A History of Music for SingersThe Romantic Period in musical history is so termed because it’s an era of music that’s endlessly high on emotion whether in art, music, or literature. Largely, this “Romanticism” is considered to be a reaction to the developing Industrial Revolution which saw machines take over from people and cities grow sprawling and black with coal. Artists wanted to stand against this de-humanising and un-natural direction and instead bring out human emotions and natural themes. Compare the top picture of the Victorian City with the painting by Turner from 1839 below.

Victorian City

For composers, this was the start of two centuries of experimentation. Music became more focussed on emotional communication rather than technical elegance, giving scope for complex chromatic harmonies and vast, dramatic orchestrations. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique) and compare it to some of the music by Mozart in the previous post on Classical Music – it’s a totally different listening experience.The Romantic Period in music covers most of the 19th Century, the era of Queen Victoria for us Brits, and relative political stability in many countries, although there were still plenty of Civil Wars, and International Conflicts.

However, the biggest changes were social, with everything from the introduction of workhouses, to the invention of blue jeans. This is also the age of the novel, with literature becoming more popular as printing has become mechanised for the masses. Music is also printed more frequently now, and music books develop into the forms we have them today. The Romantic period is generally thought of as ending in the 1910s, as the Great War was looming and political unrest began to plague Europe again.

For singers, the biggest change that happens is that composers begin to use the voice as an instrument. Art songs, a trend which began in the Classical era, develop into a huge genre with its own internal divisions (English songs are quite distinct from German Lieder and French Mélodie). The lyrics are mostly poetic settings, written by Romantic poets, but the words are subsumed into a soundworld that tells the story whether or not you can understand the words. Have a listen to this beautiful setting by Fauré. The poem is by an anonymous Italian, but was translated into French by Romain Bussine.

The other main feature of the Romantic period for singers is the rise, rise and rise of Opera, reaching its zenith with Wagner at the end of the 19th Century. Wagner is responsible for the image of the opera singer as fat, Viking-horned, singing full pelt with plenty of vibrato! However, there were plenty of other kinds of opera on offer which are slightly less intense. Here’s an aria from Verdi’s opera, Il Trovatore that shows the dramatic potential of high romantic opera.

Popular music was also developing new trends. As published music became more accessible and pianos more affordable, the broadside ballads of previous eras developed into parlour songs for the rich and music hall for the not-so-rich. Mass employment in factories led to more people living in cities, and more people with set working hours that gave them distinct leisure time – and people with leisure time wanted entertainment. Music Halls provided a good sing-a-long of bawdy songs and comic sketches for the work-weary masses. Here’s an early recording (1907) of music hall star Vesta Victoria singing a well known song Wating at the Church.

Music Hall and Parlour Songs also gave rise to a new type of musical show – the operetta. Operettas had more of the feel of the music hall, while still keeping the kinds of stories and orchestrations of opera, and borrowing spoken dialogue from theatrical plays. The masters of this genre were Gilbert and Sullivan, and here’s an aria you might recognise.

The final trend related to song that was a huge part of the Romantic period was nationalism. Nationalism was a huge issue in the 19th Century as modern nation states began to take shape under their own governments. This often led to an interest in the cultural heritage of the people who made up the modern nation, and (in the wake of the Grand Tour of the classical era) interested individuals began to “collect” traditional music. In countries across Europe and beyond, composers collected volumes of songs sung by ordinary people, writing them down and sometimes arranging them as art songs, or collating different versions into a “best” version. One of the most famous collectors of them all was a Scot by the name of Robert Burns. Burns collected hundreds of Scottish folk songs and arranged many of them into the tunes that are now so famous. The clip below is the result of Burns listening to a dozen different versions of Ae Fond Kiss, collating them together to select the most effective combination of words and music from different versions, and then publishing his work. Burns is possibly one of the most famous editors in all of history!

The key forms of music for voice in the Romantic era were:

  • Opera
  • Operetta and early musical theatre
  • Songs (lieder, chanson) often about love, nature, or both
  • National anthems
  • Transcription of folk songs
  • Parlour songs and music hall
  • Almost complete separation of religious song from mainstream composition

When you’re trying to decide if something is Romantic music, listen out for:

  • Dramatic, emotive & descriptive
  • Virtuosic
  • Full of contrasts
  • Thicker texture
  • Complex harmonies with chromatic movement
  • Lyrics which are as descriptive as the music
  • Draws on national musical traditions

Composers to Remember:


–> Next week: The Modern (20th Century) Era

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