Classical Month The History of Classical Music Part III: Romantic and Modern

April 29, 2015

Part I - Early Music (Medieval and Renaissance) - can be read here.  

Part II - Baroque and Classical - can be read here

Previously we have looked at early (renaissance and medieval), baroque and classical music across two different blogs and now it is time for our third, where we shall delve into the music of love and all things new.

Just as Montaverdi straddled the divide between early music and baroque, so too did Beethoven with classical and romantic. The era began sometime around 1800 and slowly morphed into modern music around 1910. So yes, Charles Dickens no doubt hummed his favourite tunes whilst writing Great Expectations and Queen Victoria was presumably a massive fan. She probably missed out on having the T-shirt to prove it though as it wasn’t seen until 1913. Shame.

The movement can be divided into early and late depending on which side of 1850 the symphonies were written. The subjects of each piece focused on – you guessed it – the language of love. Well, romantic subjects anyway. The theme tended to be fairly broad but heavily incorporated self-expression and originality, which were very much ‘in’ at the time. The piano was the instrument of choice for romantics with Schubert even managing to write 600 songs alongside his other compositions.

Rachmaninov, Chopin and Liszt were perhaps the most accomplished of the era, but Wagner takes the prize for most ambitious, writing hugely orchestral stories, incorporating brand new instruments and expecting audiences to sit for most of the day to hear each note. Not wanting to be outdone by his German counterpart, Austrian composer Gustav Mahler decided to write his eighth symphony for one thousand performers. As you do. On the opera side of things, the focus moved onto real life and the biographical with Puccini’s Tosca and Bizet’s Carmen being just two examples.

Post-1910, classical music moved on into the modern era, which is a total break from the past. Many composers perceived that their predecessors had pretty much done it all – nice one, Wagner - so screwed up the rulebook and started again. Stravinsky led the charge, often working in collaboration with other artists including Pablo Picasso. Indeed, Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring changed everything, played with tonality, metre, rhythm, stress and dissonance (notes that don’t traditionally go together) and even caused a near-riot in the audience who were fortunate enough to first hear it. The power of music!


Dissonance is actually the order of the day for modern music, throwing out some instruments, bringing in a few more, utilising sounds and themes not often heard. Perhaps the number one rule is that there are simply no rules. Some composers have looked to the past and used old techniques for new ears. Schoenberg came up with his groundbreaking twelve-note composition whilst John Cage discarded instruments entirely, writing his hugely famous 4’33”, which is just over four and a half minutes of silence. No talking allowed!

Famous names of the modern era are those who you find scoring television and film as well as putting together exciting, inventive pieces through minimalism or by using electronics. The modern music scene is a thriving melting pot of talent with various names including Karl Jenkins, Philip Glass, Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, Howard Goodall, John’s Tavener and Ruttle and others you may recognise from film and television including Ennio Morricone and James Horner.

So there you go, that’s it. If you wanted the history of the circus in another three wonderfully written blogs then why not click here.




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By Henry Fosdike