Romantic composers focused on creating an emotional response to music by appealing to multiple sources of inspiration, including the Middle Ages, industrialism, fantasy, darkness, nationalism, nature, individualism, subjectivity and emotionalism. This makes it quite difficult to concisely define Romanticism! Lets explore these elements to understand some of the things that happened during this century, how they fit together and how they influenced music.
The ideals of individual rights and liberty that developed in the Classical Era continued during the Romantic Era; however, people became jaded about these ideas becoming reality. The French Revolution, waged for Liberty, Equality Fraternity, resulted in the Reign of Terror with thousands publicly executed.
The Industrial Revolution created jobs for the working class, but hours were long, work was hard, and the workplace was filled with dangers. Napoleon Bonaparte developed the Napoleonic Code that emphasized individual rights and common law applied equally to all people. His vision of applying this law to all people, however, led to multiple wars to conquer non-French lands – this is not the method that all of his supporters envisioned (especially Beethoven).
Individual rights, liberty and equality under the law were still revered, but were found to be difficult to implement. This led to some frustration with reality while retaining the ideals of liberty.
Musicians found independence in a break from the old method of patronage. In previous Eras, many musicians were hired by a wealthy person or family (sometime royalty) to produce music. Composers and performers found themselves gainfully employed, but were not free to produce the music of their choosing. The Romantic Era was the first time that musicians were truly able to freelance, which allowed more of them to produce the music of their own choice.
Nature was an oasis of peace, tranquility and inspiration during this turbulent time. The natural world was admired for its profound beauty, which was seen in stark contrast to the industrial age. Nature was thought to restore health, physical and emotional, to people who were worn out working in uninspiring conditions. Nature also symbolized power, often power above that of mankind.
Romanticism includes a reaction against the reason and logic of the Classical Era in favor of acknowledging and portraying human emotions. Romanticism embraced emotions as part of humanity, despite the fact that some emotions are considered negative or messy. The Romantic view held that emotions are common to all of us and that we should be able to relate to each other through them. Perhaps acknowledging even the most vile of our emotions would allow us to understand each other and feel that we are not alone in the world.
Programmatic music became very popular during the Romantic Era – this is music that tells a story, paints a visual picture, or describes a familiar emotion. Titles like “Symphony #3 in Eb” gave way to Romantic titles such as “Symphony Fantastique”, “Moonlight Sonata”, and “Italian Symphony.”
The ideas of the Middle Ages and Gothic architecture inspired a focus on fantasy and mysticism. The heroic stories of the time, such as Robin Hood and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, provided inspiration through the perceived goodness of stories where the downtrodden were cared for.
These diverse sources just begin to describe the sources of inspiration during the Romantic Era. Not surprising, the music from this time does not have the coherence of sound that characterized the Baroque and Classical Eras. Mendelssohn and Wagner have quite different approaches to music by focusing on different elements of Romantic thought and musicality.