Initially, I was going to do a top 25 Romantic era post. I decided against it. It’s simply too much work to even make a top ten list.
Plus, it will have too much Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. So instead, I decided to just make a list of must hear works from Romantic composers.
My top five favorite Romantic composers in order are Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and Mendelssohn. Beethoven started the Romantic movement in music (it had already started in painting and literature) with his Third Symphony, the most important piece of music ever written.
Note that I don’t think Beethoven’s Third is the best, it’s just the most important. That piece revolutionized music. Even Beethoven’s former teacher old man Haydn knew when he initially heard the 3rd that “music will never be the same.”
Beethoven kickstarted the Romantic era of music, and made the composer the center of the music. More importantly from my perspective is that Romanticism took all the inventions of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, all the beautiful melodies from the Classical era, and made humanness and emotion/feeling as the strong point of the music.
Thus, the musicians and the conductor had tremendous amounts of power. It wasn’t only how good the piece was, it was how well it was performed and conducted. American Blues is like an offshoot of Romanticism as it’s all about the feeling.
So, let’s get to this list. I won’t be including Opera because to be honest, it’s not my forte. I studied Wagner’s overtures, but I never studied an entire opera in depth.
Peter Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Although Beethoven is the most important composer ever, Tchaikovsky is my favorite because he mastered melody. Nobody wrote a melody like Peter Tchaikovsky. I’ve already written my Tchaikovsky Top 10. So not to duplicate efforts too much, you at least need to know The Pathetique, his Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto #1, Swan Lake, the 1812 Overture, the Nutcracker, and the Romeo and Juliet Overture.
It’s funny how although Tchaikovsky was Russian, two of his pieces are very important in American culture. If you’re American, you’ve definitely heard 1812 Overture a zillion times on the Fourth of July. And you’ve also definitely heard The Nutcracker Suite a zillion times during Christmas.
Tchaikovsky had a lot of success in the States. In fact, it was Tchaikovsky who premiered Carnegie Hall.
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fifth. Those opening eight notes probably went off in your head when I type that. It’s a great symphony for sure, but as great as it is, it’s not even his best. That’s how awesome Beethoven is.
Beethoven’s best work was his Sixth, otherwise known as The Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven loved nature and felt to be at one with nature. In fact, he stated numerous times that being in nature was the only thing that brought him peace.
His second best symphony is his final symphony, his Ninth, otherwise known as The Choral. You’ve heard the main melody before. A lot of experts list this as his best. It’s great, no doubt. However, it’s his second best.
One amazing thing about the Ninth is that Beethoven was completely deaf when it premiered. Caroline Unger, the contralto, had to literally turn Beethoven to face the audience when the entire audience gave him a standing ovation at its premiere.
By then, everyone knew Beethoven was the greatest of all-time. After his death, there were plenty of debates in Germanic circles who would be the Heir of Beethoven. I have my thoughts, but I’ll write that one yet another day.
I’ve already mentioned his Third and his Fifth. I rank either of them as his third best and his fourth best, depending on my mood. Beethoven wrote five great symphonies in total. His fifth best was his Seventh.
I didn’t start studying piano until recently. I’ve been a guitarist who loved orchestra my entire life and no, there’s no way I could know everything about everything. Thus, I still need to get around to his Piano Concertos and rank them.
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Of the great Romantic composers, I rank Brahms as #3. Why? Three reasons – Brahms First (sometimes referred to as Beethoven’s Tenth among critics), Brahms Fourth, and Brahms Dual Concerto. Oh, actually four reasons. Add in Brahms Violin Concerto, which is in my top 5 Violin Concertos of all-time.
Wait! One more. Add in his Hungarian Dances. I stole a lot of them them. If you want to hear some serious cultural passion, listen to what Brahms did with Hungarian folk music. You’ll notice that I stole some of his concepts from his Hungarian dances in our song Darvulia.
It’s funny that I love Brahms so much considering my favorite composer of all-time is Tchaikovsky. In real life, Tchaikovsky found Brahms overrated and boring. But whatever. Not everyone I like likes everyone I like in real life. That’s just how it goes.
Critics argued who the Heir of Beethoven was and the biggest two names were Wagner and Brahms. I love them both, but they couldn’t be more different.
Wagner pushed the envelope. He took the Romantic era to a whole different level, and for his time, was one of the more innovative of the Romantic composers. He and Berlioz both had huge hands in re-inventing what an orchestra can do.
Romantic composers – Traditionalists vs Innovators
Brahms on the other hand was more a traditionalist. Yes, Brahms was innovative as well, but on the innovative vs traditionalist scale, Brahms falls more on the traditionalist side. Thus, you got a lot of critics who argued he was stuck in the past.
I rabidly defend him though. He had such a great sense of melody and composed memorable pieces. When I first heard Brahms First, I fell in love with it. When I first heard Brahms Fourth, I dreamed some day I’ll conduct it. I rarely fall in love with anything right away.
So let’s talk about innovators. When you actually study orchestral scores, you’ll notice how Wagner was so different from the composers before him. He took orchestration to a whole new level.
I really need to study Wagner more as the only piece I truly studied in depth was his Tannhäuser overture, but I have at least glanced over all his overtures. Wagner took chromaticism to the extreme, and this alone paved the way to atonal music. However, unlike atonal music, Wagner’s music was gorgeous. Atonal stuff generally gives me a headache and I generally want to punch the composer in the face.
The other innovation Wagner should get credit for is the leitmotif. If you don’t know what a leitmotif is, think Star Wars. When Darth Vader appears on the screen, you hear that dark Darth Vader tune. That, my friends, is a leitmotif. When I get around to composing my first Overture, I’ll of course play around with leitmotifs.
Back to innovators, I have to give credit to Berlioz. For one, he’s one of my teachers. I’ve read his Treatise on Instrumentation twice (the one updated by one of the last Romantics – Richard Strauss). And let’s not forget, his Symphonie Fantastique, which may be the very first hallucinogenic composition (he wrote parts of it on opium).
Despite being technically early Romantic, Berlioz definitely pushed the envelope and brought Romanticism forward.
Romantic composers – the other beautiful ones
Sometimes, I like music just because it’s beautiful. You know what I find beautiful? Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and a few others. Namely Mendelssohn, of whom I really love his Violin Concerto and his Third Symphony.
I love Chopin as well. If I had a gun to my head and had to name my favorite Chopin pieces, they would be Opus 9 No 2 and Opus 9 No 1.
Dvorak needs some love. His New World Symphony was actually an homage to America, and premiered in Carnegie Hall! There are times when I prefer his Slavonic Dances over Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Depends on my mood. Both are excellent homages to the folks of those respective peoples.
And lastly, I freaking love Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto. If you haven’t heard this piece, you’re missing out big time. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music written in any genre. It’s gorgeous throughout.
Now, this by no means is an exhaustive list of what I love among Romantic composers. But if you want to know Romanticism, this is a great start.
Cover photo is Johannes Brahms when he was young.