From symphonies to opera, exciting changes were taking place in the world of classical music during an 80 year period (1820–1900), as composers began breaking the rules and foundations of classical composition set by the classical period composers who came before them.
New musical ideas abounded. There was a great surge of composers, each with their own unique view and compositional style. Music became more personal as composers began expressing their feelings and emotions with the use of non-traditional harmonies, unlikely instruments, and even larger-than-life orchestras (e.g., Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, which featured over 1,000 instrumentalists and singers in its American premiere in 1916).
Of course, there are hundreds of fantastic men and women worth mentioning, but these are the composers you should know.
Frederic Chopin (1810–1849)
Frederic Chopin, born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, was a Polish pianist and composer known for his pieces written for the piano. He specialized in the genres: etude, mazurka, nocturne, waltz, and polonaise.
Because of his success, and his propensity to only perform in intimate settings for social elites, Chopin was able to charge large sums for private instruction.
Many of his pieces were influenced by Polish folk songs, and his nationalist theme aligned with characteristics of Romanticism. All his compositions include the piano, but the majority of them were written exclusively for solo piano, which included sonatas, mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, polonaises, etudes, impromptus, scherzos, and preludes. Popular Works: Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1 (Minute Waltz), Marche Funebre, Etude in C major, Op. 10, and Etude in C minor Op.10 (Revolutionary)
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805–1847)
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was a German Romantic pianist and composer. Many of her songs were published under her brother’s name, Felix Mendelssohn, due to sexist attitudes of the time. Felix was also a music composer. Rather than sibling rivalry, the two worked closely together in providing constructive criticism on each other’s works.
Popular Works: Easter Sonata
Franz Joseph Liszt (1843–1907)
Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt is arguably one of the greatest piano players to have ever lived. He was a part of the New German School and became its leading figure. He is well known for many things, including his ability to transcribe major orchestral works for piano and make them widely popular, the invention of the symphonic poem (using a symphony to tell a story, describe a landscape, or represent any non-musical idea), and progressing thematic transformation (essentially, the evolution of a theme by means of variation). Liszt was also known as a philanthropist and author.
Liszt was known for his passionate performances which included dramatic gestures, intense facial expressions and adding his own style to pieces. His improvisation and emotional performances made him a true musician of the Romantic period. Popular Works:Hungarian Rhapsodies, Années de pèlerinage, and Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat Major
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Giuseppe Verdi was an Italian composer known for his operas, including Jérusalem, Rigoletto, Aida and more. His operas’ ability to penetrate the psyche and evoke intense emotion rank him among the most well-known Romantic composers.
Beyond his iconic status as a composer, Verdi was also a political figure idolized by many Italians for his nationalist beliefs.
A few of Verdi’s musical styles are so distinctive, many composers— past and present—would never use them. It’s as if he owned the copyright. Verdi elevated Italian opera, working on the foundations set by Bellini and Donizetti. Unlike other composers, Verdi knew his own talents and abilities well. He would work closely with his librettists to ensure that all superfluous details were omitted, stripping the story down to its basic, most relatable and understandable components. This allowed him to write his music in a way that would most efficiently express the story’s meaning.
Popular Works: Aida, Requiem, Rigoletto, Jérusalem, and Falstaff
Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896)
Another major female composer of the Romantic period was Clara Wieck Schumann. She was a German composer, pianist, and prolific performer. Starting at the age of 8, Clara began touring different cities, and she continued to perform for over 60 years.
She was married to fellow Romantic composer, Robert Schumann. They met in 1830 as Robert was taking piano lessons from Clara’s father, Friedrich.
Popular Works: Trio in G Minor, Op. 17
Antonin Dvorák (1841–1904)
Antonin Dvorák was a Czech composer who was proficient with the violin, voice, organ, piano and music theory. He was perhaps most known for his ability to incorporate folk music into his compositions. While his earlier works emphasized Germanic style, he later incorporated more Czech and Slavic influences into his music.
In 1892, Dvorák moved to America to work as the artistic director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His New World Symphony was written in America. In his late career, his music and name became internationally known, and he earned many honors, awards, and honorary doctorates.
Popular Works: New World Symphony, American String Quartet, and Rusalka
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Johannes Brahms was a German composer and a virtuoso pianist. Brahms was known for his more classical style compared to his Romantic contemporaries. He composed for piano, symphony orchestra, voice, chorus, and more. With an incredible mastery of counterpoint, he is often compared to Johann Sebastian Bach as well as Ludwig van Beethoven. He worked closely with Clara and Robert Schumann.
Brahms was a “purist” and believed his music should follow the rules of baroque and classical compositions, all the while developing them into a more modern form. He was such a perfectionist, he would sometimes throw out entire pieces because he did not think they were good enough. Popular Works:Ein deutsches Requiem, Hungarian Dances, Symphony No. 2 in D Major
Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857–1919)
Ruggiero Leoncavallo was an Italian composer and librettist who is known for producing many operas, but his most successful is probably Pagliacci.
His operas were a reaction against other Romantic Italian operas at the time that sensationalized semi-historical events. Rather, his plots featured everyday life. For many of his own operas, Leoncavallo acted as his own librettist.
Popular Works: Pagliacci, Zazà, Zingari
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Claude Debussy was a French composer and pianist. Clearly talented at a young age, Debussy was admitted into the Paris Conservatory of Music at only 11-years-old, where he would remain for the next 12 years.
Some of his most famous piano works were created in his later years. Debussy’s piano preludes are often compared to those of Chopin.
Popular Works: Préludes
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Richard Strauss was a German composer of the Romantic period and the early modern era. He is known for his dramatic operas, including The Flying Dutchman, Elektra and Tristan and Isolde.
Hitler was a fan of Wagner and cooperated with him in the promotion of German culture in Nazi Germany. Strauss never joined the Nazi party, and his need to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and subsequent Jewish grandchildren prompted him to continue working with Hitler.
Popular Works: Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Salome
Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835)
Bellini was an Italian composer most known for his bel canto operas. His long melodic lines were praised by composers like Verdi, Chopin, and Liszt, and his ability to combine text, melody, and instrumentation and transform it into meaningful emotion is nearly incomparable.
Popular Works: Norma, La sonnambula, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and I puritani
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
Berlioz (a composer, conductor, and writer) was a major influencer on future composers. His famous Treatise on Instrumentation was read and studied by composers including Mussorgsky, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. The book details various aspects of western instruments including range, tonality, and use within the orchestra. His music is believed by many musicologists to be immensely progressive at the time, having “romanticized” the symphonic form, programmatic music, and instrumentation. Popular Works: Les Troyens, Symphonie Fantastique, and Grande messe des morts
Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
Bizet was a French composer that excelled throughout his music education. He won many awards for his skill and composition, and he was surprisingly a talented pianist (which remained largely unknown given his avoidance of performing it in public settings). Sadly, before the composer could enjoy great success,he died three months after the premiere of his most famous opera, Carmen, believing it to be a failure. Because of his young age and few works, most of Bizet’s manuscripts were lost, given away, or revised without noting the composer. Though it’s hard to say with certainty, some believe had he lived a long life, he would have changed the course of French opera. Popular Works: Carmen
Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)
Gabriel Fauré was a French composer whose music is considered by many to be a bridge linking late-romanticism to early modernism. His music was so highly regarded at the time of its creation that the French believed he was the greatest executor of French song, a thought that holds true today. Popular Works: Requiem, Clair de lune, and Pavane
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Grieg, a Norwegian composer, is one of the many leading romantic period composers. His popular compositions brought international attention to his home country, as well as help develop the country’s national identity. Popular Works: Peer Gynt Suite and Holberg Suite
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
While Mahler was alive, he was better known as a conductor rather than a composer. His conducting methods, which were often criticized, were highly volatile, bold, and unpredictable. It wasn’t until after Mahler’s death that his music became more appreciated. In 1960, Mahler’s rediscovered music became widely popular among the younger crowd whose experimentation and beliefs matched the intensity and passion of his music. By the 1970s his symphonies were most performed and recorded. Popular Works: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 8, and Symphony No. 9
Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)
Mussorgsky was one of five Russian composers nicknamed “The Five” who would often defy western rules of music in order to achieve a true and pure Russian sound and aesthetic. Popular Works: Night on Bald Mountain, Pictures at an Exhibition, and Boris Godunov
Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880)
Offenbach was a French composer (born in Germany) most notable for his contributions to opera. With nearly 100 operettas he was a major influencer to the many operatic composers to come after him. Popular Works: Les contes d’Hoffmann, Orphée aux enfers, and Fables de la Fontaine
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
After Verdi, Puccini became one of the most important Italian-opera composers of the late romantic period. He pioneered the verismo style of opera (operas with librettos that are true to life). Though his operas are adored by millions, some critics argue that Puccini sacrificed form and innovation in order to please the public. Despite that fact, Puccini’s operas are staples in the repertoires of opera houses around the world. Popular Works: Turandot, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and La Boheme
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Schubert was an extremely prolific composer, despite dying at just 31 years old. He composed over six hundred vocal works, seven symphonies, operas, chamber music, piano music, and more. Many of the romantic period composers to come after him, including the Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, adored his music. His music and compositional style show a clear development from the classical period into the romantic period. Popular Works: Winterreise, Quintet in A Major “Trout” Op. 114, and Piano Trio in E Flat Major
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Schumann became a composer after an accident to his hand ended his dream of piano performance. Initially, he wrote exclusively for piano but later expanded into all forms of music at the time. After his untimely death, his wife, Clara Schumann, a highly renowned piano virtuoso herself, began performing her husband’s works. Popular Works: Piano Concerto Op. 54, “Kreisleriana” Op. 16, and Symphonic Etudes Op. 13
Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)
Johann Strauss II, also known as “The Waltz King,” wrote over 400 dance songs that included waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles. Viennese audiences couldn’t get enough of them. He also wrote a handful of operettas and ballets. Popular Works:Blue Danube Waltz and Die Fledermaus
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Above all the other composers, Tchaikovsky adored Mozart and once referred to him as “the musical Christ.” Of other composers, Wagner bored him and he detested Brahms. He is regarded as being the first professional Russian composer, despite receiving criticism from fellow countrymen claiming that he does not represent Russia in his music. Modern musicologists agree that Tchaikovsky’s music was extremely important and influential.
Popular Works: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, 1812 Overture, and Romeo and Juliet
Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Wagner has been described as a ruthless, racist, selfish, arrogant, frightening, and amoral man. Other than himself, Wagner was passionate about Beethoven. Though he could barely play the piano, let alone an instrument, and was an “indifferent score reader,” Wagner was able to compose a variety of extraordinary music, most notable being his operas. His operas were Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), a revolutionary style that emphasized the acting, the poeticism, and the visuals of the set. The music was less important than the drama
Popular Works: Tannhauser, Lohengrin, and The Ring Cycle