What is Romantic music? Is it all hearts and flowers? Love songs? Music only to be played at Valentine’s Day or at weddings?
No, in music history, the late Romantic period refers to music written between approximately 1900 and probably around 1930. This period in music history includes a movement known as Impressionism. Much like the Impressionist moment in art history, composers at this time created a particular atmosphere, or mood or told a particular story. However, where Impressionist artists used the idea of light and colour to create an “impression” of their subject matter rather than necessarily an exact replica of it (I am no art historian, so please don’t rely on my description of art history movements!), composers of this time used sound, harmonies, different scales, or the orchestration of their music to create the impression of the mood, atmosphere or story they chose. Orchestration broadly means which instruments they chose to compose for and how they chose the different instruments of the orchestra to play different themes or harmonies in the music.
You can have a look at my suggested Introduction to Classical Music playlist and also my Introduction to Early Romantic Music for more information on these earlier period in music history.
In earlier periods we generally have a couple of composers who are most famous, but in the Romantic period many composers from all over the world found fame for their composition and their fame continues to this day. So I had to split this period of music into two separate playlists; my earlier post covered composers writing between around 1830 and 1900 and this one covering music written around 1900 to 1930. My aim here is to give you some examples of music to listen to from the most famous composers of this period with your children. I have sought out music that I think would be most appealing to children, but with such a busy period inevitably there will be loads of music and composers I have left out. This is just a playlist to wet your whistle really, and if you would be interested in me doing some playlists for particular composers to give you more information about them and their lives and music, let me know and I can plan that into future blog posts. I will be writing about other periods in music history in future weeks and months.
For now, here are some lovely pieces of music from some of the leading late Romantic/Impressionist composers. You can listen to these pieces of music by following the YouTube links in the post below, or by listening to them all together, perhaps over dinner, while doing something else like painting with your children, or as background music while they play. For the majority of the works below, a different artist or group will be performing the piece than the one listed here, and I have tried to include the whole work. Do not feel obliged to listen to the whole work either, it is just there for you if you would like to listen!
My Spotify playlist with this Introduction to Late Romantic Music can be accessed here, or at the end of this post.
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer who was a member of a group of composers known as The Five. The Five worked together to create a nationalistic, Russian style of music in the mid to late 1800s. He often used fairy-tales and folk legends as the inspiration for his music. One of my favourite pieces from this composer is a piece that perfectly captures the way a bumblebee flits and flies about trying to find pollen.
Sir Edward William Elgar
Elgar is a British composer, a lot of whose music has become part of the established repertoire of concert halls across the country, with his Pomp and Circumstance Marches being a part of the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall every year. Whilst he is considered as a very English composer, his musical influences were actually very European. Elgar was one of the first composers to take the invention of the Gramophone seriously, conducting a series of recordings of his works.
Frederick Theodore Albert Delius
Frederick Delius, born Fritz Delius, was born in Bradford, England into a family of merchants. His family encouraged him to enter the family business and as part of this encouragement he was sent to manage an orange plantation in Florida in the USA. This did not last long. However, it was long enough for Delius to have been influenced by the musical style of African-American music. This influence, along with the influence of his contemporary composers, can be heard in his music especially his early compositions.
Claude Debussy was a French composer who was known as the first Impressionist composer, a title that Debussy himself very much rejected. Debussy was a talented musician from an early age. So much so that he won a place at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 10. Debussy’s music was, in many ways, a reaction to and against the classical, Germanic style of music of Classical period composers and earlier Romantic composers like Wagner.
Bedrich Smetana was a Czech composer, who has been referred to as the Father of Czech music. He had a number of difficulties in his life, however, and by the end of his life he was completely deaf, and had mental health difficulties for which he was placed into an asylum. Although the Father of Czech music, Smetana is probably not the best known Czech composer (that title probably belongs to Dvorak whose music will feature in a later playlist).
Ralph Vaughan-Williams was an English composer born into a wealthy family. He strongly felt that music could and should be available to anyone. He wrote many pieces of music for amateur and student performers.
Born in 1875 in London, Coleridge-Taylor, named after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a composer and prominent conductor in the early 1900s. Despite being a successful conductor, Coleridge-Taylor struggled financially and so he sold the rights to what became his most successful work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a small sum to make some immediate money. He learned from this experience not to give up the rights to his creative endeavours.
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer born into a musical family which inspired him to start playing piano at the age of 4. He was very influenced by his contemporaries like Mussorsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. After the Russian Revolution Rachmaninoff’s family relocated to America, settling in New York in 1918 where he remained until his death in 1943. Rachmaninoff is perhaps best known for composing beautiful and brilliant, but very difficult works for piano and orchestra.
Gustav Theodore Holst
Gustav Holst was an English composer and teacher. He was a pioneer of music education for girls and composed many pieces for the students St Paul’s Girl’s School where he taught from 1905 to 1934. I have given you one of the movements from The Planets Suite and St Paul’s Suite to listen to. See if you can spot the now famous tunes contained within them. As a hint for the St Paul’s Suite, as the whole of that piece is linked to below, the tune you are looking for is in the finale, Dargason.
Ravel was a French composer who was, like his contemporary Debussy associated with the Impressionist movement in music history; although he, like Debussy again, did not like this association. Ravel was not as prolific a composer as many of the others in these playlists. He worked very slowly, and was as involved with orchestrating (arranging the music that was written for, say, piano for the orchestra) other composers’ works as writing his own. He was quite heavily involved in recording as a way to bring his music to a wider audience. He took part in several recording sessions and supervised some other recording sessions of his own works.
I thought hard about whether to include Scott Joplin in this playlist because his music does not fit the sound that I would associate with Romantic or Impressionist music – it would not, really, as he composed ragtime music – but he was composing at the same time as the composers above and so I decided that he should be included in this playlist. Joplin was an American composer and pianist who was known as the “King of Ragtime”. In fact, one of his first pieces became ragtime’s most influential hit.