The Romantic Period
By Nina Pinzarrone
The musical style of the Romantic period was inspired by the literary romanticism of the great poets, novelists, and philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as Rousseau (The Social Contract), Goethe (Faust), Byron (Don Juan), and Scott (Ivanhoe). Works of this period (approximately 1820 to 1900) focused on the lives of common people instead of royalty. They emphasized personal expression, supernatural beings, fairy tales, and nostalgia for past eras; displayed a fascination with “exotic” lands such as Asia and Spain; and turned folk music or dance into concert pieces to express national pride.
New musical forms included the symphonic poem (tone poem), songs without words, and art songs, all featuring complex rhythms, syncopation, and chromatic harmonies. Instrumental improvements included the development of the modern piano; its sustaining pedal, dynamic capabilities, and wide tonal range encouraged the rise of solo musical artists such as Liszt and Chopin. Other Romantic composers include Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky.
The Romantic period ushered in music composed specifically for ballet. Dance music was no longer merely an opera interlude; it was an independent entity with its own story. Leitmotifs (recurring musical phrases; Giselle was the first ballet score to use them) helped tie the story together.
Music’s Romantic period encompasses ballet’s Romantic and classical periods: first the two-act Romantic ballets (Adam’s La Sylphide and Giselle), in which dimmable gas lights and pointe shoes, both new innovations, created otherworldly effects; and later the three-act classical ballets (Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker; Minkus’ Don Quixote), which emphasized technical virtuosity and introduced short tutus, the classical pas de deux format, and character dances such as the Hungarian czardas and Spanish bolero.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.