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6.2: Music in the Nineteenth Century

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    Classical Music

    Nineteenth-Century Music
    • Mostly homophony, but with variation
    • New genres such as the symphony and string quartet
    • Use of crescendos and decrescendos
    • Question and answer (aka antecedent consequent) phrases that are shorter than earlier phrases
    • New emphasis on musical form: for example, sonata form, theme and variations, minuet and trio, rondo, and first-movement concerto form
    • Greater use of contrasting dynamics, articulations, and tempos
    • Lyrical melodies, often with wider leaps
    • Homophonic style still prevalent, but with variation
    • Larger performing forces using more diverse registers, dynamic ranges, and timbres
    • More rubato and tempo fluctuation within a composition
    • More chromatic and dissonant harmonies with increasingly delayed resolutions
    • Symphonies, string quartets, concertos, operas, and sonata-form movements continue to be written
    • Newly important miniature genres and forms such as the Lied and short piano composition
    • Program music increasingly prominent
    • Further development in performers’ virtuosity
    • No more patronage system

    Musical Style, Performing Forces, and Forms

    The nineteenth century is marked by a great diversity in musical styles, from the conservative to the progressive. As identified by the style comparison chart above, nineteenth century melodies continue to be tuneful and are perhaps even more songlike than classical style melodies, although they may contain wider leaps. They still use sequences, which are often as a part of modulation from one key to another. Melodies use more chromatic (or “colorful”) pitches from outside the home key and scale of a composition. Along with the continuing emphasis on tuneful melodies comes predominantly homophonic textures, although as compositions use more instruments, there are also increasing numbers of accompanying, but relatively interesting, musical lines.

    Harmonies in nineteenth-century music are more dissonant than ever. More chords add a fourth note to the triad, making them more dissonant and chromatic. These dissonances may be sustained for some time before resolving to a chord that is consonant. One composition may modulate between several keys, and these keys often have very different pitch contents. Such modulations tend to disorient the listening and add to the chaos of the musical selection. Composers were in effect “pushing the harmonic envelope.”

    The lengths of nineteenth-century musical compositions ran from the min- ute to the monumental. Songs and short piano pieces might be only a couple of minutes long, although they were sometimes grouped together in cycles or collections. On the other hand, symphonies and operas grow in size. By the end of the century, a typical symphony might be an hour long, with the operas of Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini clocking in at several hours each. Performing forces reflected similar extremes. There is much nineteenth-century music for solo piano or solo voice with piano accompaniment. The piano achieved a modern form, with the full eighty-eight-note keyboard that is still used today and an iron frame that allowed for greater string tension and a wider range of dynamics. Crescendos and decrescendos became more common, alongside more tempo fluctuations, even within compositions. As we will see, Fryderyk Chopin was the first composer to make prevalent use of rubato as a performance instruction in his musical scores.

    During the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution facilitated and enabled marked improvements to many musical instruments besides the piano with its improved and updated iron frame and tempered metal strings. Efficient valves were added to the trumpet and a general improvement in metal works tightened tolerances and metal fittings of all brass instruments. Along with the many improvements to instruments, new instruments were researched and created, including the piccolo, English horn, tuba, contrabassoon, and saxophone.

    Orchestras also increased in size and became more diverse in makeup, thereby allowing composers to exploit even more divergent dynamics and timbres. With or- chestral compositions requiring over fifty (and sometimes over 100) musicians, a conductor was important, and the first famous conductors date from this period. In fact, generally-speaking, the nineteenth-century orchestra looked not unlike what you might see today at most concerts by most professional orchestras (see Figure 6.9). Nineteenth-century composers knew well the forms and genres used by their predecessors, most prominently the music of Beethoven, but also the music of com- posers such as Mozart, Handel, Haydn, and Bach. They continued to compose in these forms and genres, while sometimes transforming them into something quite different, especially among those composers who identified themselves as progressives, as opposed to conservatives. The wider nineteenth-century interest in emotion and in exploring connections between all of the arts led to musical scores with more poetic or prose instructions from the composer. It also led to more program music, which as you will recall, is instrumental music that represents something “extra musical,” that is, something outside of music itself, such as nature, a literary text, or a painting. Nineteenth-century critics and philosophers sustained expansive debates about ways in which listeners might hear music as related to the extra musical. Extra musical influences, from the characteristic title to a narrative attached to a musical score, guided composers and listeners as they composed and heard musical forms.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.51.01 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Nineteenth-Century Orchestra Diagram by Corey Parson. Source: Original Work

    Genres of Instrumental Music

    Some nineteenth-century compositions use titles similar to those found in clas- sical style music, such as “Symphony No. 3,” “Concerto, Op. 3,” or “String Quartet in C Minor.” These compositions are sometimes referred to as examples of abso- lute music (that is, music for the sake of music). Program music with titles came in several forms. Short piano compositions were described as “character pieces” and took on names reflecting their emotional mood, state, or reference. Orchestral program music included the program symphony and the symphonic poem (also known as the tone poem). The program symphony was a multi-movement com- position for orchestra that represented something extra musical, a composition such as Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (discussed below). A symphonic or tone poem was a one-movement composition for orchestra, again with an extra musical referent, such as Bedřich Smetana’s Moldau.

    Genres of Vocal Music

    Opera continued to be popular in the nineteenth century and was dominated by Italian styles and form, much like it had been since the seventeenth century. Ital- ian opera composer Giacomo Rossini even rivaled Beethoven in popularity. By the 1820s, however, other national schools were becoming more influential. Carl Maria von Weber’s German operas enhanced the role of the orchestra, whereas French grand opera by Meyerbeer and others was marked by the use of large choruses and elaborate sets. Later in the century, composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner would synthesize and transform opera into an even more dramatic genre.

    Other large-scale choral works in the tradition of the Baroque cantata and ora- torio were written for civic choirs which would sometimes band together into larg- er choral ensembles in annual choral festivals. The song for voice and piano saw revived interest, and art songs were chief among the music performed in the home for private and group entertainment. The art song is a composition for solo voice and piano that merges poetic and musical concerns. It became one of the most popular genres of nineteenth-century Romanticism, a movement that was always looking for connections between the arts. Sometimes these art songs were grouped into larger collections called song cycles or, in German, Liederkreis. Among the important composers of early nineteenth-century German Lieder were Robert and Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Franz Schubert.

    This page titled 6.2: Music in the Nineteenth Century is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.