It is indeed through his many piano works that Robert Schumann epitomizes the spirit of early Romanticism. Schumann himself was a fine pianist until a mysterious injury ended his career. In this period most composers were pianists--most music was still performed by the composer, or at least with his participation in some capacity, and the piano, because of its flexibility and range, was the ideal medium for the performer/composer. The piano, indeed, was to become the instrument of the Romantic era. Its size was perfect for the elegant Middle Class salons that now had replaced the larger, formal 18th century courts. It was an instrument upon which any dilettante--amateur music lover--could effectively approximate the sound of his favorite works, whether they were operas, orchestral, et al. The 19th century was to witness an enormous growth in publications of transcriptions for piano--often duets--of nearly every conceivable popular work. At the same time, the piano--and transcriptions--were a perfect outlet for a new breed of super-performers: the virtuosi (singular, virtuoso), which we shall discuss a little later.
Schumann's piano works manifested many of the principal currents of Romanticism. Many of them contained more-or-less hidden references to stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann and other Romantic writers. In many cases he avoided traditional large-scale forms and preferred smaller, more loosely organized works, or made large works out of a long series of roughly connected short pieces, often with some hidden "story lines" as a binding and directing element. He preferred highly emotional moods with marked contrasts between very slow and serene and very fast and passionate. Indeed, Schumann often divided his pieces between two conflicting aspects of his personality which he named Eusebius, the introvert, and Floristan, the extrovert. This very typically Romantic dualism was unfortunately reflected in Schumann's own growing schizophrenia which finally led him to an asylum. Another typical feature was Schumann's concept of courageous artists (he imagined an ideal Davidsbuendler, or Brotherhood of David, who were in constant struggle with the Philistines, the boors of Society at large).
Schumann also worked actively in the Classical forms of symphony, sonata, concerto, et al, in which he tried to retain the Classical unity and cohesion and yet add a Romantic spontaneity and freedom. His results in this domain were more uneven, however, because he felt basically uncomfortable with Classical forms and with the techniques by which these forms were unified. Another early Romantic composer who successfully pursued a renovation of the Classical models embued with Romantic ideals and fervor was Felix Mendelssohn. He too was active as a composer of dozens of smaller, freer piano works, whose general title Songs without Words clearly shows the symbolic link with literature so typical of early Romanticism. Mendelssohn also had a sister, Fanny, who was also a composer.
The composer who most contributed to the rise of the piano as the ideal 19th-century instrument was Frederic Chopin. Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola (near Warsaw) of a Polish mother and French father. He was a piano prodigy at an early age and grew up in the sheltered and refined environment of the local aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie that dominated Polish society.
Chopin was strongly marked by the sense of loss and national tragedy that pervaded Poland at that time. Poland had been dismembered and divided into areas of Russian, Prussian (German), and Austrian occupation (Chopin lived in the Russian zone) and since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, it no longer existed as an independent country. In fact, in the Russian zone, Polish culture and, indeed, the official use of the Polish language were systematically undermined. Chopin was on his first major concert tour in Western Europe in 1830 when a revolution in Warsaw was brutally put down by the Russians. Chopin never returned to Poland--nothing physically prevented him, but he preferred to mourn the destruction and occupation of his beloved homeland from afar, from Paris where he settled for the rest of his life. One could add--rather cynically--that he would in any case have ended up in Paris, then the musical and cultural capital of Europe. But Chopin the artist needed the sense of mourning over a lost past, the nostalgia which is one of the key features of his and all Romantic art.
Chopin fit perfectly into the salon culture of Paris in the l930s. The small, intimate scale suited his weak physique and ill health &endash; indeed, he was to die of tuberculosis at the age of 39. The refinement and luxury of the environment suited his fastidious tastes--Chopin did not fancy crowds or brilliant court life. And, equally important, the intellectual and cultural circles that flourished in the salons found in Chopin, in his nostalgic melancholy for what was for them a faraway "exotic" land, in his scrupulous, often arrogant manners, and above all in his sensitive, dreamy, imaginative piano playing and music, an ideal figure to admire and to idolize.
Chopin wrote music practically exclusively for the piano. His innovations, especially ,but not exclusively, in his famous Etudes (Studies), revolutionized the entire conception of the instrument at nearly the same time, but in an entirely different way, as his brilliant colleague and friend, Franz Liszt.
Even more than Schumann, Chopin had little interest or taste for large-scale Classical forms. Unlike Schumann, however, Chopin drew little inspiration from literature. Chopin's songs are essentially dressed-up Polish folk songs. And, of his other works, only the four Ballades have a literary connection, and even here there is more of a narrative feeling rather than a feeling of a concrete musical foundation. Chopin had little taste for the emotional exuberance, the free spontaneity, the abrupt and extreme contrasts of Schumann or other Romantics. A certain underlying sobriety, a certain unconscious distancing of himself and his emotions from his music (except symbolically as a Pole) is rather a "Classical" element in the music of this Romantic composer.
Chopin's predilection for certain forms, especially dances such as Waltzes, Mazurkas and PoIonaises, and other forms with a built-in traditional format, such as the Scherzo, is, in part, due to his desire to retain a clarity of structure without having to struggle with the far more complex Sonata Forms. The Polonaise and Mazurka were, in addition, means by which Chopin expressed his links with his beloved homeland--the Polonaise, a composition with a more martial, patriotic fervor, the Mazurka, a composition with a more intimate, often melancholy longing. The Mazurka, a composite of three distinct dance types rather than any single dance in particular gave Chopin a form in which to introduce many typically Polish harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic elements. These were not based directly an folk music, but rather evoked an exotic world which must have delighted Parisians of the 1930s and 40s. In his Nocturnes, Chopin transformed a rather simple-minded form (introduced by the Irish composer John Field) into a highly sophisticated, beautifully-wrought Romantic invocation of the night.
The most successful and widely popular musical form of the early 19th century was found neither in the perfumed, refined salons of Chopin's Paris nor in the more intellectually earnest artistic circle of Schumann's Germany, but rather where it had been for the preceding 50 years--the opera house. Opera, especially Italian opera, whose traditions were the strongest and best established, was the most obvious link between the music world of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the operatic world the changes brought on by the currents of Romanticism were less sweeping and often more superficial in nature. Both the Italian tradition--dominated by Rossini, Bellini and Dionizetti and the Bel Canto school, so called because of its emphasis on "pure" singing and highly refined and elegant vocal technique, and the French--dominated by (the also Italian!) Cherubini and Spontini and (the German) Meyerbeer grand opera school, so-called because of its emphasis on great pomp and formal dramatic circumstance--essentially retained highly formalized structures and practices of earlier generations. One Romantic element, especially in the music of the Italians, was a fondness for libretti (stories) based on the works of popular Romantic novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini's I Puritani, et al). Grand opera, an the other hand, showed a markedly Romantic fondness for highly--often absurdly--emotional, bizarre scenes (such as the tableau of skating nuns in Le Prophete by Meyerbeer) and, for a more colorful, dramatic use of the orchestra. Italy, however, was the major country least affected by Romanticism. This was due in large part to the spirit of humanism, still "resident" in Italy with widespread acceptance from the time of the Renaissance.
Italian 19th-century music was essentially entirely opera, and its greatest composer, Giuseppe Verdi, whose long life spanned nearly the whole century, while influenced by practically all the currents of Romanticism, remained, in some ways, aloof from the movement. Even in the most emotional, most dramatic, most exotically colored scenes, Verdi retained a certain detachment--an abiIity to keep his eyes wide open, as it were,--that set him apart from most of his contemporaries, whose very appeal often consisted of their eagerness to dive head first into their material, even at the risk of drowning in emotional excess.