Works from the Romantic period are some of the most beloved in the repertoire and are often the inspiration for an aspiring pianist to take up the instrument. To play this music well, the pianist needs a solid technique that embraces a wide dynamic and colour palette, an understanding of advanced pedalling and – not least – a fertile imagination.
In our blog post this week, I provide an overview of the main characteristics and considerations for playing Romantic music on the piano. I’ll also be giving a set of presentations and hosting a performance workshop dedicated to music from this period on Saturday 25th November (please see further details below).
Music tends to get lumped into categories based on historical style period; today’s performers are expected to have some knowledge of the performance practices of each period and play with “good manners” when it comes to matters of style (pedalling, phrasing, articulation, ornamentation, and so on).
It wasn’t always thus. In the Romantic Period personal interpretation was the trend; performers approached music from all periods fearlessly, adding their own touches to compositions almost at whim – changing the notes, improvising a bit here and there. It was only later that the score became sacrosanct, that pianists thought twice about pedalling in Bach, caring about the articulation marks in Mozart, and so on.
The Romantic era spans the period roughly from 1820 to about 1910, but it’s not really helpful to think in terms of a cut-off date. Rachmaninov and others wrote in the Romantic style well into the 20th century and some composers are still at it today!
The Romantic era is known for its intense energy and passion with compositions becoming increasingly expressive and inventive, as well as more difficult to play. Beethoven pioneered Romanticism, expanding rigid Classical forms to develop a whole new approach to music.
Features of Romanticism
Feeling and Emotion: Musicians wrote and performed from their imagination, allowing free reign to fantasy. Personal emotions and feelings were more important than intellect and reason.
Forms: Structures became freer and looser; the music could represent a picture, or perhaps a poetic narrative. Out of a love for their country, composers studied their national folk music and used themes as a basis for expressing patriotism. There was a tendency to write shorter works, some of which could express feeling, emotion or atmosphere.
Stylised piano music came into being, such as the waltz, mazurka, polonaise, and etude; music in free form arose, such as the fantasy, arabesque, rhapsody, song without words, ballade, impromptu and nocturne. Theme and variation was one of the few forms to survive from the Baroque period.
Virtuosity: Pianos (and orchestras) were getting bigger, and the music became more and more difficult to play. This gave rise to the professional musician, the virtuoso as “Romantic Hero”, who trained in the newly founded conservatories, spending hours a day practising specially composed studies and exercises designed to build up their technique. Educational music and tutor books were composed especially for teaching purposes e.g. Schumann’s Album for the Young.
The six-and-a-half octave piano for which Beethoven wrote the late sonatas is the same piano as Schumann wrote for. It changed little until the 1840s, when makers responded to the increasing demands from pianists and composers who wanted more and more from their instrument. By the 1860s pianos were fuller and louder, with Pleyel and Erard leading the way.
By the late 19th century the piano had evolved into the powerful 88-key instrument we recognize today. However, it is important to remember that much of the music of the Romantic period, including that of Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms, was written for pianos substantially different from modern pianos.
At the top of the list of problematic concepts associated with the performance of 19th century music is rubato. The term literally means “robbed”, or “stolen” and is best thought of as a certain rhythmic flexibility that applies to some extent to music of all periods.
There are two main types of rubato. In the type first described in the early 18th century (applied to vocal music), the singer was expected to deviate from the given rhythmic values for expressive purposes while the accompaniment stayed strictly in time. This style of rubato was endorsed by Mozart and Chopin; the right hand line is to be played freely, independently of the strict left hand accompaniment.
The first type of rubato survived into the 19th century in vocal and violin music, and in popular music to this day. It later gave way to a different type of rubato, characterised by subtle fluctuations in the tempo where (for keyboard players) the hands stay together as the tempo ebbs and flows.
Chopin uses the word rubato just 14 times in his music yet he indicates tempo flexibility in other ways too. In the Scherzo No. 3, we interpret sostenuto as a slight broadening, or stretching of the pulse, and leggierissimo as pushing forwards – playing slightly slower then slightly faster than the tempo (when we see sostenuto in Brahms it’s clear he intended us to play slower, as he often follows it a few bars later with a tempo).
There is a misconception that in rubato playing we must pay back the time we have stolen by pushing forwards at some point after we have held back (and vice versa). This theory held sway in certain academic quarters, but in the 1920’s the principal of the Royal Academy of Music, John McEwen, made a study of rubato among pianists from their piano roll recordings and discovered that nobody actually did this! The study also revealed that, in the earlier style of rubato, the left hand was not played strictly in time at all.
Playing Romantic piano music is impossible without the resonance possibilities offered by the sustaining pedal. There are many different actions performed by the right foot, always in close communication with the ear. Instead of a cut and dried “up” then “down” in the manner of marching soldiers, the dampers might only barely lift away from the strings. The pedal is neither up nor down, the foot making incredibly fine adjustments to temper the resonance from a mere tickle to full throttle.
We may need to use this type of pedalling in conjunction with retaining a bass note or octave, the fluttering motions of the foot clearing away some of the dissonance in the middle of the texture while the bass note remains more or less in tact. These sorts of pedalling are impossible to notate in the score with any precision, there are just too many variables.
Composers sometimes write in una corda when they want us to use the left, or shift pedal, but often it is up to us. Use it when a muted, muffled effect is called for, not as a crutch to play softly.
As far as the middle (sostenuto) pedal is concerned, it is there to be used but is rarely required, except in transcriptions and some 20th century compositions. It is ideal for the organ transcriptions of Bach by Liszt and Busoni to sustain long bass notes with changing harmonies played in higher registers. Some players like to use the sostenuto for Debussy and Ravel’s music, even though these composers would not have expected this. It is perfectly possible to realise all the special effects in Debussy and Ravel’s music by the use of fractional or vibrating pedalling (of the sustaining pedal) allied with sensitivity to touch and voicing.
Dynamics and Articulation
Beethoven was among the first composers to specify the dynamic level at which he wanted the music to be played from moment to moment, using a range from pp to ff. He was also very clear about the touches he wanted. In Romantic music, we find an even larger range of sonorities and touches indicated by the composer that require considerable technical control and stamina.
Control of Textures
A typical Romantic texture is the idea of a bel canto melodic line at the top, a harmonic layer in the middle (possibly chords, broken chords or wide arpeggiated patterns), supported by a bass line (this might be in single notes or octaves, or just the bottom note of an arpeggio), all brought together by the pedal. The long, unbroken legato line was paramount.
Another feature of Romantic playing is the array of virtuosic effects that require special study. These include so-called “double octaves” (flashy passages, usually fast and loud, that involve both hands playing octaves in unison), double notes, large chords which require voicing (like any chord in any piece, regardless of its period), big jumps across the keyboard, and other effects that take superfine coordination and lots of practice to get right.
Trills in the Classical Period followed the Baroque principles (an upper note start on the beat). In Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s book, A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions in the Art of Playing the Piano Forte (1828), the author proposes starting trills on the main note in his own music in order to make the melody line clearer.
While Brahms, Grieg, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Schubert followed this principle, others (including Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and Weber) stuck to the older traditions as set out in C. P. E. Bach’s Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1787) and Muzio Clementi’s Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte (1801).
It’s easy to see where the confusion lies today, especially when musicians of the Romantic era began to apply Hummel’s proposals to the music of earlier periods, in violation of the principle that ornaments should be realised in accordance with stylistic conventions of the time when the music was composed.
Much piano music from the Romantic period makes significant technical demands on the player, out of reach for most amateur players of the time. Fortunately, there is plenty of material suitable for intermediate players. You can check out a variety of intermediate repertoire ideas of music of all periods in the Petrucci Library (click here).
Our repertoire library contains resources to help you learn a wide range of works from this period, including annotated study editions and video lessons. The ABRSM syllabus features many pieces from this period and can be a useful guide for finding pieces at the right level.
Style & Interpretation – The Romantic Period
Join us on Saturday 25th November for a day of presentations and workshops on playing music from the romantic period on the piano. In this full day event, Graham Fitch will demonstrate how to bring music from this period to life and to deliver stylistically appropriate, personal interpretations with confidence.
The day starts at 10:30am GMT and comprises a set of presentations on topics such as rubato, pedalling, technique, dynamics and repertoire followed by a performance workshop exclusively for romantic works.
In-person performer tickets (only one left!) – Join us in-person for the full day event at our studios in central London! In-person tickets cost £125 and include a 20 minute performance or feedback slot, access to all presentations, light refreshments and recordings after the event. Click here to book your place!
Online observer tickets – If you can’t make it to London, you can still join us online or watch the recordings after the event. Online tickets include access to live streaming plus high-quality recordings of all sessions and cost £80 (£48 for Online Academy subscribers). Click here to book your place!