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Piano in the Romantic Period

Updated on February 4, 2019
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician, and author of books for children and adults.

A portrait of Chopin by Delacroix dating from 1838
A portrait of Chopin by Delacroix dating from 1838 | Source

Characteristics of Romanticism

Some of the characteristics usually associated with Romanticism include:

  • A fascination with the past
  • A preoccupation with nature
  • An interest in the mysterious, supernatural, spooky and nocturnal
  • A focus on national identity
  • A desire to break free from musical formulas and conventions

(Adapted from information found at

Piano Music Reaches New Heights in the Romantic Period

The Romantic Period lasted from approximately 1820 to 1900. And what a time it was. More composers were writing music, and some devoted their entire careers to creating pieces for the piano alone.

Romantic music is full of chromaticism, dissonance and greater exploration of key changes. Composers expanded on the forms of the Classical period while at the same time taking a more rhapsodic, expressive and narrative approach to composing. They began to be influenced by ideas in art and literature, which eventually led to the rise of program music.

The Romantic Period was also a time when composers performed much of their music themselves. In some cases this elevated them to celebrity status, making them the first “pop stars” of the music industry.

A portrait of Johannes Brahms in 1889 at the peak of his career
A portrait of Johannes Brahms in 1889 at the peak of his career | Source

The Piano Music of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor is frequently referred to as Beethoven's 10th, showing the musical connection and progression from one composer to the next. Brahms had a deep affection for music of the past, particularly that of Mozart and Haydn. He also studied the music of Handel, Scarlatti and J.S. Bach. While these composers may have influenced his approach to composition, they didn't stop him from experimenting and exploring new ideas and techniques.

Brahms' music for the piano shows an individual approach to the instrument coupled with a masterful exploration of harmony and texture. His piano works include:

  • 2 piano concertos
  • 3 piano trios (piano, violin and cello)
  • 3 piano quartets (piano, violin, viola and cello)
  • Sonatas
  • Theme and variations
  • Rhapsodies
  • Fantasias
  • Intermezzi
  • Ballades

Some of his most recognizable piano music includes the much-admired Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873, for two pianos) and the Hungarian Dances of 1869. The latter were originally written for four hands to be played on one piano, but Brahms later rewrote them for piano solo.

Brahms Hungarian Dances for 4 Hands

What's a Mazurka?

The mazurka is a Polish folk dance form with three beats in the bar played at a lively tempo. What marks it out is the fact that the accent falls on the second or third beat of the bar, and not on the first, which is more usual. In Polish it is called the mazurek.

The Piano Music of Frederic Chopin

So enamored of the piano and its possibilities was Frederic Chopin that he wrote music exclusively for it. All of his music involves the piano in some way, and he wrote lots of it, even inventing new musical forms such as the ballade.

Chopin was Polish, and he was one of the first composers to include elements of Nationalism in his work. It’s true that he wrote many preludes, waltzes, sonatas, nocturnes and the like, but he also included mazurkas and polonaises in his output. This use of folk elements in classical music would influence many composers to come, including Hungary's Bela Bartok and Britain's Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Mazurka in A Flat, Chopin

The first 4 bars of Chopin's Mazurka in A-flat Op. 59 No. 2
The first 4 bars of Chopin's Mazurka in A-flat Op. 59 No. 2 | Source

Chopin's piano music includes:

  • Etudes (two sets of 12 and one set of 3, written between 1830 and 1839)
  • Impromptus
  • Dozens of mazurkas
  • Nocturnes
  • Polonaises
  • Preludes
  • Rondos
  • Scherzos
  • Sonatas
  • Variations
  • Waltzes
  • 2 Piano concertos
  • Music for cello and piano
  • Trio for piano, violin and cello
  • Music for piano and voice

Horowitz Plays Chopin Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4

The Liszt Memorial near the Liszt House Weimar, a white marble statue situated in the Park an der Ilm and created by the sculptor Hermann Hahn
The Liszt Memorial near the Liszt House Weimar, a white marble statue situated in the Park an der Ilm and created by the sculptor Hermann Hahn | Source

The Piano Music of Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt was a pianist who took every opportunity to show off and display his incredible talent. But he wasn't just a gifted performer: Liszt was also a highly skilled composer.

A native of Hungary, Liszt is considered to be one of the greatest pianists to have ever lived. He wrote dozens of pieces for the piano, all tagged with what we might think of as “Romantic” titles such as his Hungarian Rhapsodies, Fantasias, and so on.

Advances in technology added more power and a larger range to the piano, giving composers like Liszt the tools to express a richness and variety previously unimaginable. One of the ways in which he achieved this was by transcribing other people’s music for piano, which he did with the symphonies of Berlioz and Beethoven, for example. He often performed these arrangements himself for audiences that might not get the chance to hear the original version played by a full orchestra.

A portrait of Franz Liszt by Pierre Petit
A portrait of Franz Liszt by Pierre Petit | Source

Liszt wrote a wide range of music for the piano as a solo instrument and in various combinations, including a number titles such as Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, Consolations (Six penseés poétiques) and Prière de l'enfant à son reveil. These titles are more evocative and descriptive than the etudes, sonatas and preludes written by earlier composers, hinting at the rise of Impressionism that was to follow. He also gave his music titles such as Grosses Konzertsolo and Klavierstück No. 1, harking back to the music of the Baroque masters.

Liszt's piano music output includes the following:

  • Etudes, grand etudes and concert etudes
  • Technische Studien (68 studies written between 1868 and 1880)
  • A mass of individually named pieces for solo piano including preludes, sonatas, variations and various dance pieces
  • Piano duets
  • Nationalist music including the Hungarian Rhapsodies and works based on the music of other countries such as Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Russia

Valentina Lisitsa Plays Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

Romantic Composers Poll

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Other Significant Romantic Piano Composers

The Romantic period encompasses a large time frame and has been classified to include composers between the years 1815 and 1910. As with all periods in the arts, this produces some overlap between what came before and what came after. The Classical period, for example, is said to have ended in 1820, while the 20th century obviously begins in 1900. Then there's Impressionism, which is said to have begun in the late 19th century (1880s) and which is therefore an extension of the Romantic movement or another branch of it. This link can be clearly seen in the late music of Liszt and the early works of Debussy.

Another thing to remember is that the Romantic movement has been subdivided into three distinct eras, the early Romantic, the middle Romantic and the late Romantic. It isn't possible to write one article that includes every composer and every slight development, but there are a few names that should be mentioned for their tremendous contribution to the piano literature.

  1. Franz Schubert (Austria, 1797-1828) is most well known for his lieder, songs for piano and voice. He also wrote twenty-one sonatas, sets of impromptus, the six Moments Musicaux and a host of variations.
  2. Felix Mendelssohn (Germany, 1809-1847) is perhaps best known for the Wedding March from his A Midsummer Night's Dream overture. He also wrote 3 piano sonatas, 8 books of Songs without Words, preludes, fugues, rondos, fantasias and the ever-popular Kinderstücke (children's pieces).
  3. Robert Schumann (Germany, 1810-1856) wrote sonatas, etudes, intermezzi, as well as piano trios, quartets, quintets and one piano concerto. Some of his best-loved pieces include:
  • Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood), a set of thirteen pieces written in 1838.
  • Album für die Jugend (Album for the Young) written in 1848 for his three daughters, a collection of 43 short works meant to be played by children or beginners.
  • Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), a set of 9 pieces depicting natural scenes with titles like Hunting Song, Lonely Flower and Friendly Landscape.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A watercolor painting of Felix MendelssohnA watercolor painting of Franz SchubertA lithograph of Robert Schumann
A watercolor painting of Felix Mendelssohn
A watercolor painting of Felix Mendelssohn | Source
A watercolor painting of Franz Schubert
A watercolor painting of Franz Schubert | Source
A lithograph of Robert Schumann
A lithograph of Robert Schumann | Source

Romantic Composers for the Piano

Early Romantic Composers
Middle Romantic Composers
Late Romantic Composers
Felix Mendelssohn
Johannes Brahms
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Frédéric Chopin
Modest Mussorgsky
Moritz Moszkowski
Robert Schumann
Sergei Taneyev
Franz Liszt

Romantic Piano Music's Legacy

Piano music got bigger, bolder and more complex in the Romantic period. Ideas and compositions became more and more outlandish and inventive until the musical rules had to be rewritten. It was natural that the next step would be to find new ways of using the instrument to create sounds on the one hand, while maintaining the best of the music that came before. And that’s just what happened with the Impressionists.


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