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New musical forms emerged during the Romantic Era, as in other musical eras. Romanticism also dramatically changed existing musical forms and composition constructs. These changes resulted from several aspects of the Romantic era:
- Philosophy: A focus on the spiritual over the known physical world encouraged less adherence to “rules” and more focus on imagination and exploration.
- Instruments: The intonation of instruments improved, allowing use of the full chromatic scale and more complex, colorful chords. Instruments became capable of louder dynamics, inspiring a more full and powerful sound.
- Programmatic Music: The focus on programmatic music over absolute music meant that the primary goal of a composer was to tell a story, not fit the music within a prescribed form. Composers adapted, expanded, cut and shifted constructs of form to help them portray the story.
An etude is a musical study – a piece written for an instrument that is designed to work on some aspect of developing the ability of the musician. Etudes are between technical exercises (e.g., scales, finger patterns) and repertoire – they often have some level of melodic and musical interest, but focus largely on the development of one or more techniques.
Though there were some examples of etudes prior to the Romantic Era, they gained their prominence during this period. As composers increased their use of chromaticism and complex harmonies in their music, performers were faced with greater musical challenges – etudes were training tools used to prepare musicians to play these challenging works.
Theater overtures became quite popular in the Classical Era and were sometimes played in concert settings, separate from the full theatrical work. During the Romantic Era, concert overtures were composed in the same style as the theatrical overtures, but they were not part of a larger theatrical work – they were stand-alone pieces.
Examples of concert overtures include:
- Brahms: Academic Overture and Tragic Overture, a pair of contrasting overtures
- Mendelssohn: A Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage depicting two of Goethe’s poems, A Calm Sea and A Prosperous Voyage (Mendelssohn was inspired by Beethoven’s choral work depicting the same poems)
- Berlioz: Le Corsaire describes a pirate that disguises himself as a dervish in order to steal from a sultan
The fantasia (also fantasy or fancy) is rooted in Renaissance improvisations. This form, like several others that were embraced in the Romantic Era, is not a structured form, but rather a single-movement work that invokes the idea of improvisation. A fantasia is generally performed with great liberties regarding tempo and invokes imagination.
Some examples of Fantasia are:
- Faure Fantaisie, Op 79: Gabriel Faure composed his Fantaisie for flute and piano as a sight reading piece for the Paris Conservatory juries in 1898. This video features Emmanuel Pahud performing the Fantaisie with the Paris Chamber Orchestra.
- Disney’s Fantasia 1940: This film is the first close connection of animated cartoon and classical music. The original is over 2 hours long and features many well-known orchestral pieces with original animations. The link is one of the most well-known parts of the Fantasia, set to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. In this cartoon, sorcerer Mickey animates brooms to do his work for him!
The idea of a musical rhapsody is derived from the Greek “rhapsodia”, which is a free-form method of reciting poetry. A musical rhapsody is, likewise, free-form and often tells a dramatic story through the use of wide dynamic contrast and contrast of tonal color.
Examples of rhapsodies include:
- Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme by Pagannini for piano and orchestra performed in its entirety. Variation 18 of Rhapsody on a Theme by Pagannini, performed by Julien Beaudiment, flute and Hugh Sung, piano.
- Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody #2 – originally composed for piano, this video is an arrangement for orchestra.
- Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue – conducted and performed on piano by Leonard Bernstein. This piece opens with an iconic clarinet solo.