Early Romantic Vocal Music

We’ve given lots of attention to instrumental music lately, and I don’t want to give the impression that the entire Classical period went by without any noteworthy vocal music being written and performed. Mozart wrote some of the most iconic operas in history, and both Haydn and Beethoven, among others, left behind wonderful choral works. My bias is what it is, but the terms we discussed about Classical form will come in handy whatever you choose to listen to. Before delving into this entry I recommend enjoying some of the great operatic singing from the classical period, such as Mozart’s operas, such as Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro.

Franz Schubert and the Lied

I can’t put off talking about vocal music any longer now that the Romantic period has started, because the early Romantic period was the high point for the lied, or song, which is a simple, short work for solo singer and keyboard accompaniment. The lied’s format goes all the way back to the days of the Renaissance chanson; remember El Grillo and Bonjour, et puis, quelles nouvelles from the Renaissance? If not, give them a refresher read here.

Think of your favorite pop or folk song, and it will probably look similar format to the verse/chorus alternation seen in this example, “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles.

Chorus: Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it’s all right

Verse 1: Little darling
It’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling
It seems like years since it’s been here

Chorus: Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it’s all right

Verse 2: Little darling
The smiles returning to the faces
Little darling
It seems like years since it’s been here


This format is called strophic form, and it lends itself particularly well to setting poetry to music. Poetry tends to follow patterns, or strophes, in which a consistent number of syllables and lines match up with other parts of the poem, and it separates itself easily into corresponding groups. Here’s an example:

Wir saßen so traulich beisammen
Im kühlen Erlendach
Wir schauten so traulich zusammen
Hinab in den rieselnden Bach

Der Mond war auch gekommen
Die Sternlein hinterdrein
Und schauten so traulich zusammen
In den silbernen Spiegel hinein

Ich sah nach keinem Monde
Nach keinem Sternenschein
Ich schaute nach ihrem Bilde
Nach ihren Augen allein

This is from a poem by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), a contemporary of Franz Schubert (1797-1828). You don’t have to speak German to see that the text above follows a pattern of line length, syllables and rhyme. It separates itself nicely into three stanzas, or strophes. When setting this to music, Schubert chose to use the same melody for each stanza to reflect the stanzas’ lexical connections to one another. The dynamics, articulation and other small aspects would change to bring attention to certain words in particular stanzas since this poetry told a progressive story, and it was important to build tension and show the audience what would happen to the story’s characters. These subtleties, such as deciding which words to accentuate and how to phrase sentences based on the words being said, gave the vocalist lots of interpretive freedom, but all this would be done within a satisfyingly repetitive melody and accompaniment to keep the audience familiar and respect the poetic origin of the words. Hence, strophic form was wildly popular in lieder (songs), and it clearly has a profound impact on music still today.

Die Schöne Müllerin (op. 25)

This is the title both of the poetry collection written by Wilhelm Müller, and the song cycle written by Schubert using this poetry as the text. A song cycle is a collection of short songs that follow a unifying plot or theme and are typically performed together. Die Schöner Müllerin is the earliest example of a song cycle that’s still widely performed today. This cycle consists of 20 lieder, or songs, that tell a tragic love story. A young man is hiking in the countryside, follows a brook to a mill, and encounters the miller’s daughter with whom he falls in love. Despite his attempts to impress her, she instead falls for another man who has since also appeared at the mill. In despair, our main character ends his life by drowning in the brook, and the final song is a lullaby by the brookside.

The subject matter alone is romantic in many senses compared to that of the Classical period, and shows the beginning of what would be a significant shift in all art forms from light entertainment to an outlet for darker emotions. It’s worth noting that both Müller (the poet) and Schubert (the composer of the music) both lived tragically short lives and filled their time with passionate expressions of love, nationalism and heartbreak in their respective mediums. Müller was highly educated and academic but spent many years of his adulthood fighting in the Napoleonic war, seeing all that he’d learned being tested and perhaps even negated in the face of war. Experiencing war firsthand was one of the biggest influences on the darkening of music after the Classical period, and as wars became even bigger, more destructive and all-encompassing, art and music followed in a steep descent into melancholy, suffering and even bitter sarcasm in their subject matter. Schubert himself died young due to syphilis, transmitted out of passion, and causing him equally strong feelings of suffering in a slow, painful death.

The emotional heft is serious in these works, and note that while the singer has the task of telling the story, the pianist does most of the atmospheric and mood-setting work. For example, the piano introduces the first lied with a cheerful, walking pattern to set the tone for the words the singer will sing, expressing how happy he is to be wandering in the beautiful countryside. The piano opens the second lied with fast, flowing notes to emulate flowing water, and the singer tells the audience about the brook. In sad moments, such as the lied entitled Tears, during which the singer laments that the miller’s daughter has chosen another man, the piano is much more subdued, with slow suspensions and simple chords. In addition to “word” painting in the instrumental part, literal word painting in the singer’s part is everywhere, and I highly recommend following the words as the singer sings them to catch the many examples.

Gioachino Rossini and Italian Opera

Meanwhile in Italy, the romantic era started on a very different foot and took on a two-faced identity not dissimilar to that of the Renaissance in Italy several hundred years before. Music was either deeply melancholy or frivolous to the point of being silly, with scarcely little in between. Opera in particular was either categorized as “opera seria” or “opera buffa” to embody this dichotomy.

Gioachino Rossini (192-1868) made a name for himself particularly in the buffa category, and found great success composing light, frothy vocal music for Paris Opera. His most famous works are operas such as The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algeria, The Thieving Magpie and William Tell.

Rossini’s life was a direct contrast to that of Schubert in that he had a long, decadent life, relatively little suffering to express in his music, and lots of wealth and success to celebrate with his many high-society friends. His lighthearted, entertaining music reflects this. Rossini had a healthy middle-class childhood, good musical education, fame at a young age, and a well-paid job in the epicenter of Europe’s music scene (Paris). For the latter half of his long life he stopped composing entirely, probably because he simply didn’t feel like it anymore. Instead he used his wealth to hold salons, inviting other great composers, artists, socialites, and political personalities. In this manner Rossini was very much like the courtly princes from not-so-many years earlier!

Rossini was a practical man and when he had found a compositional style that worked, like any good product, he branded it as his own and made it his niche. More than many other composers, Rossini’s work is remarkably consistent in how it sounds. There’s even a musical term called a “Rossini crescendo” in which a repeated rhythmic pattern starts quietly, then repeats over and over, louder and louder, while other material is added gradually alongside it. Rossini really was a businessman selling a product with his position at Paris opera, and it’s hard to blame him for a bit of self-borrowing when the demands of the job required 39 full-length operas in 13 years. And the audience didn’t seem to mind anyway; Rossini’s work was generally very popular and even brought him fame outside Europe. Don’t reinvent the wheel, they say, and Rossini took this to heart.

The Barber of Seville-Figaro’s Aria

You’ll blame Rossini even less for all the self-borrowing when you hear his operas, which are infectiously fun and can cure even the worst of bad moods. Anyone new to opera would do well to start with Rossini. The experience is lighthearted, highly theatrical, even ridiculous, arguably a precursor to today’s broadway musical in many ways.

This aria is one of the most famous moments in any opera ever written, and contains the “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” that many people who’ve never seen an opera will recognize. It has many of the classic Rossini trademarks:

  • The “Rossini Crescendo” which starts from a single rhythmic pattern and grows gradually, creating lots of excitement
  • Highly repetitive rhythms,pitches and words
  • Comically wordy vocal part; an opportunity for the singer to show off their diction and breath support. Imagine singing supercalifragilisticexpialidocious several times in a row in one breath!
  • Nonsense words in the singer’s part, such as “la la la” to fill space and add to the nonchalant character.
  • Virtuosic cadenzas (definition here) for the singer in which the orchestra will stop entirely while the singer elaborates on as little as a single syllable, also adding comic value.
  • The singer is clearly the most important, and interesting, element. The orchestra strictly accompanies in a repetitive fashion and does not compete with the singer for attention.

All this analysis aside, it’s helpful and entertaining to keep in mind that all of the musical effort, singing virtuosity and exciting stage work is telling a simple and ridiculous narrative about a barber advertising his business. It’s easy to see how the broadway musical developed when already over 200 years ago, virtuosic arias were being sung about haircuts.

I hope you enjoy this aria as much as I do, and if you’re ever in a bad mood, just find your favorite Rossini aria.

1 thought on “Early Romantic Vocal Music

  1. […] is a song cycle, meaning a collection of works related in subject matter for solo singer, with orchestra […]


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