If you’ve ever been to a concert of classical music, chances are that you’ve heard sounds that were composed during the Romantic era. Many of the pieces that were written during this period – which lasted, approximately, from 1800-1900 – are amongst the most beloved and frequently-performed in the entire Western concert repertoire.
This was an era during which music became increasingly rich, complex and overtly emotive, as composers began to throw off the shackles of the restrictive rules and conventions of the preceding Classical period. This article will take a look at ten of the very greatest Romantic composers and at some of the beautiful works they left behind, as well as the innovations that they helped usher in, such as the development of programme music, developments in the world of opera, and the emergence of virtuoso composer-performers.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
No list of romantic era composers would be complete without first mentioning Ludwig Van Beethoven.
A transitional composer who spanned both the Classical and Romantic eras, Beethoven began by immersing himself in the Classical tradition and working within the forms and conventions of Mozart and Haydn.
As he reached musical maturity he began working on a grander scale, expanding the harmonic, melodic and structural scope of his music, and paving the way for the other Romantic composers.
One of his innovations was the development of programme music, or instrumental music that attempts to invoke an extra-musical narrative.
A key trend in the Romantic era involved art that was inspired by nature, literature, ancient legends, national identity and other external stimuli.
Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral Symphony) exemplifies this by evoking rural life with imitation bird calls.
Interestingly, he very sadly started to lose his hearing and had gone completely deaf by 1814, but continued to compose.
His dark, brooding late-period string quartets baffled critics and audiences when they were first performed, but are now considered pinnacles of human artistic achievement:
2. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
Due to the concerns of her family and the social expectations of women during the 19th Century, Fanny Mendelssohn found it difficult to work publicly as a composer, and many of her pieces were published under the name of her brother Felix, another Romantic composer of great significance.
Fanny was something of a keyboard prodigy, and most of her 460 compositions include the piano.
She also wrote over 250 Lieder (German songs that set poetry to music), including Italien, which was a favourite of Queen Victoria:
3. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
All of the gorgeous, sensitive music composed by Chopin featured the piano.
The instrument had emerged in the Classical period, but really came into its own as the primary keyboard instrument of the Romantic era, increasing in size to allow composers to write pieces of greater scope and dynamic range.
Chopin experimented with a number of new forms and types of composition that emerged in the 19th Century, including ballades and nocturnes (a piece evocative of night time).
A skilled pianist himself, his mazurkas and polonaises are influenced by folk music and dances from his native Poland.
He lived in Paris for much of his life, dying of tuberculosis aged just 39.
4. Robert Schumann (1810-56)
Schumann was a talented pianist but was forced to focus on composition after a hand injury left him unable to play with his right hand.
In addition to orchestral works, an opera and many piano pieces, his Lieder song cycles are considered among his greatest achievements.
He also worked as an influential music critic, and his music contains numerous references to literature.
His wife, Clara, was a virtuoso concert pianist and composer herself, and the pair were close friends with Johannes Brahms.
Schumann suffered from severe mental health problems, spending the final two years of his life in an asylum.
5. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
A close friend of Chopin, Franz Liszt is also very much associated with piano music and, as a performer himself, is considered one of the great piano virtuosos of all time.
Musicians had traditionally been employed either by the church or by noble households, but the growth of a cultured middle class during the Romantic period meant that composers could now write music to be performed in concert halls, as they now began to be considered artists instead of craftsmen.
Liszt, a Hungarian, was one of music’s first genuine superstars, who was noted for his showmanship and magnetic stage presence.
At his concerts – during which he performed his own fiendishly difficult compositions and “transcriptions” for piano of other composers’ works – audiences were met with hysteria, with women apparently fighting to take his scarves and gloves as souvenirs!
He wrote a number of pieces of programmatic music, including his Années de pèlerinage, which takes inspiration from various pieces of Italian visual art:
6. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Italian opera had enjoyed years of dominance before Carl Maria von Weber, a late Classical/early Romantic composer, helped develop a uniquely German branch of the artform.
Wagner built upon this foundation with a daring new concept in which drama was the most important element in a synthesis of music, visual art, dramatic art and poetry.
One of his great innovations was the leitmotif, a musical device, now commonly heard in film music, where a musical phrase or theme represents a specific character.
Wagner’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” appears in his Der Ring des Nibelungen, an epic cycle of operas which has a total playing time of around 15 hours!
The adventurous harmony and bold chromaticism of his later work looked ahead to the modernism of the 20th Century.
7. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
After working as a composer and organist, Giuseppe Verdi began to have his operas staged at La Scala, the opera house in Milan.
His personal life was blighted by tragedy: two of his children died in infancy, followed by his wife Margherita, who was just 26.
Amidst all this some of his works were met with mixed responses and Verdi almost gave up composition entirely.
However, he persevered, coming up with a run of passion-filled works including Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida and Il trovatore, and establishing himself as the king of Italian opera.
After attempting to retire, he made a surprise comeback with three late masterpieces, including a celebrated Requiem.
“La Donna è Mobile”, from Rigoletto, is one of the most recognisable themes in all of Italian opera:
He was associated with the Risorgimento movement, which sought the unification of Italy, and he was mourned as a national hero upon his death from a stroke in 1901.
8. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms is often referred to, alongside Beethoven and Bach, as one of the “Three Bs”, which gives an indication of his hallowed position in the canon of Western music.
He was born in Hamburg but, like many important composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries, spent much of his career in Vienna.
His deeply emotive works remain a popular part of the concert repertoire, his music often seen as a continuation of Beethoven’s legacy – Brahms acknowledged him as a major influence – while he also wrote a number of pieces inspired by German and Hungarian folk themes.
His oeuvre includes four symphonies and chamber works, including a clarinet quintet and various works for piano and strings.
As a virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his works himself.
Brahms was famous for being a massive perfectionist, who destroyed many of his own pieces that did not meet his exacting standards.
9. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to make an impact on the international stage, and his timeless ballets – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker – continue to sell out performances today.
Other acclaimed works include his 1812 Overture, which commemorates the Russian military defence against Napoleon, his First Piano Concerto and his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, which alludes to his rather traumatic personal life:
10. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Mahler was a transitional composer who bridged the gap between the Germanic Romantic tradition and the modernist sounds of the 20th Century.
He found acclaim as one of the greatest conductors of his day, but his compositional output was not fully appreciated for some time, in part due to prejudice: Mahler, who was born in Bohemia to Jewish parents, met with antisemitism from the press whilst working in Vienna, and later his music was banned across much of Europe by the Nazis.
He is now beloved for his epic symphonies, which capture the breadth of the human experience with their huge range of emotions and moods:
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the most important composers of the Romantic period.
If you’ve had a listen to the pieces that we recommended in this article, you will have heard groundbreaking programme music, revolutionary opera from both Germany and Italy, and technically challenging pieces written by virtuoso performer-composers.
And if you go to a classical concert, there’s a good chance you might hear more beautiful music written by these Romantic greats.