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Similarities and Differences Between the Romantic and 20th-Century Periods

Amber Kavie

MUS 309: History of Western Music: Mid-19th Century-Present

April 30, 2018

Music is constantly evolving. One must only compare the extraordinarily

expressive symphonies of the romantic era to the serial atonal piano sonatas of the 20th century

to see evidence of this. The romantic and 20th-century eras differed drastically in almost every

facet. From form to instrumentation to ultimate meaning, or lack thereof, the music of these

genres shows a completely different approach to music making. This paper will examine the

differences between romantic and 20th century music, investigate the reasons behind these

differences, and compare a composition from each era to support the traits of each era.

The romantic era spanned the years of about 1825 to 1900. This music is further

characterized into many subsets, such as earlier romantic, later romantic, Wagnerian, and more.

The music of this era employed traits that drew upon people’s emotional core; the music

gravitated towards “a vivid expression of feelings and passionate states of mind,”1 and as a

result, the music of this era is still widely performed and loved today. Some of the most

prominent traits of the romantic era include expansive melodies with a wide range, seen in

Dvorak’s 9th symphony, 2nd movement, emotional expression through lyricism and

chromaticism, expanded forms, especially in symphonies, programmatic forms, such as Berlioz’s

Symphonie Fantastique, larger orchestras, as Wagner and Mahler’s compositions call for, and an

interest in subject matters unexplored before. This could include wildly imaginative

programmatic works, such as Symphonie Fantastique.

20th-century music took a much different approach. The composers of this era

had “witnessed two world wars, a worldwide economic depression, a Holocaust, and

Craig Wright and Bryan Simms, Music in Western Civilization (Boston: Schirmer Cengage Learning,
2006), 500.
unprecedented wealth and technological advance.” 2 Seeing the horrific events that occurred

during the first half of the century, composers rejected all forms of romanticism. They felt that

the overly emotional music of the romantic era was not appropriate for a world that had seen. In

the romantic era, “we often find a haven, a respite from our occupations. But when we go to the

music of the twentieth century, we rarely find a sanctuary from the world. Instead we are brought

face to face with all of its realities.”3 In the early 20th century, neoclassicism was the first result

of a complete rejection of romanticism. Composers later turned to serialism and atonality, and

the music of this era became much more academic and calculated. There began to emerge new

combinations of instruments in pieces, and composers began to utilize all physical aspects of the

instrument. This included making sounds on the instrument that were not widely used and

utilizing extended and specialized techniques. In addition to this, music of the 20th century also

rejected the idea of a melody. No longer was there a clear or melody that was able to be sung.

Musical lines were now disjunct and full of dissonance. Virtually everything that could be

changed was changed in from the romantic era to the 20th century.

In order to see these differences more clearly, one must only compare Brahms’

2nd symphony to Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra. Both pieces have similar orchestration,

Brahms writes for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and strings.4

Schoenberg chooses to write for all of the same, with the addition of bass clarinet, celeste, and

mandolin.5 Surprisingly, even though these compositions are half a century apart, and have been

separated by a world war, the foundation for these large works is very similar. Schoenberg

Wright and Simms, “Music in Western,” 621.
Ibid, 756.
Johannes Brahms, 1877. Symphony no. 2 in D, op.73; Variations on a theme by Haydn: op. 56a. New
York: G. Schirmer.
Arnold Schoenberg, 1928. Variations for Orchestra: op. 31.
adding some interesting instruments such as the celeste show the 20th century influence before

the piece even begins. When the pieces begin, it is immediately clear that these compositions

were conceived in different worlds. Variations for Orchestra was Schoenberg’s first twelve-tone

large-scale work, and it is made very clear. Schoenberg’s piece opens with tremolo in the lower

strings and oscillating notes in the woodwinds. Soon, the trumpets begin to use extended

techniques, the dynamics are precise and dramatic, and the listener finally hears the chaotic

nature of the piece within thirty seconds of first hearing the piece.6 On the contrary, Brahms’

symphony 2 opens with a luxurious melody in the brass that then gets transferred between the

brass and woodwinds. The strings come in and begin to play diatonic chords that enhance

melody being exchanged between voices.7 In the Brahms, there is also extensive use of rubato;

the phrase pulls and releases based solely on the emotional interpretation of the conductor.

Schoenberg’s piece is much more metrical, and in fact, changes meter quite frequently and

requires a steady pulse in order to achieve the composer’s goal.8 Both of these pieces are

completely expected for their time periods. Brahms composed in the late romantic era, his music

was sensual and grandiose and emotional. Schoenberg composed in the 20th century after

witnessing horrible tragedy, and his music instead utilizes completely new techniques in order to

evoke a different kind of emotion, or perhaps none at all. These composers had very different

ideologies concerning composition, and it is completely based on their different experiences in

the world. Brahms lived in a flourishing Germany that he was proud of, while Schoenberg was

beginning to face the reality of his home country turning into a power-hungry machine. So, even

though these composers did not live incredibly far apart, their life experience and world reality

Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, 1928.
Brahms, Symphony in D, 1877.
Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, 1928.
were drastically different, and listeners can observe this when studying both of these pieces of


On the surface, the romantic era and 20th century music has nothing in

common. They have different goals and were composed with different world views. However, as

seen between Brahms’ Symphony 2 and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, these eras might

not be so different after all. Both eras clearly had different goals and ideas about writing music,

but in the end, there are similarities. All of this music was written for some purpose. The

romantic era chose to feed upon extravagant emotion. The 20th century wanted to show the

world as it truly was. That is what music is at its core. It exists to communicate a message. So,

despite the completely different sounding music between these eras, the very foundation of

music remains the same. That is what truly matters.


Brahms, Johannes, 1877. Symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73; Variations on a theme by Haydn: op.

56a. New York: G. Schirmer.

Schoenberg, Arnold, 1928. Variations for Orchestra: op.31.

Wright, Craig and Simms, Bryan. Music in Western Civilization. Boston: Schirmer Cengage

Learning, 2006.