In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Romanticism

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Analyzing Works of Musical Romanticism
  • Musical Post-Romanticism
  • Instruments, Orchestration, and Performance Practices

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Music Romanticism
Michael Saffle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0124


The words romantic and romanticism—both of them derived from romance, meaning an extravagant tale or story—are impossible to define to everyone’s satisfaction. As Kenneth Klaus observers, “a closed definition of romanticism” would itself be anything but “romantic.” Furthermore, both terms have positive associations for some individuals, and negative associations for others. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), for example, provides a quotation from the mid-17th century, when the former word was used to describe “a history which is partly true, partly romantic.” In other words, partially imaginary or false. Formerly, “romantic” was also used to characterize flowery or overblown language as well as anything “fantastic, extravagant, [and] quixotic.” None of these definitions has much to do with “romantic love” whether passionate or tender, “amorous, loving, [or] affectionate.” Musical Romanticism, on the other hand, is usually discussed in terms of individual composers, sources, stylistic gestures, works, and so on. John Warrack notes in The New Grove Dictionary that, although “there are elements that might reasonably be called Romantic in Bach’s Passions and in Stravinsky‥‥ But the only collective applications of the term in such contexts is as representing a gesture divergent from a more ordered and contained norm.” In other words, musical Romanticism must in some sense be anti-Classical: spontaneous, revolutionary. Its presence today suggests its appeal as antimodernism, at least to the extent that modernist music represents something other than a feature divergent from Romanticism itself. In this sense, 1960s rock music has sometimes been called “romantic.”

Reference Works

Aside from catalogs of composers’ compositions and collected editions of music and correspondence, the most reliable Romantic-music “reference work” is Wehnert 1998, a contribution to the second edition of Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Blume 1970 comprises two lengthy articles that appeared in the first edition and were translated into English decades ago. Although briefer than either of these works, Warrack 1980 has important things to say about Romantic music. Hall 1989 is also useful, although by no means unique; several broader-based studies include brief timelines of their own. Other music-dictionary entries on the Romantic are often disappointing; still others ignore the categories “Romantic” and “Romanticism” altogether.

  • Apel, Willi. “Romanticism.” In Harvard Dictionary of Music. 2d ed. By Willi Apel, 737–738. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977.

    Begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings of the 18th century and continues to 1910. Identifies most of the “great” Romantics in the relevant section of the present article, but omits Schubert. According to this brief and rather disparaging article, the three outstanding contributions of musical Romanticism were the character piece for piano, the art song, and the symphonic poem.

  • Blume, Friedrich. Classic and Romantic Music: A Comprehensive Survey. Translated by M. D. Herter Norton. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

    Two massive encyclopedia articles, published for the first time in 1958. Useful as surveys, but the buyer should beware of the author’s prejudices in favor of “the Classical” and against the tempestuous and inchoate “Romantic.” Although Blume devotes considerable attention to rhythm, harmonic, thematic development, and other fundamentally stylistic matters, he provides no musical examples.

  • Hall, Charles J. A Nineteenth-Century Musical Chronicle: Events, 1800–1899. Westport, CT, and New York: Greenwood, 1989.

    Presents year-by-year information in terms of world events, cultural highlights of nonmusical kinds, musical “events” such as births and deaths of important composers and performers, debuts, new positions held by musicians, publications in the field of musical literature (biography, criticism, reminiscences, and so on), and compositions. Comprehensively indexed (pp. 303–374).

  • Warrack, John. “Romantic.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 16. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 141–144. London: Macmillan, 1980.

    Summarizes the musical Romantic in terms of etymology, background and general considerations, applications to opera and instrumental music, and technical considerations (i.e., form, harmony, rhythm, and so on). For Warrack, “it is in Wagner that most of the traits of Romanticism meet in some form.” Better than the online “New Grove 2” article; furthermore, previous editions of Grove’s Dictionary contained no definitions of musical Romanticism.

  • Wehnert, Martin. “Romantik und romantisch.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, “Sachteil.” Vol. 8. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 464–507. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1998.

    Wehnert’s exhaustive discussion is a superb synopsis of German musicological thinking, past and present. Among the issues he considers are Classical elements in Romantic compositions, 19th-century musical realism, and “Biedermeier und Vormärz” (i.e., the 1820s and 1830s, especially in Vienna, and the “pre-March” years of the 1840s that preceded the revolutions of March 1848).

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