(This is part 3 of the GetIntoClassical blabber-free guide to the classical musical eras. You can see all the parts here.)
The Romantic era is where classical music starts to get really interesting. This was the point at which composers stopped trying to make technically perfect (and hence always a little cold and dry) pieces, and started to really express their feelings in the music. Thats why its called Romantic, its not anything to do with bouquets and kisses, its more like being on top of a lonely mountaintop on a moonlit night.
The transition from Classical to Romantic didn’t happen instantly. Composers began to experiment more and more throughout the 1800s, exploring progressively more outrageous structures of music, combinations of instruments, sizes of orchestras and so on. The dude who really kicked this all off was Beethoven, which is one of the reasons he is so respected in the classical music crowd. Beethoven’s really early works (which no-one really listens to) are very similar to Mozart and Haydn, but around the time of his 3rd symphony (the Eroica) he started to experiment. If you are just starting to listen to classical music and you hear some of this supposedly experimental stuff you aren’t going to be very shocked, (because its mostly messing around with musical structures which take a long time to see) but at the time it was pretty drastic. Some of the later stuff, like the Grosse Fugue, is pretty obvious though.
In general the more exciting instrumentation, rhythms and melodies make this era way more appealing to modern listeners than Classical and Baroque.
The most important early Romantic composer was Beethoven, but Berlioz was the first composer to take the Romantic attitude to extremes (his most famous work, Symphonie Fantastique, is about a drug-fueled descent into hell after getting dumped by a chick)
Sample Piece: Beethovens Symphony No. 6 Pastoral, Movement 1
This little number is an expression of feeling elated by nature walking through the woods on a summers day. Yep, its that specific. It always makes me miss the English countryside when I hear it.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Philadelphia Orchestra & Riccardo Muti – Beethoven: The Complete Symphonies
Sample Piece: Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique, 4th Movement
One of his most famous pieces, the Symphony Fantastique musically describes a young artist falling hopelessly in unrequited love with a girl. The hero obsesses over how perfect she is for about three movements, before pumping himself with opium and promptly having a vision of his own execution in the 4th.You hear the bit at the end, where it gets all peaceful for a second, and then there are two little thuds and a drumroll? Well that peaceful bit represents the girl, which is the protagonists dying thought: the two thuds are the drop of a guillotine and the heros head bouncing on the floor.
London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Colin Davis – Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique