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A Guide to the Development of Early Romantic Piano Music

Hamish J Hutson-Hill holds an LRSM in Clarinet Performance, an ALCM in Music Composition and is completing a Master of Arts degree in music.

Chopin and the Development of Early Romantic Ideals

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was born outside of Warsaw in Poland, spending most of his adult life in Paris, where he would make good friends with composers such as Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. As an early romantic composer, Chopin’s compositions retain many of the basic characteristics of the previous ‘classical period’, but makes greater use of romantic ideals such as musical imagery. His composition style also incorporates a large amount of Polish traditions, seen as such in his pieces titled ‘Mazurka’ and ‘Polonaise’, which are two examples of Polish dances.

Looking in depth to how Chopin contributed to the development of romantic era piano music, we will analyse No. 15 Op. 28 ‘Raindrop’ Prelude in Db. This piece was composed alongside 23 other preludes while Chopin was recovering from an illness in a monastery. A free piano score to this piece can be found in the Petrucci Music library website (IMSLP). This score is free from copyright restrictions.

The idea of the ‘raindrop theme’ was taken from the dripping water of caves close by to Chopin’s residence, where he would often stroll around. As we can see from bar one, the raindrop imagery starts in the left hand accompaniment, as a dominant pedal in repetitive quavers (8th notes) on Ab. This motif continues throughout the piece in nearly every bar until the final chord, highlighting the similarity of the rhythm to that of raindrops. This motif is known as a dominant pedal because of two reasons:

  • in the key of Db, Ab is the fifth note above, forming the root note to the dominant chord, hence the note is dominant.

  • the Ab played in the left hand stays the same despite a chordal change from the tonic to the dominant seventh and back. As such, this is known as a pedal because the same note is used consecutively in two different chords.

Along with the use of imagery, innovative romantic style techniques can be seen in the melodic line, where a single melody is played continuously for eight bars in a single phrase. This is a new idea for the time, as classical composers such as Mozart used shorter melodic phrases in the form of three, four or five bars which used a second complementary phrase to complete the melody. Instead of breaking the melody into sections, Chopin writes a lyrical line that flows without breaks into a perfect cadence.

Enhancing the melodic line is a technique common to Chopin and Liszt, called fioritura. This is where the melody contains a sort of mini cadenza which sounds improvised to the audience. The use of rubato helps characterise this technique and allows the melody to develop to a climactic peak. This can be seen in bar four beat four in the form of septuplet quavers. The melodic line to this section is played in the piano’s upper register. This composition technique is called writing in ‘high tessitura’.

In bar 28, the music modulates to the tonic minor key. The melodic tessitura is now very low. This is a new concept to music of this time, as the low notes of the piano were only rarely used. However, Chopin makes use of the low sonority and spends a whole section with the melody kept in the confines of the bass clef. This was not previously experimented with in the classical period because pianos of this era did not have the clarity of sound of modern day pianos. Nevertheless, Chopin uses this sound to highlight his romantic themed imagery, which could perhaps be interpreted as entering the darkness of the caves.

Despite all these innovations, Chopin still writes within the confines of a classical structure. The accompaniment remains simple and homophonic, as seen in classical period compositions such as many of Clementi’s sonatas for piano. The form of the prelude, ABA, was commonly used by Mozart and Haydn and shows how early romantic music still used a traditional classical music skeleton. The idea of the overall opus was inspired by J. S. Bach’s own 24 preludes, each written in the 24 keys. This is an example of how the romantic composers respected and admired the abilities of the previous great composers.

© 2018 HamishHutson-Hill


HamishHutson-Hill (author) on June 18, 2018:

Thank you for your feedback!

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on June 16, 2018:

Enjoyed this very much. Being a piano teacher for the better part of my life, the romantic era is among my favorite periods. Thank you.