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The Classical vs. Romantic Eras in Western Music


Nowadays, the notion of flourishing Western music evinces keen interest in its history and development all over the world as its trends present an impressive and remarkable variety of famous creative people and their marvelous works. Thus, this research paper delineates the main features of Classical (1750-1820) and Romantic Western music comparing and contrasting the main characteristics and qualities of the two eras. Namely, the research paper deals with different styles and genres in Western music and presents the topic from a historical perspective. However, the main purpose of the study is to analyze the transition from Classical to Romantic traditions and the main causes of it, and also compare the representatives of each movement.

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The Classical vs. Romantic Music

It is reasonable to start with the definition of Western music and proceed with its main characteristics. In this research paper, Western music refers to the art of sound that has been experiencing changes in its patterns since ancient civilizations entered historical times. Undoubtedly, Western music acquired its world significance due to the reason that creativity of such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Verdi, etc. reached its peak in Classical and Romantic Eras, thus making a tremendous contribution to the world of sound. The two periods do have something in common: they reflect the outstandingly talented people whose music even nowadays remains multi-leveled and feature-rich. Accordingly, the historical perspective of Western music possesses a life-long interest in its development.

Not surprisingly, the basis of Western music that pertains to the Classical period was influenced by the social conditions and the previous trends that existed before the era being now in the process of analysis. The Classical era in Western music appeared in the 20s of the 18th century. The revolutionary movements that took place at that time in Western countries exerted an impact on it. In order to determine all the peculiar features of the given era, it is of paramount importance to mention the phenomenon of democratization of classical music. It means that practically all the social classes could listen to music and attend concerts. One of the first series of concerts was held in Paris and consolidated its achievements under the name of Concert Spirituel.

Nevertheless, there is a certain ambiguity in the term “classical.” In this research paper, this term refers to a specific historical period from 1720 to 1850 that represents the works of such composers as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (his earliest works also belong to this particular era). Their audience-oriented approach was highly estimated by their contemporaries. Undoubtedly, they are the creators of formal correctness, and it is one of their main accomplishments.

The Classical period in Western music is marked with such stylistic features as clarity and simplicity. The aspect of melody is also quite different from that of the baroque style. As opposed to the extended melodies, classical ones were rather tuneful and epigrammatic. It means that they managed to express feelings and ideas in a short way. The classical traditions were based on the new principle of development that consisted in fragmentation, expansion, and modification of themes (Daniel, n.p.). Balance, harmony and dynamics are the main features pertaining to classical traditions of Western music in general.

It is a widely accepted fact that the most vivid composers of the Classical era were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The styles of their works became the turning point in Western music. They were echoed by their contemporaries and copied by different composers of that time. Therefore, one may distinguish the cultural center of the Classical era – Vienna, or The City of Music, as it is called, because of the popularity of the above-mentioned composers and the overall development of music as such. The following terms that come to mind are Viennese School and Viennese Classical Style. According to Wright (2008),

With so much musical patronage to offer, Vienna attracted musicians from throughout Europe. Haydn moved there from Lower Austria, Mozart from Upper Austria, his rival Antonio Salieri from Italy, and Beethoven from Bonn, Germany. (p. 159)

Evidently, the above-mentioned composers were the most famous representatives of the Classical period. In addition, the Classical period in Western music encompasses a small number of forms that were used by the composers. Specifically, these were ternary, sonata-allegro, rondo, theme and variations. These forms mainly shaped the music or, to put it plainly, formed its ‘architecture.’ Craig Wright (2008) was particularly good at describing this form of composition. He called it musical “home-away-home” and drew parallels to French “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” These associations mainly explain the notion of ternary form. Additionally, ternary form served as the basis for dance music thus being expanded into the minuet. Minuet was lately used in the high-genres of the symphony and the string quartet. It has its obvious representation in Mozart’s A Little Night Music, a light multi-movement serenade.

The form of sonata-allegro is more complicated than that of the ternary. In the Classical era, it was mostly used as the form that had dramatic presentation, conflict, and resolution. However, it is important to tell the difference between the sonata as a genre, and the sonata-allegro as a form in Western music. The sonata is mainly featured by the solo instrument while the sonata-allegro is known to give the structure to the genre. The sonata-allegro is the typical form of the Classical period. It was followed by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc. as one of the most complex forms.

Another form of composition that was used in order to inspire and cheer up the public were theme and variations. Theme and variations in classical traditions consist in altering, decorating or adorning the melody, or, in other words, shaping its creative sounding and putting emphasis on the sounds thus endowing the melody with a particular idea. However, the idea had to be simple and well known. That is why the composers took famous songs as the background for their classical variations. Wright (2008) mentions Mozart’s theme and variations on folklore songs, such as “God Save the King,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “America.” Joseph Haydn took theme and variations form and was the first to use it for his Surprise Symphony. He inserted a sudden fortissimo chord into his Symphony No. 94 and achieved phenomenal success.

The next form that prevailed in Classical Western music was rondo. The peculiar feature of this particular form consists in the presence of the theme and its several restatements. Apparently, this form may be easily heard because of the numerous repetitions of one specific theme. A true classical rondo had to preserve at least three refrains and was usually applied at the end of a sonata, quartet or symphony. In the Classical period, it was used to cheer up the public. It is presented in Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca and Beethoven's Rondo a capriccio.

The Classical era in Western music embraces a remarkable variety of genres. Namely, as the primary position belonged to the phenomenon of instrumental music, Wright distinguishes its five genres: the instrumental genres of symphony, string quartet, sonata and concerto, and the vocal genre of opera (Wright, 2008, p. 186). The pattern that was mainly used as the form was the sonata-allegro. “Depending on the medium of performance for which it was intended, it would be called, for example, a symphony, a concerto, a string quartet, a sextet, a trio” (Daniel, n.p.). Thus, new different genres of instrumental music were peculiar to that period.

The most vivid presentation of the sonata form was played by an orchestra and called the symphony. Different musicians experimented with the genre of symphony. Johann Stamitz, in particular, was considered to be the leader of symphony. His contribution to the Classical era established the new forms of ensemble where such instruments as violin, violoncello, trumpets, violas, etc. were used.

However, it is important to remark that the advent of the symphony presents an increasing interest nowadays. As a multi-movement composition for orchestra, it lasted approximately twenty-five minutes in the Classical period and nearly an hour in the Romantic era. In the Classical period, the symphony was played at the beginning and end of concerts, thus opening and closing them. It led to the emergence of such terms as the symphony hall and the symphony orchestra.

Another genre that was peculiar to the Classical era in Western music is the concerto. It was intended for the public audience and took place in public concert halls. Unlike the symphony, it has direct Baroque roots. It can be explained by the fact that the classical concerto resembles the ritornello principle of the previous traditions. However, an innovative genre concerned solo concerto, with a single, usually piano, soloist. Mozart himself created twenty-five solo concertos. He was motivated by a huge amount of money promised for his works.

Apart from the symphony and concerto, it is significant to mention the development of chamber music that took place in the late 18th century. It was composed for a small group of people that was called the string quartet (four instruments: two violins, viola, and violoncello). Haydn and Mozart were the ones that masterfully introduced the string quartet to the public. Being friends, both men created the notion of domestic music making. The former one elaborated the conversational mode of composition and the latter expanded it. The conversational mode meant that a conductor was not needed as the musicians could have a direct conversation with each other. It was the reason why Goethe called the string quartet “the conversation among four intelligent people” (Wright, 2008, p. 191). Among Haydn’s most famous quartets, one may distinguish The Emperor written in 1797.

The last genre peculiar to the Classical period belongs to the aspect of vocal music. It concerns the genre of opera as the matter of the highest attraction among people because of its glamour and star appeal. “Opera is drama, yes, but drama propelled by music” (Wright, 2008, p. 199). Although the classical opera preserved the main features of the baroque trends, it developed into a comic opera presenting characters that are more realistic and natural in their everyday life routine. The comic opera also contributed to the vocal ensemble portraying the simultaneous actions and emotions on the stage and ensuring dramatic pace.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the master of the Classical opera. He had an instinct of what may be effective in the theatre attaching importance to his characters and music. Mozart is also believed to have created a new kind of opera; it is a mixture of comic and serious elements. These distinctive features are presented in The Marriage of Figaro, a domestic comedy, and his Don Giovanni, his best opera ever written. In addition, only one opera is attributed to Beethoven, Fidelio.

One of the most famous composers that lived during the Classical period was Beethoven. Although his creativity possesses some classical features, it is known as a bridge to the new Romantic era. In fact, scholars claim that some of his works are representations of the Classical Viennese Style as the composer employs different genres and forms peculiar to the Classical period in Western music. However, the spirit of his works is entirely different from classical traditions:

Though a pupil of Haydn and a lifelong admirer of Mozart, he nevertheless elevated music to new heights of both lyricism and dramatic power. For this reason, he can rightly be called the prophet of Romantic music. (Wright, 2008, p. 207)

Beethoven is especially known for his fanciful improvisations and magic expressions. His music was louder than that of the classicists; it had a wider range of themes and suddenness. Beethoven was the composer that elevated music to the level of exalted art, though he suffered from losing hearing and his unstable personality. It turned out that the man did not need the external sounds to create his works. Somehow, music was in his mind. There are even proofs that he composed his music outdoors. It is generally accepted that Beethoven’s music was intended for the future generations, the audience of the Romantic era in particular.

The Romantic era in Western music starts in 1820 and lasts until 1900. Seemingly, its traditions are entirely different from the classical ones. It can be explained by some revolutionary sentiments, such as the desire for liberty, individual expression, pursuit of love, etc. All these features led to new forms of expression and human imagination. The music of the time was concerned with the notion of passion as opposed to the classical reason, tradition, unity and order. Nevertheless, it is of exceeding importance to mention that a musician was free. Apparently, the composers became the true artists that have broken the chains of submission.

To make the contrast between the Classical and Romantic eras clearer, the following Venn diagrams will be helpful. They present differences and similarities of the two successive eras along with the Classical and Romantic worldviews and guidelines.

As it can be seen from the above diagram, the Classical and Romantic eras in Western music are seemingly different. While the Classical era presupposes reason, tradition, unity and order, the music of the Romantic era is concerned with individuality and revolutionary ideas.

In comparison, the Romantic era encompasses a tremendous variety of genres. Among them, the listener of Western music of that time may encounter symphonies, dramatic and concert overtures, tone poems, operas, art and orchestral songs, character pieces for piano, and ballet music. These genres were applied by such composers as Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and other creative people.

The Romantic period in Western music is profoundly indebted to the classical traditions. The Romantic composers of the time did not manage to create their own forms of composition; they borrowed them from the predecessors. However, they introduced two new genres: the art song and the tone poem. The melody tends to reflect flexibility and irregularity. It is saturated with powerful climaxes and expressiveness. The rhythms are free and relaxed. The membership in the orchestra is much bigger than in the Classical period as the new instruments are used. As a result, dynamics varies in order to strengthen the levels of expression. According to Wright (2008):

Romanticism has kept its grip on the Western imagination. Belief in the artist a superhero, reverence for the object as a “work of art,” and expectations of silence and even formal dress at a concert all developed in the Romantic period. (p. 231)

Thus, one may see the sweeping changes in all the aspects of life and music in particular. It is reasonable to proceed with the detailed information concerning the romantic forms, genres and their implementation in the works of the famous composers.

The new forms that are peculiar to the Romantic era are the expanded versions of the classical ones. The listener may be surprised to find out that the length of movements increased dramatically, and the composition could last nearly for an hour. The new forms were called monumental and miniature. The former one presents an expansive spirit of the age while the latter regards the attempts to imitate a single emotion in music.

The nineteenth-century music was greatly influenced and transformed due to the development of technology, namely the Industrial Revolution. Many instruments received mechanical enhancements. It was the main reason why the orchestra confronted multiple changes in membership and sounding. However, there were entirely new instruments peculiar to this era: piccolo, trombones, and contrabassoons. Beethoven needed these particular instruments for his Symphony No. 5.

The Romantic spirit was determined by the famous composer Berlioz that had an accurate idea and strategy of the quantity of members in an orchestra and all the instruments that they needed. He used to represent the gist of the Romantic traditions, their main aims and concepts. In comparison, the orchestras of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were completely different. They mainly differed in the number and variety of the required instruments, as well as in the members of the orchestra.

Nowadays, one is not surprised to see an orchestra with hundreds of musicians. However, the eighteenth-century symphonies presented fewer members thus making the music more tuneful and concise. On the contrary, the nineteenth-century orchestra produced loud sounds and the music was rather based on different contrasting features.

Another difference that told Mozart’s music from his contemporaries consisted in their need for the conductor. In the Classical era, one of the performers played the role of a conductor. Usually, it was the pianist. However, the Romantic orchestra with such a great quantity of musicians was badly in need of the leader that would take the responsibility of conducting and directing the flow of music. The modern conductor used a particular object (a handkerchief or a wooden button) to clarify the meter and speed.

The Romantic era, the era of individuality and expressiveness, presented a new way of creating music. It concerned the glorification of an individual and was known as a solo virtuoso. Even though Bach and Mozart used to do it before, the solo virtuoso gained enormous popularity among the musicians of the Romantic era and was practiced almost by every composer. The most influential representatives of this genre are Franz Liszt and Niccolo Paganini. They often developed tricks so that their complicated movements could sound better. Paganini used to tune his violin secretly while Liszt played the keyboard with the lighted cigar in his hands.

Apart from the solo virtuoso, it would be reasonable to dwell upon the other genres that appeared in the Romantic era. The influence of literature of that time influenced the creation of the art song. Its phenomenon relates to the multiple transformations that imitated poetry in general. Wright (2008) defines the art song as the song for solo voice and piano accompaniment with high artistic aspirations (p. 242). The genre was used by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.

The most successful representative of the art song was Franz Schubert as he managed to present the music in harmony with the text. His name is closely tied up with the so-called Shubertiades. These were the meetings of the middle-class people who possessed a keen interest in poetry presented by means of music. Schubert’s most famous works include The Pretty Maid of the Mill (1823), Winter Journey (1827) and Erlkönig. He is also known for the concept of the song cycle, a range of individual songs that dwelled upon a single theme.

The domination of the art song is also present in the creative works of Robert and Clara Schumann. Although one of the forces to write the art songs was his love to Clara, Robert Schumann was particularly motivated by his want to earn money to ensure their financial position. He used poems of Goethe and Byron as the settings for his songs. Robert Schumann is famous for the eight songs that belong to the cycle Women in Love and Life. Unfortunately, the career of a composer was quite impossible for a woman at that time because of the cult of domesticity. However, Clara Schumann managed to achieve success with her song “If You Love for Beauty” that complemented her husband’s creative works.

The Romantic era also presupposes the phenomena of the program music. Firstly, it is a type of instrumental music designed for the orchestra. Secondly, it is a sound recreation of the particular events that were taken from the novels or dramatic works. Apparently, the genres connected with the program music were stimulated by the Romantic love for literature. Program music was introduced into Western music by means of program symphony, dramatic overture, and tone poem. It is important to examine every genre.

Program symphony is a multi-movement symphony that depicts a succession of specific events. It can be viewed through the prism of Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1857). Obviously, dramatic overture relates to opera, play or even festival, being a one-movement work that dwells upon the events described by such a famous dramatist as Shakespeare (Mendelsohn, Tchaikovsky). Tone poem, on the other hand, is related to political events or personal experience. Strauss, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet) applied the genre in their works.

Apart from the program music, it is significant to remark that the ballet music also took place in the Romantic era. It related to the dramatic dance that was performed along with the music. However, this dance had multiple functions, and one of them was to tell a particular story with the help of sounds in the background and movements that ought to be in line with the music. Tchaikovsky aimed at creating music that would be tuneful and akin to the short bursts of feelings. His works Swan Lake (1876) and Sleeping Beauty (1889) had a deep effect on the world’s music in general.

The Romantic era manifests itself in an astonishing variety of composers. They come from all the Western countries: Russia, German, and Italy. The style of every composer possesses distinctive features that are quite important for determining the main principles of Western music. In the music of the Romantic period, scholars deal with Russian nationalism, Germanic and Italian Romantic operas. The prominent place is taken by the realistic opera as related to the Romantic era.

Russian nationalism in music was presented by the Russian Five: Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky. They based their music on the Russian folklore and religion. As to the piano music, such composers as Schumann, Chopin and Franz Liszt elevated it to the level of world’s recognition. However, as in the Classical period, Italy remained one of the centers of opera. Historians focus their attention on the compositions of Rossini, Verdi, Bellini and Puccini. They were the true representatives of the Romantic opera. Among them, one may distinguish Rossini as the most vivid composer due to the reason that he wrote operas; his most famous opera is called The Barber of Seville.

In Italy, the composers pioneered a new style of opera. It consisted only in the solo voice and was called bel canto (Rossini coined the term himself). In addition, Verdi’s style was concerned with the point of drama practically in all of his works. He was the master of expressing conflict in every emotion. Verdi’s works were intense, active and passionate. One of his most famous operas is La Traviata (1853). It was based on the play Camille that Verdi saw in Paris. Thus, one may conclude that the Romantic opera reached its peak in the Italian music.

Nevertheless, the genre of Romantic opera was successfully used in Germany. The most popular representative was Richard Wagner. His creative works were affected by Nordic Fantasy Literature. Wagner was a revolutionist in German music. He firmly believed that music could exert an impact on people’s worldviews. Not surprisingly, he wrote heroic operas that included the elements and borrowings from the Nordic literature. Wagner is mostly famous for such operas as The Flying Dutchman, Song of the Nibelungs, The Ring of the Nibelungs, the last one being in the form of the Ring cycle (four successive operas). Although his heroic creative works were very important, apart from them, Wagner created a set of music dramas. These presented the harmony of poetry, acting, music, mime and dance in Wagner’s style that, to all appearances, was different from the Italian one.

The second half of the nineteenth century in Western music presents a new kind of contrasting genre – realistic opera. Evidently, it aimed at depicting the social life of people. In contrast to the romantic opera, realistic one was more close to the everyday life, and its purpose was to focus on social discrepancies, poverty, sexual abuse and other striking problems that existed at that time. This kind of opera is connected with the name of Georges Bizet (Carmen). The genre of realistic opera was also used in Italy. However, it had a special name of verismo opera. It was elaborated by Puccini.

In fact, the last peculiar feature of the Romantic period belongs to the Romantic orchestral music. A German composer, Johannes Brahms, was its main representative that managed to create German Requiem. It is important to mention the small-scale genre of the orchestral song as well. Probably, it is the thing that the Classical and Romantic periods had in common – their inclination for creating small-scale music. In the Romantic period, it was presented by Gustav Mahler, being slightly different from the one of the Classical period.


Obviously, the term paper dwells upon the two striking periods that characterized Western Music of the 18th-19th centuries. The Classical period was a synthesis of the baroque trends with the potential innovations in music that was implemented by means of new forms and genres. The succession of the Romantic era continued classical traditions expanding their peculiarities and thus creating the music that was entirely different in melody, rhythm, texture and form. Sometimes, the two periods seem incomparable because of the flourishing development of the Romantic traditions.

It is important to pay attention to the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras that turned out to be auspicious for the future changes in the manner of creating music. The transition to the new styles was closely tied up with the musicians’ desire to recreate the revolutionary spirit that was in the air at that time. “Gallant music” tended to lose its effectiveness as compared to the loud and passionate sounding of Beethoven. The composers were badly in need of new ranges of expression as the music and its varieties became audience-oriented, and the democratization of classical music took place.

However, it is of exceeding importance to conclude that the representatives of both periods can be marked with the styles that were completely divergent. The Classical era gravitated towards reason, traditions and formal correctness while the composers of the Romantic one produced the music full of passion, individuality and liberty. Unity and order were no longer the criteria for quality. Therefore, it is clear that the compositions written by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven served as a background for the future music that was later presented by Wagner, Puccini, Paganini, Chopin and other famous composers of the Romantic era.

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