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The New Frontier, Part Seven:

The Romantic Period 1800-1910

How the Chromatic Style of Romantic Music Affects Its Performance


by Donald Miller

The Romantic spirit began early in the nineteenth century and was evident in music, art, and literature. That spirit exploded in the French Revolution and the prevailing goals were the ideals of freedom and individualism. There tended to be a distinct movement away from the style of the Classic Period. To be different was the goal of many Romantic composers. A variety of musical experiments were used to achieve this individualism. The expression of emotion and imagination soon became the basis of most Romantic music. There are many contradictions of style between composers of this era, but both melody and harmony became increasingly more chromatic.

As a result of this Romantic spirit, the following style characteristics of Romantic music began to evolve:

Melody became increasingly more chromatic. Chromaticism may be defined as altering a tone in the diatonic scale (e.g. C Major) by adding accidentals, that is- sharps and flats. Chromaticism helps to create harmonic tension. A good example of this is shown in a work by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-18470), Miserere Nobis from the Miller Ensemble Series, Music of the Masters. Mendelssohn's composition is a fugue. A fugue is an imitative contrapuntal composition. A theme, called a subject is developed in imitation (one part imitates another part). Counterpoint is a technique in which two or more independent melodic lines are combined.

Example 1- Miserere Nobis

Listen to an Example



In measures 7 through 11 above, note that guitars 3 & 4 carry the subject which is clearly in A minor with no chromatic alterations. At measure 10, guitars 1 & 2 carry the subject, but a perfect 5th higher, in what is called the answer. Note also the chromatic alterations in measure 12 & 13 (f#, d#, g#, c#).

In addition to adopting chromaticism and contrapuntal composition as the norm, Romantic music took on additional distinctive characteristics:

1. Rhythm becomes more irregular and less predictable.

2. Tempo in Romantic music is not always constant.
Frequently there are changes of speed and the use of rubato within movements or sections of music. Rubato is a flexible tempo as shown by the pushing and pulling of a melody against the accompaniment. Rubato should not push or pull so far from the tempo that it destroys the sense of rhythm. A good example of this is found in the Miller Ensemble Series, Music From Around the World. Let's look at the first 32 measures of "The Neighbor's Chorus" by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).

Example 2- The Neighbor's Chorus

Listen to an Example





It's not often that a guitarist gets the opportunity to perform part of an opera!! As you can see above, the work begins in a straight-forward manner without changes in speed or mood.

Example 3 shows quite a departure from Example 2 and provides the players with an opportunity to use rubato from measures 33 through 36. Notice also the mood and tempo change at measure 37.

Example 3.

3. Romantic harmony makes more use of chromaticism, altered chords, non-harmonic tones and broad use of ninth and thirteenth chords.

Our concluding article in this series will present examples from the great wealth of multicultural music. Selections will be taken from the Miller Ensemble Series, Music of the Hispanic World and Music from Around the World.

See you at our next session,
Don Miller





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