Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Classical Wednesdays V: the Romantic Era

[Despite popular demand, the “Classical Wednesdays” feature will be expanded past the original six-week schedule. Due to an unfortunate onset of long-windedness, the Romantic Era listening suggestions will be separated out from the current post and covered next week.]

Something happens in the first quarter of the 19th Century, and the rules-based elegance of Classicism starts morphing into a more individually expressive and emotional sort of sound. Continuing their great tradition of giving everything an obnoxiously confusing name, music historians have dubbed this the “Romantic Era,” suggesting that it is appropriate for Valentines Day, frilly hearts, and candlelit dinners. Just to clarify: to say that music is “Romantic” doesn’t mean it’s all about The Luv. It means, more or less, that it is intended to express individual emotion. That emotion could be love, but it could just as easily be inner turmoil, playfulness, excitement, yearning, or rage against the machine. Beethoven, for instance, went in heavily for the latter.

Goodbye Classicism, Hello Romanticism!

So what happened? Well, you could make a case that Beethoven happened. Beethoven is one of the most singular and influential individual talents ever to have penned a melody, and to ignore his influence on everything that followed, from Schubert to Soulja Boy, would be a mistake. Beethoven starts his career as an envelope-pushing Classicist, but by his Third Symphony the envelope has been pushed so far out of shape that it is almost unrecognizable. By his Sixth, you’ve pretty much left the Classical model behind. His contemporaries, and composers of the next generation, were quick to follow his lead.

But other things are happening at the beginning of the 19th Century, too. In the world of ideas, individualism and humanism are beginning to flourish, bringing with them an implication that human emotion might be something worth exploring. Politically, the divinely-appointment king is being supplanted by democratic ideas, and this ferment is reflected in the popular culture of the age. In music, as in houses of government, traditional forms and received ways of doing things fall into disfavor.

The audience is changing, too. Through the 18th Century, musicians were in the service of the nobility, and much of their output provided genteel entertainment for the top few percentiles of society. The genius of Mozart, in its original habitat, was music for aristocrats to dance, relax, and conduct intrigues to. As the 19th Century gets rolling, however, the aristocracy finds themselves a bit pinched, and a quickly growing middle class begins to be interested in taking in an occasional concert. Venues begin to be constructed where this new, larger audience can go for concerts, and composers begin to write for this audience. This broader listening public tends to encourage music that experiments a little, that sounds different from the music their parents listened to, that is increasingly bigger, more novel, and more extreme.

The Romantic Sound

Both the Baroque and Classical eras have a great deal of internal consistency, and once you are familiar with the styles you’ll be able to identify them immediately. Romantic music is harder to pigeonhole. One of its central ideas, after all, is disposing with the established rules of Classicism, and when people start breaking the rules they tend to start going off in all sorts of different directions. Romanticism, therefore, encompasses a wide diversity of sounds, styles, and music philosophies.

Rarely does Romantic Music have the simple melody-and-accompaniment structure that we saw in Classical music, and the Baroque idea of counterpoint is often dredged up and trotted back out, to greater or lesser effect. The Classical innovation of stressing dynamic changes, on the other hand, is retained and developed further in Romantic music. Key changes continue to be very important, at least in theory, but the idea of a regular, set order in which they should occur goes out the window.

Conventional ways of doing things are also set aside in the way Romantic music is structured. The melody line is seldom phrased in four song-like phrases of equal length, like it was back in the classical era. Sonata form is still given some heed at first, but as the decades go by it is stretched and altered and varied and monkeyed with until it is basically irrelevant. But perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of Romantic music is the flexibility of its meter. In Baroque music, the tempo is consistent as clockwork, and the rules-based classical composers tended not to mess too much with the essential pulse of their music. Romantics, on the other hand, frequently direct the conductor to speed up or slow down the orchestra. This not only adds a new tool for musical expression, but hands some control over to the actual musicians; two performances of a Romantic piece are expected to sound a little different, because the conductors will handle the tempos, and the dynamics, a little differently.

The Romantic Orchestra

A few new instruments join the orchestra during the Romantic period. Trombones become a commonplace, as does a (usually) lone tuba. You are more likely to see extensive percussion, and occasional oddments like a harp, a piano, or, in much later works, saxophones. Tragically, recorders fail to make a comeback.

More importantly, composers continuously embiggen the orchestra throughout the period. Whereas the Baroque orchestra sounds perhaps a bit thin, and the Classical orchestra sounds elegantly spare, an orchestra of the high Romantic – think Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak – is capable of a full-throated roar. This is partially the result of the composer’s quest for personal expression of passionate feeling, and partially the market’s demand for ever more impressive experiences. Too, the expanding middle-class audience made some orchestras quite successful, allowing them to hire more staff, and the increasing size of the concert halls meant that it took more noise to fill them up.

Having a big and varied orchestra allows Romantic composers to do a lot with orchestration, exploiting the different sounds possible from various instruments and combinations of instruments. And, a large orchestra in full swing is a powerful instrument indeed, just through the sheer force of volume. Bigger isn’t automatically better, though, and it’s worth noting that a big orchestra in the hands of a mediocre composer is merely an expensive way of generating elaborately muddy sounds and noisy bombast.

Next Week: michael5000 makes some Romantic suggestions!


Elizabeth said...

And to this day, composers still suffer from a collective writer's Blockflöte.

Ben said...

If the recorder is such an obscure and archaic instrument, why is it the first non-percussion instrument taught in the public school system?

Michael5000 said...

@ben: Well, the official reasoning would be that it's easy to play. But more to the point, an entry-level clarinet is about $250, whereas you can get a four-pack of perfectly functional plastic recorders for $10. Which would YOU rather hand out to a group of second graders just back from recess?

Rex Parker said...

But I want suggestions *now*!