Romanticism in Classical Music

This is article explores the elements of Romanticism and the impact of perceptions and values as they apply to Robert Schmann’s Davidsbundlertanze (Dances of the League of David) written in 1837.  The focus is limited to Movements II, III, IV, and V as performed by Andreas Haeflger in 1991 (Montgomery).

Robert SchumannCredit: Adolph Menzel

Lewis Rowell, in his book Thinking about Music, presents two areas of consideration that significantly impact our ability to evaluate any musical experience: our perceptions and values contain many subordinate ideas and factors that influence how we determine what we like or dislike about a musical selection while our pasts our training and beliefs help us create (consciously or unconsciously) standards we use to measure and interpret a musical experience. Leonard B. Meyer presents the most popular mode of perception by stating: “Often music arouses affect through the mediation of conscious connotation or unconscious image processes (Rowell, 113).” Rowell further qualifies Meyer’s position by stating that it’s those things that we experience in life and the associations we develop in life that eventually culminate in the effect (Rowell, 133). Value, as Rowell presents it, is synonymous with “worth”. We make judgments and attributes about “the thing’ that we determine to be of worth or value to us because it is “good, pleasant, beautiful, or true (Rowell, 150).”  

Romanticism is characterized by a tendency toward reflecting nature, emotion over reason turning in upon the self, recognizing personal moods, passions and inner struggles, to transcend experience and spiritualism, folk culture, national and ethnic cultures, era in history, the exotic, mysterious, occult, the diseased and monstrous (Rowell, 117-119). The attributes and characteristics the listener selects to describe any selection of music are the result of learned responses and behavior. This makes describing music of the Romantic Era more interesting since it is generally reflection of the composers “self”.

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze is a piano work consisting of eighteen relatively short movements, representing particular individuals from his select group of musical friends and some imaginary characters.  This selection emphasizes self-expression and romantic free form. David Montgomery describes how each movement represents characters created by Schumann (Montgomery): Florestan represents Schumann’s fiery nature, Eusebius representing his dreamy side and Master Raro representing the integration of his two contrasting characters. This selection represents Schumann, his friends and supporters as the characters in the story of David against the Philistines; a conflict between those composers, like Schumann, that adhered to the Romantic form versus those that violated that standard or code as it would be expressed in war.

Because this is a purely piano selection, it makes the job of applying many of the qualities normally attributed to romantic music such as color, tone, dynamics, and intensity difficult.  Each of these four movements can stand alone on its own, as separate pieces of music.

  • Movements III and IV are particularly fast and played with humor inferring that they represent the character Florestan’s. Movements II and V are softer, slower and seem to represent Eusebius.
  • Movement II lasts approximately one minute and forty seconds long. This movement begins very softly, with a simple melody played with the right hand and a simpler supporting under-tone played with the left hand. Listening to this second movement, I get impressions of a small music box playing a simple, pleasant, but haunting tune.
  • Movement III begins with a forceful entrance of confidence and played with some sense of happiness. The right and left-hand parts begin as primarily vertical cords and follow-on with the right-hand as a happy and humorous melody, supported with a left-handed rhythmic waltz style beat. This third movement is only a minute and thirteen seconds long.
  • Movement IV is only forty-four seconds long. It does not begin with a fan fare, but it does enter with a sense of certainty. The notes are played in two measure sets with a series of two eighth notes followed by three-quarter notes creating short sensations of tension; these short tension points are followed by a short melody that changes the feeling briefly as if accepting the circumstances that caused the initial tension.
  • Movement V is just over two minutes long, an eternity, as compared to the other three movements.  The melody is simple and played lightly and with a feeling of contentment. The style is similar to the second movement. Schumann plays with scaling notes rising up higher and higher, as much as three octaves, then lightly dropping off and starting again.

Individual Movements

There are no significant changes within the individual movements, only in contrast to each other. Each movement tends to be consistent within itself in relation to tone, color, and intensity. The third and fourth movements have some color and intensity. The third movement charges in without hesitation. Even the sheet music states to play the first five measures with humor. The fourth movement begins strong and “ungrudgingly” for the remainder of the movement. Schumann creates the color and texture in these movements by the manner in which they are played. The second and fifth movements are played with a relatively light hand on the piano keys. The third and forth movements have a more physical, heavy-handed strike to the piano keys. This light or heavy touch of the keys creates a sense of intensity, boldness, color, and texture. The second and fifth movements are played lightly, like a light solo dance in a ballet or as a character in a play reflecting upon his or her life. In each of these four movements I find disorder within a structure of order. Even though they are written in three-four time, I find no defined rhythm evident by just listening to these two movements. Rowell refers to this style of composition as a deliberate unhooking of various musical dimensions such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and meter.


As listeners, we must keep in mind that our perceptions and values establish the foundations we use to evaluate and interpret what we hear. These two issues prejudice our interpretations of music. Each of the descriptions and characteristics I attributed to these four movements is in reality my individual learned response to the series and combinations of notes that create the chords and melodies. Even the physical act of striking the piano keys harder or softer or the use of “sustain” foot-pedals to create the texture and color of the music inspire responses in the listener based on learned behavior and emotions. The value statements “this is good or this is excellent”, must be made based on some kind of criteria. Rowell presents his model for assessing whether a musical selection is excellent or not in chapter nine of his book, Thinking About Music.  However, Rowell’s criteria are subjective as to the listener’s interpretations. Therefore, it all comes down to personal “taste”. What do you like? Does the music provide you with something you enjoy or appreciate? Does it represent your emotions or does it bring out your feelings? 

Davidsbündlertänze, Op.6 by Robert SchumannCredit: Piupianissimo, 2013
Davidsbundlertanze / Fantasiestucke
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Final Word

Robert Schumann’s composition, Davidsbundlertanze, provides us the opportunity to see elements of Romanticism as it relates to perceptions and values in a purely piano composition. Despite the lack of an orchestra or ensemble, Schumann still presents music that is expressive and introspective, representing the idea of Romanticism as a reaction of emotion against reason. Rowell’s message is for the listener to be aware of the fact that our assessments of music are the result of our conscious and unconscious behavior.

The Enjoyment of Music (Second Essential Listening Edition)
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