Piano Literature of the Romantic Period

Carl Maria von Weber

Weber's style is rhythmic, picturesque, full of contrast, and technically brilliant, but without profound content.
Sonatas (4)
Concertos (2)
"Concertstück" in F minor for piano and orchestra
Many short pieces
        "Invitation to the Dance" (1819)

Franz Schubert

The six Musical Moments and his eight Impromptus are for the piano what his Lieder are for the voice.  Abounding in Schubertian melodies and harmonies, perfect in form and detail, each one quite distinctive in mood, these works became the model for every subsequent Romantic composer of brief, unpretentious, intimate piano pieces.
(see Character Pieces)

In his sonatas, Schubert seems to have been influenced more by Haydn and Mozart than by Beethoven.  Their external form never departs from the standard Classical patterns, but their atmosphere is more lyric than dramatic; instead of concentrated thematic development or surging Romantic emotions Schubert gives us expansive melodies and shimmering harmonic progressions.

Schubert wrote for the piano, in addition to innumerable marches, waltzes and other dances, fourteen short pieces to which he gave the modest titles of "impromptu" or "musical moment."  His most important larger works for the piano are the eleven competed sonatas and a "Fantasia in C major" on a theme adapted from his song, "Der Wanderer."

He wrote no concertos.

Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn's musical ancestors are Mozart and Domenico Scarlatti.  His piano music requires a fluent technique, but in general, the style is elegant and sensitive, not given to violence or excess bravura.   Mendelssohn's harmony has few of the delightful surprises that one encounters in Schubert, nor do his melodies, rhythms, and forms introduce many unexpected features.  His music, like his life, flowed serenely and harmoniously;  it is essentially Classical in outline, imbued with Romantic color and sentiment but never more than lightly touched with Romantic pathos or passion.
The most popular piano works of Mendelssohn were the 48 short pieces issued at intervals in six books under the collective title "Song without Words."  His larger compositions for piano comprise two concertos, three sonatas, preludes and fugues, variations, and fantasias.  The preludes and fugues are one evidence of Mendelssohn's interest in the music of J. S. Bach.  A brilliant scherzo-like piece is his "Capriccio in F# minor."  Mendelssohn's finest large work for piano is the "Variations serieuses" in D minor.

Robert Schumann

The influence of Bach on Schumann's style is especially noticeable after 1842.  Schumann was constantly studying the music of Beethoven and Bach, and advising other composers to do likewise.  Schumann's piano music, while far from easy to play, never aims to impress the listener by a sheer bravura.  It is thoroughly idiomatic for the instrument, and the virtuoso element is always subordinate to the poetic idea.  His music embodies more fully than that of any other composer the depths, and the contradictions and tensions of the Romantic spirit;  is by turns ardent and dreamy, vehement and visionary, whimsical and learned.
All of Schumann's published compositions (Opp. 1-23) up to 1840 were for piano, and these include most of his important works for that instrument with the exception of his one concerto (1845).  This concerto, the "Fantasia in C major," and the set of variations entitled "Symphonic Etudes" are his chief longer works for piano, though he also wrote several other sets of variations and three sonatas.  The remainder of his production consists of short character pieces, which he often grouped in loosely organized cycles with names such as "Papillons," "Carnaval," "Fantasiestücke," "Kinderscenen," "Kreisleriana," "Novelletten," "Nachstücke," "Faschingsschwank aus Wien."  Attractive little pieces for children are gathered in the "Album for the Young" (1948).

Frederic Chopin

All his works demand of the player not only a flawless touch and technique but also an imaginative use of the pedals and a discreet application of tempo rubato, which Chopin himself described as a slight pushing or holding back within the phrase of the right-hand part while the left-hand accompaniment continues in strict time.

His mazurkas, impregnated with the rhythms, harmonies, forms, and melodic traits of Polish popular music (thought usually without any direct quotation from Polish folk tunes) are among the earliest and best examples of Romantic music inspired by national idioms.  In particular, the Lydian raised fourth, characteristic of Polish folk music, is present from the earliest works of Chopin.

Most of Chopin's pieces have an introspective character and, within clearly defined formal outlines, contrive to suggest the quality of improvisation.  He maintains a sensitive use of widely-spaced accompaniment figures (an expansion of the old Alberti bass technique), and his inimitable creative fancy in pianistic ornamentation, by means of which he produces some effects that forecast Impressionism.

Chopin's music was an important source of later developments in harmony;  his extraordinary genius for chromatic harmonies and modulations is evident in many of the preludes.  His etudes were the first which fully realized the potential of combining a practical aim with conceptions of the highest musical significance. Liszt and Brahms followed Chopin's lead in this respect.

The compositions of Chopin are almost exclusively for piano.  The principal works are:  two concertos and a few other large pieces for piano with orchestra, three sonatas, 27 etudes, four scherzos, four ballades, 24 preludes, three impormptus, 19 nocturnes, numerous waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises, a Barcarole in F#, a Berceuse in Db, and a Fantasia in F minor.

Franz Liszt

Liszt's cosmopolitan career was matched by the eclecticism of his music.  Many diverse factors entered into the formation of his style.  The first was his Hungarian heritage, manifest not only in his compositions based on or inspired by national melodies, but also in his fiery, dynamic, and impulsive temperament.

Nearly everything Liszt wrote either has an explicit programmatic title or can easily be imagined to have one.  His piano style was based on Chopin's, from whom he took the latter's repertoire of pianistic effects -- adding new ones of his own -- as well as his lyrical melodic qualities, his manner of rubato playing, and his harmonic innovations, which Liszt further extended.  Some of the late works, in particular, contain strikingly advanced chords (one of the first to make much use of augmented triads)and modulations.

Stimulated by Paganini's fabulous technical virtuosity, Liszt determined to accomplish similar miracles with the piano, and pushed the technique of the instrument to its furthest limits both in his own playing and in his compositions.

A considerable portion of Liszt's piano music consists of transcriptions or arrangements -- fantasies on operatic airs, transcriptions of Schubert's songs and Berlioz's and Beethoven's symphonies, Bach's organ fugues, excerpts from Wagner's music dramas, and the like.

Liszt's piano music includes compositions which make free use of national tunes; chief among these are the nineteen "Hungarian Rhapsodies" -- though by "Hungarian" Liszt and other 19th-century composers did not understand genuine Hungarian folk tunes, but rather the gypsy music which until recent times was thought to represent authentic folk elements.

For piano and orchestra Liszt wrote two concertos, a "Hungarian Fantasia" and the "Totentanz" (Dance of Death), a paraphrase on the plainsong "Dies irae."

His piano studies include the formidable 12 "Etudes d'execution transcendate," six studies transcribed from Paganini's caprices for solo violin, and three "Etudes de concert."

The variety of Liszt's poetic imagination is displayed in many of his short separately published piano pieces and in several collections of tone pictures, of which the chief are "Annees de pelerinage," "Consolations," and "Harmonies poetiques et religieuses."

An important large work is the "Sonata in B minor," in which four themes are worked out in one extended movement, although with subdivisions analogous to the sections of a Classical sonata movement.

Johannes Brahms

The piano style of Brahms has neither the elegance of Chopin nor the brilliance and romantic rhetoric of Liszt.  Its models are Schumann and Beethoven.  Technically it is characterized by fullness of sonority, broken chord figuration, frequent doubling of the melodic line in octaves, thirds, or sixths, and considerable use of cross-rhythms.  It has the harmonic richness and emotional warmth that are essentially more Classical than Romantic.

The importance of the variation form for Brahms is one evidence of his inclination toward Classical principles of construction.  Even in his shorter piano pieces the forms are purely outgrowths of the musical material.  Brahms avoids the descriptive titles used by Schumann and Liszt;  his attitude is unsympathetic to the Romantic ideal of program music and to the extreme tendencies of Romanticism in general.  Brahms, in short, is the great conservative of the Romantic era.

Brahms' works for the piano include two concertos, three sonatas, several sets of variations, and some 35 shorter pieces with titles such as ballade, rhapsody, capriccio, or intermezzo.

Chief among the larger works are the concertos, the "Sonata in F minor," the "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel," and the difficult etude-like "Variations on a Theme of Paganini."


Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition"

Cesar Franck - "Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue," "Prelude, Aria, and Finale," "Symphonic Variations" for piano and orchestra.