Between Romanticism and Modernism Essay

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer

In contemporary times, the term romanticism when it comes to music refers to that period roughly between 1810 and 1900 when there was a revival for the need to listen to ‘medieval’ music. It is interesting to note that though this may be the case, historians are yet to agree on the actual time when this music was rekindled.

Certainly, there is evidence that the ‘romantic era’ began before 1810. E.T.A Hoffman, a German romantic music critic, often referred to Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Mozart as romantic composers. Ludwig van Spohr seemed to corroborate this argument in his analysis of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as a true romantic art. However, music historians have termed the three as classical composers and not romantic artists.

Modernism on the other hand refers to that period after 1900 when there was a departure from the past in all matters art, religion, science and politics. The first of the modernists in music sought to begin new dimensions and depths in music through the use of non-conventional instruments and novel sounds.

Modernists such as Luigi Russolo contemplated a future in music where even factory noises would be considered musical. Edgard Varese was among the first modernists to adopt new music techniques with his ‘Poeme Electronique’ (electronic poem).

The difference between the two schools of thought though quite clear had some merged issues that involved the rekindled need for romantic music in the modern age in what is referred to as neo-romanticism. In fact, modernism has received wide criticism from audiences for its efforts to avoid comprehensiveness when it comes to performance compared to romantic works that used less semantic density and more of harmonious melody to achieve comprehension in the audience.

Though modernists have brought in new talent and novel instruments such as electronic guitars and keyboards, the romantic era had what could be called ‘pure’ music where there was emphasis on instrumentals as well as vocal music. The modernist age tends to raise the latter over the former.

Indeed the need for the so called ‘real’ music has created the beginning of a neo-romantic age. Modernists are turning to the use of traditional instruments and soloist performances in the characteristic styles of virtuosi such as Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt.

The early 19th Century romantics brought music to new dimensions. These talents introduced novelties such as iron-framed pianos and metal-stringed instruments thus enhancing acoustics with more virtuosity and tonal colour. The introduction of developments such as long compositions, programmed titles and new genres in romanticism such as tone poems, concert overtures, rhapsodies and virtuosic concertos made the romantic era musicians lovable to their audiences. Music was harmonious, passionate and chromatic (colorful)[7].

Modernists brought about the expansion of tonality. Music composers who brought about these great changes were Schoenberg, Strauss, Mahler and Debussy. The concept of polytonality was introduced and expanded by talents such as Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud and Ives.

Other changes were later to come through Arnold Schoenberg’s with his 12 tone technique. Serialism in music was thereafter introduced by the Frenchmen Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt. Another great change would be Charles Seeger’s dissonant counterpoint which was improved in the high dissonance technique by talented modernists Ruth Crawford and Carl Ruggles.

Comprehensiveness in music and tonal depth was one of the liberated aspects of the modernist age. Artists like Gustav Mahler brought it to new heights with the concept of ‘universal music.’ These were not the only developments in modernism as brilliant composers such as Iannis Xenakis, a young Greek composer introduced mathematical concepts into music composition introducing a new dimensional approach.

Other contributions to modernism include the extension techniques of percussion and piano orchestras by musical maestros John cage and Lou Harrison, Harry Partch’s ensemble for microtonal music and equal temperaments by Alois Haba, which was an improvement of the 12 tone technique by Schoenberg.

It is however of importance to note that though romanticism has been associated with the 19th Century, it is not the age that defines the music but the ‘character’ of the music. Perhaps this is the reason why historians cannot seem to fully agree on the line between romanticism, post-romanticism and modernism. While romanticism represented the past and was mostly naturalist, modernism introduces novelty and is somewhat positivist or realist and a departure from previous schools of thought.

The classical period mostly had had music that was reflective of various artistic and geniuses of the time such as Mozart. Their influence on the romantic ideals and musical framework was thus phenomenal and thus music was taken as an abstract art that was universal in nature and brought about beauty in life itself. However, it mostly represented the elite view of the world and was mostly much controlled. The romantic age however saw an emancipation of music and was neither constrained by thought or form.

It is notable that this was a time in which other fields such as politics and science had also been liberated and thus the music of the time was more of freedom and its joys and that is why most romantic compositions were lively, joyous, personal and hopeful. Indeed this reflected the emotion of the time.

The nationalization of music also began at this stage. Composers were keen to reflect their own culture and nationality in their music. This was a revolt of some sought from the immense German influence on 19th Century music causing great composers such as Carl Weber, Richard Wagner, Dvorak, Grieg, Verdi and Rimsky-Korsakov to prefer their national folk tunes as a way to express their culture and patriotism.

This concept of nationalistic music was continued into the post-Romantic period i.e. the late 19th century. In England for example, composers such as Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams were the produced some of the most popular folk-classical music in England. Similarly, in the U. S, composers like Ives, Gershwin and Aaron Copland produced nationalistic compositions that reflected purely American styles.

Modernists however have not adopted this view of music. They still trumpet the universality of music with artists choosing to make music that appeals to all humankind. It is not lost on modernists that globalization has reduced the world to a village and that it is part of the ordinate senses of human beings to love and enjoy music across the board. Again, this view is reflective of the mind-set of people in modern times which emphasizes the point that music has grown alongside other disciplines.


Romantic era music was descriptive, analytical and programmed and artists were held in high regard as shapers of thought. This was unlike the classical era of Mozart where music was abstract and generally taken as entertainment.

Again due to the restrictions of the time, artists could not convey their true feelings freely due to the stranglehold of the society by the elite. Modernists on the other hand have taken music to another level. Music here is mostly expressive, free of control, full of intonation and socially conscious. However, programme music is not as common.

We can there conclude by stating that the main difference that characterizes the romantic and the modern era is the change of people’s mind-sets and the restructuring of society. Music then had to conform to this free and liberal society that needed to express itself after coming from very dark times (i.e. the world wars and various revolutions). However, romantic music is finding its way back into modern society and a society that had prided itself in being novel, finds itself with an insatiable appetite for the music of old.

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