(This is part 4 of the GetIntoClassical no-bullshit guide to the classical musical eras. You can see all the parts here.)
As discussed in the section on the early Romantic era, this era wasn’t called romantic because of all the dating and walks on the beach in the rain. It was due to composers making music about what they felt, instead of trying to make things academically perfect but unemotional. It took a while for this to play out, which is why you’ll often see the era arbitrarily split into two, just like I’ve done here. While the music in both the early and late parts is “Romantic”, you can hear a definite transition from stuff which sounds “old” (like Beethoven), to pieces which could pretty much be a modern day film-score (like Tchaikovsky). In fact, people love Romantic music so much that most modern day “classical” music is still composed in this style.
As the era progressed toward 1900, every aspect of the music became freer. Composers started experimenting with non-standard time signatures (like 5/4 in the 2nd movement of the Pathetique), non-standard instruments (like the celesta), and so on. They also started to use larger and larger orchestras, so that the music is more layered and textured, and generally has more subtleties.
Sample piece: Marche Slave (Slavic March) by Tchaikovsky
If you know the 1812 overture (also by Tchaikovsky) you’ll recognize a section towards the end of this which is actually “God Save the Tsar“, the old Russian national anthem. After the Communist revolution they naturally had to switch to a different anthem, and they even changed the music in this piece as well to avoid any mention of the Tsar, even just musically.
Sample piece: Symphony No. 4, 4th Movement by Brahms
This is one of my favorites. It’s a passacaglia or a chaconne (nobody seems to really know which is which) which means that there is a certain phrase that keeps repeating through the whole movement. In this case it’s that intimidating chord sequence which is blasted out right at the beginning.