When is music big-R “Romantic” and when is it only little-r “romantic?”
Much harp music sounds “romantic” in the little-r sense of the word: beautiful, lush, expressive. But in musical academia, big-R “Romantic music” is something more. And since we play so much music that is little-r and big-R romantic, the topic seems worthy of a little discussion.
First, it helps to understand the what, when and who of the Romantic era: the composers, time frame and characteristics that represented a new outlook on musical expression. Then we will look at how you can make the most of the Romantic music you play.
The Romantic era in music covers most of the nineteenth century and the early years of the the twentieth, roughly 1815 – 1910. Beethoven is often recognized as the first Romantic composer, but there are dozens more whose names are familiar to you: Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Gounod, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninov…
And you could easily come up with that many composers writing big-R Romantic harp music : Bochsa, Spohr, Parish-Alvars, Renié, Hasselmans, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Pierné, Schuëcker…
Music of the Romantic composers often had associations with nature, nationality or folk culture. It was music that expressed a sentiment, painted a picture or told a story, contrasting with the “pure” music of the Classical and Baroque eras. This was the era that brought us new musical forms, like the nocturne, the mazurka and the waltz. It was artistically expressive and individual. It embodied a new freedom in form and performance.
This sense of freedom in musical expression brought new challenges to the performers of the time and created the cult of the virtuoso performer. The most famous performers were not merely fine musicians; they were musical stars. Paganini dazzled his audiences with his fiery violin playing. Liszt’s forceful playing caused women to faint at his concerts. Performers strove to amaze and astound their audiences with brilliant displays of musical pyrotechnics.
You don’t have to bring that kind of drama to your own music-making, but Romantic music calls for particular attention to our expressive tools.
Consider the phrasing. Listen to the melodies and follow the phrasing carefully. Note where the phrase starts, how it develops and how it resolves. We harpists often struggle to create a sense of legato, but the flowing lines found in Romantic music are worth your time and attention.
Understand the musical style of the piece. The folk music styles referenced in Romantic music have specific characteristics that give them their authentic flavor. For example, the mazurka has a prominent second beat. Hungarian dances feature abrupt changes of tempo. Do a little investigation and add some spice to your interpretation.
Put variety in your tone. Try using a full, warm sound for the melody of a nocturne, and play those flashy virtuoso passages with power and brilliance.
Use rubato thoughtfully. Taking liberties with the rhythm or tempo is certainly appropriate for this music, but be certain that you consider it in proportion to the phrase or the passage so that your rubato seems a natural extension of the music.