditions of various White immigrant groups as well as Black spiritual and Native American Rhythms. He was followed by the likes of Aaron Copland, who also drew on the music of immigrants, and George Gershwin, who incorporated Jazz sounds including the saxophone into his composition. In Russia, ‘The Five’ (Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) followed in the footsteps of Mikhail Glinka (1804-57), who had stamped a distinctive Russian sound on his music. In Britain, Edward Elgar confidently asserted that he had a tune that would ‘knock their socks off’ before debuting his ‘Promenade March No. 1’ , better known today as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, while Ralph Vaughan Williams would evoke a more pastoral note with his ‘Lark Ascending’  and variations on historic pieces such as ‘Greensleeves’. I could go on, but I won’t.

Impression Sunrise Monet
Impression: Sunrise. Claude Monet, 1872

Impressionism was a smaller movement which developed from the more widely used symphonic poem (or tone poem) popular with a number of Romantic composers, and was primarily confined to France (also the home of Impressionist painting). Composers like Claude Debussy (Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faune, La Mer, Clair de Lune, Deux Arabesques…), who rejected the term Impressionist, and Maurice Ravel (Bolero, Pavane for a Dead Princess, the ballet Daphnis et Chloe…)  created music which was intended to evoke a rich atmosphere and emotional response in the listener. Prior to this Impressionist sounds cropped up here and there, for example in Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela and Mendelssohn’s overtures Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Hebrides (also known as Fingal’s Cave), but Impressionism never gained in music the popularity which it enjoyed in painting.


“Now, this is going to sound a little crazy, but bear with me…”

World events, particularly military conflicts, also had an influence. It takes a certain mentality to score music for cannon-fire, but apparently Tchaikovsky (who also, of course, wrote ballet scores that included such delicate pieces as The Dance of the Little Swans and The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) had just such a mentality; his festival overture The Year 1812, which commemorated the defeat of numerically superior invading French forces under the command of Napoleon, debuted in 1882. Elgar composed his Cello Concerto in E-minor in the aftermath of World War One: initially slow to gain popularity it is today regarded as a musical elegy to the millions soldiers and civilians who died in that conflict (as a side note, Wikipedia places the total WWI death toll at 11 million military personnel and 7 million civilians, plus another 20 million wounded but not killed).

Apart from this, ballet and opera remained popular, with the former now being heavily influenced by the Russians (Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky etc.) and the latter increasingly divided between the traditional sound of Team Verdi and the progressive experiments of Team Wagner. But everything would change in the first half of the 20th Century as electronic technology extended its impact on the world of music.

2 thoughts on “Classical Music: Beyond Romanticism

    1. Yes, I remember reading your post on the 1812. It doesn’t surprise me that he wrote it for money – even composers have to eat – but I suspect I’ll never quite get over the ‘what the hell?’ factor of including cannons.
      I was talking with an elderly friend of mine recently, and she recalled a performance of the 1812 Overture here in Whanganui some years ago at which the army was present and, yes, discharged cannon at the appropriate points. Apparently it gave everyone quite a fright but was considered most effective.

      Liked by 1 person

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