The Romantic era was one of great change in musical styles, breaking free of the strict conventions placed on composers and musicians during the classical period and setting the stage for modern music as a whole. Though there was a transition period from around 1800 until 1830, the Romantic era began roughly around 1830. It ran until 1900, birthing many of the most famous names in what we now refer to as classical music. Pushing boundaries, making music more accessible, and inserting the identity of the composer into their work were all trademarks of the era.
As society evolved around the turn of the 19th century, so did the music people composed and listened to. In this article, we’ll go over 17 of the best Romantic composers who shaped music and left us countless classics that are still performed today.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven
Placing Beethoven here might be a little bit of cheating, but his work laid the groundwork for the entirety of the Romantic period.
While most of his work came before the beginning of the Romantic period, Beethoven challenged the conventional, strict rules of the classical period and spanned the transitional period between the two styles. Though he became deafer throughout his life, Beethoven is one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of classical music in general, thanks to both his brilliance as a composer and influence over music history.
Eroica and his Ninth Symphony are incredibly famous among the many Beethoven pieces played today. I can also guarantee you’ve heard at least part of his Ninth Symphony, as it contains the incredible Ode To Joy. By the time of the German composer’s death in 1827, he had produced one of the largest and most critically-acclaimed sets of works from any composer.
2. Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin was a virtuoso pianist who composed almost exclusively solo piano pieces. He was a world-renowned musician, with many claiming no one during his time could equal him on the piano.
As a child prodigy, he had already composed his earliest works and was an established concert performer by the age of 20. Though he wasn’t a prolific concert performer (enjoying smaller venues and teaching instead of performing), his work as a music teacher would impact future generations and others; some included on this list, like Robert Schumann.
Among his many styles of composition, Chopin was the progenitor of the instrumental ballad. Every single one of his compositions contains a piano, even the few that don’t use the piano as the main instrument. Chopin made innovations in music, including style, harmony, and musical form, as well as the association of music with nationalism.
3. Fanny Mendelssohn
Fanny Mendelssohn was one of the most productive composers of the Romantic period. Her work consists of over 125 pieces for the piano and over 250 lieder ( a piece that sets poetry to some style of classical music), in total reaching over 450 pieces of music.
Her brother, who we’ll discuss next, was also a famous pianist and composer. Six of her works were accidentally attributed to him instead of her as part of the brother’s Opus 8 and 9 collections. Analysis of her work as life stands as a testament that women composers were not held back by their ability but by prejudice and social convention.
While Fanny Mendelssohn only published a few of her works during her lifetime, her brother gave it a try by gathering works and having his publisher distribute them before his death. From the 1980s onward, she finally received the recognition she was due, thanks to renewed interest in female composers and strings of performances and recordings of her compositions.
4. Felix Mendelssohn
The brother and better-known sibling of Fanny Mendelssohn (at least during their lifetimes), Felix Mendelssohn was a master composer and pianist in his own right.
His compositions include a variety of symphonies, concertos, piano music, organ music, and chamber music. Perhaps his best-known work was compositions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
While a musical prodigy, he received the same education as his sister Fanny and wasn’t exploited by his cautious parents as a child concert performer. As an adult, his talent as a performer even revived interest in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. His compositions have made him one of the most popular romantic composers we know of today.
5. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky was the preeminent composer of the Romantic period in Russia and the first Russian composer to establish a lasting international legacy. Many of today’s most popular classic theater and concert compositions today are attributed to Tchaikovsky, including the scores of masterpiece works like Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.
In Russia, most composers wrote nationalistic music, and there was little opportunity for education. Tchaikovsky found a chance in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he was schooled in western styles of music, which set him apart from other Russian composers.
6. Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner is best known as an opera composer and theater director. What helped him stand out as an opera composer was that he wrote both the libretto and music for each stage work.
Wagner’s work as an opera composer was revolutionary; using his vision of “Gesamtkunstwerk” (a total work of art), he combined poetry, visuals, dramatic arts, and music to create an all-encompassing piece. His compositions are notable standards of leitmotifs, shift tones quickly yet gracefully, and are perfect for characterizing dialogue without words.
Wagner is not without controversy, spending much of his life running from creditors and expressing some… not so nice views of certain ethnicities. Still, his compositional work helped establish modern music, and he was one of the brightest composers of the Romantic period.
7. Clara Schumann
Widely regarded as one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic Era, Clara Schumann was also a wonderful composer and music teacher. Her 61-year career would be influential in lessening the importance of virtuoso works (the most complex, hard-to-play pieces) and changing the format and repertoire of the piano.
Clara’s composing career encompassed solo piano pieces, piano concertos, chamber music, choral pieces, and songs. As a teacher in Frankfurt, she became the only female staff member, and her fame as a pianist brought in students from across Europe. She did get a sweet deal, though, only teaching for an hour and a half per day and having four months of vacation time.
8. Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert was another master composer straddling the line between the classical and Romantic periods due to his place in the timeline. His legacy was carried by over 600 secular vocal works, seven complete symphonies, and a large body of choral, chamber, piano, and sacred music.
Schubert played several instruments, surpassing his teachers in all of them before studying at the Stadtkonvikt school, where he would eventually go on to become a teacher. During his lifetime, his following remained small, and most of his published works remained in Vienna.
After his death, though, major composers like Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann found and championed his works alongside other greats from the transitionary period.
9. Johannes Brahms
Even those with no knowledge of classical music have listened to one of Brahms’s compositions. Never intended as a major composition, Brahms’s lullaby would be played an untold number of times to help children fall asleep and has been used countless times in other media.
The work was composed by him as a gift when his friend’s second child was born, but it was by no means his best work. As one of the most legendary figures of the Romantic period, Brahm’s genius as a composer puts him alongside greats like Bach and Beethoven (a group also known as the Three B’s of music).
A close friend of Clara Schumann and virtuoso pianist, Brahms would compose works for symphony orchestras, orchestra ensembles, piano, violin, organ, and vocal ensembles. He received numerous awards and honors throughout his life and was one of the biggest influences in music during his lifetime.
10. Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was another Romantic composer made famous for opera compositions. Eventually, Verdi would dominate the Italian opera scene which would eventually influence the style in France and England.
Though he didn’t try to become a figurehead of a movement or get close to other high-profile politicians, his operas had numerous social commentaries and generally supported the Italian unification movement.
Today, his operas are widely celebrated and often performed, with three of his latest works among the greatest. Aida, Otello, and Falstaff were three masterpiece operas that he composed after taking a hiatus and both serving as an elected official and purchasing land in his home region. A 1910 edition of Grove’s Dictionary named him as one of the greatest and most popular composers of the 19th century, cementing his legacy decades after he began crafting music.
11. Giacomo Puccini
After Verdi, the most successful and greatest composer of Italian operas coming out of the late Baroque period has to be Giacomo Puccini. While Puccini’s earliest works were undoubtedly rooted in the Romantic style, he would eventually develop the verismo style, a post-Romantic musical style that he would pioneer and lead.
La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot are three of his best-known works, with each of them becoming oft-performed and popular operas in modern circles. Puccini’s entire family was musically inclined, holding the position of maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino for over 125 years (a family member did, not one man).
One interesting tidbit is that Puccini was one of the earliest to undergo radiation therapy to treat throat cancer. While complications from the treatments killed him before cancer, it’s interesting that he was among the first to try the experimental treatments in Brussels.
12. Antonin Dvorak
Antonin Dvorak is noted for being one of the greatest composers to stick to the nationalistic traits of the Romantic period closely. His works frequently included the rhythms and styles of folk music from his homeland in Bohemia, blending those tunes with the symphonic qualities of the highest standards of the Romantic era.
Dvorak became well-known in music circles thanks to his submitting work for compositional contests, one of which Brahms was judging. Brahms recommended his publisher to Dvorak, and the Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 was born. In addition to being a wizard composer, Dvorak would frequently tour across Europe and The United States, performing and directing orchestras to play many of his works.
By the end of the 19th century, Dvorak would move to New York City to become director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, raking in the dough with a salary of $15,000 (by the way, that’s well over $400,000 by the time you get to 2020).
13. Gustav Mahler
Mahler’s crowning achievements lay in being a bridge between 19th-century Austro-German sentiments and the modern music of the 20th century. His work as a composer would go through spells of being unrecognized, but that’s mostly due to it being banned during the years the Nazi regime was in charge of Germany.
Mahler was an amazing conductor throughout his entire career, and later study would finally give him the credit he deserved as a composer. Despite Mahler composing as a part-time hobby, he would become one of the most celebrated composers of the early twentieth century, inspiring the likes of Arnold Schoenburg, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten.
The compositions Mahler wrote closely tied songs and symphonies together, bouncing between the two as he went on and always keeping a strong direct link between each.
14. Robert Schumann
Clara Schumann (see number seven on the list) was married to a man who also happened to be one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, Robert Schumann.
Originally a lawyer, Schumann intended to carve out a career for himself as a pianist with his virtuoso ability. A hand injury ended that dream, so Schumann began focusing on composing music instead of playing it. Schumann was an influential music critic in Germany, but he’s best known today for works like Fantasie in C and Carnaval.
His compositional career was dedicated in large part to the piano, with numerous works of piano, vocal songs with piano, and piano and orchestral works attributed to him. Sadly, the composer’s life did not end happily. After suffering for a long time with mental illness, a suicide attempt saw him admitted (at his own request) to a mental asylum, where he would die two years later from pneumonia.
15. Niccolò Paganini
Niccolo Paganini was one of the most celebrated composers and violinists of his time. Like Beethoven, his work would span the gap between the classical and Romantic eras in music.
Paganini is regarded as one of the best virtuoso violinists in history, leaving a lasting legacy by employing techniques that required exceptional finger agility and quick bow strokes. While those weren’t encouraged at the time, Paganini’s skill and compositions required them and made the techniques much more common.
Perhaps his best work, the 24 Caprices, are some of the most beautiful and challenging violin works in music. No. 24 is particularly prickly, requiring the player to be a regular virtuoso themselves. During his time, the work would gain him quite a lot of fame and pushed the boundaries of what many thought was possible.
16. Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz was a French Romantic composer best known for his hybrid genres like the dramatic symphony and the dramatic legend. The best two of those works were Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust.
Berlioz was well-accepted in Germany, Britain, and Russia, but his ideas were unorthodox in the strict French stylings of his time, which divided the French music community on whether he was brilliant or absurd. While he did compose three operas, only one found any success, even if it only found a short period of acclaim. Berlioz’s orchestral and choral pieces were much better received, as was his career as a music journalist.
17. Johann Strauss I
The first Johann Strauss was an immaculate Romantic composer who was instrumental in popularizing the galop. His style was lighter than that of his contemporaries, focusing primarily on waltzes, polkas, and the aforementioned galops. The most popular of his works is undoubtedly the Radetzky March.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
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