What's the difference between romantic music and Romantic music?

Caspar David Friedrich's 'Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog' (detail, above) is the quintessential Romantic painting -- but it's not particularly romantic.1818

February 12, 2016

Classical music has had half a millennium to sort out its terminology — but there's still plenty of room for confusion, especially when describing musical eras. For example, not all classical music is Classical — in the sense that what's regarded as the Classical era ran from about 1750 to 1825.

That era was followed by the Romantic era, which ran from about 1825 to 1900. Much of that era's music is what you might call "romantic" in an amorous sense (Chopin's Étude No. 2, Brahms's Piano Sonata No. 3), but then there's also Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries and Verdi's Requiem. So where did the term "Romantic" come from?

Before the word "romantic" was routinely used to describe lovey-dovey stuff, it connoted a sweeping emotionalism — such as that associated with sunsets and poetry. By the beginning of the period we now call "the Romantic era" in the arts, the word was commonly used to describe a free-spirited expression, particularly among artists.

In reaction to the rationalizing process of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic movement in the arts valorized subjective expression that was unfettered by rules and systems. Whereas Mozart's genius lay in his inventive use of his day's standardized musical tropes, Beethoven raised the stakes with his stormy — and, eventually, radical — departures from those tropes.

The defining composers of the Romantic era include Chopin, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. These composers took Beethoven's intense subjectivity as a baseline and pushed even farther into the realms of drama and poignance — with a decreasing regard for the niceties of conventional composition. Wagner pushed the limits of tonality, and Mahler brought the era to a crashing climax with his sprawling symphonies. Beyond him lay the bizarre new worlds of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

It's not a coincidence that the word "romantic" came to connote an atmosphere of loving connection — if you want to set the mood for an erotic evening, you're much more likely to go for Schumann's soaring strings than for Bach's Goldberg Variations. (Of course, to each his or her own.) To this day, when a composer wants to suggest themes of love or sensuality, he or she is likely to reach into the 19th-century toolbox.

You'll hear a lot of Romantic music on YourClassical's Romance stream — but you'll hear baroque arias, pop-tune transcriptions, and more. Love, after all, knows no bounds — temporal, stylistic, or otherwise.