Divisions on Dividing

We are excited to welcome back our guest author Caroline Bennett! Read on to enjoy her latest music-related contribution.

Music historian James Webster posits that, “One cannot think about, still less investigate, the ceaseless, infinitely complex flow of historical events without segmenting them into time spans.”[1] Webster was speaking of the Classical-Romantic divide in music, but structure in any discipline allows people to understand concepts for themselves. Perhaps more importantly, it enables them to share this knowledge and communicate with others more easily. Thus, dividing music history into distinct periods is logical. The separation between with Classical and Romantic musical eras continues to be useful because it allows people to easily communicate with others by providing the structure and context necessary to better appreciate and interpret music.

James Webster

Musicians can compartmentalize music history in many ways, and when appropriate they can use different methods of periodization. Ultimately, however, music history should be organized in a way that is easy for others to grasp. Although Webster is dissatisfied with the standard division between the “Classical” and “Romantic” eras, suggesting that historians label the late 18th through early 19th centuries as “First Viennese Modernism,” there are significant advantages to adhering to the traditional periods. Music historians do share their findings amongst themselves, but also with other musicians or students who are not as familiar with historical details. Thus it is important that the historical narrative be divided in such a way that related composers, musical works, and concepts are grouped together. The divisions should not be so minute, however, that they become difficult to understand or distinguish. Webster notes that periodization is like a story’s plot because both create a narrative.[2] This is a useful way to think about how intricate the divisions in music history should generally be. In a standard plot, the more layers and partitions there are, the less focused the intention of the story becomes and the harder it is for the reader to understand and appreciate the story as a whole. Novels with complex layers, numerous descriptions, and a multitude of characters are often worthwhile, but only inviting and accessible to a select audience. Choosing a simpler periodization may seem inadequate, but Webster acknowledges that “even if the understanding of historical phenomena that periods offer is always partial and self-interested, the only alternative is—no understanding at all.”[3] Music historians, when writing for themselves or for a very specific audience, should create as detailed a structure as they wish. Nevertheless, because music history is usually meant to be shared with a diverse audience, its divisions and layers should be more straightforward.


Dividing the Classical and Romantic eras allows teachers and students to better distinguish the predominant characteristics of music in those time periods. Although concepts carried over from the Classical era to the Romantic, in general the thematic material, harmonic structure, and messages of the music were different. For example, Mozart wrote in 1781 that music must “give pleasure and never offend the ear” else it would not be music.[4] Many composers in the 1700s used music to simply represent concepts and emotions, not to actually provoke the audience’s feelings. In his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck wrote Orfeo’s lament in C major and if it were not for the libretto the aria would not sound sad at all. The orchestral accompaniment is rather energetic and the vocal melody could easily pass as a love song. Although composers did begin to add more and more feeling into their music over the course of the 18th century, audiences still found Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, written in 1803, rather overwhelming in its magnitude and confusing in its modulations and overall structure. The first movement’s development was significantly longer than the exposition and the coda nearly equaled the length of the exposition. Furthermore, the first movement modulated abruptly to unexpected keys and certain passages had distinctly dissonant harmonies. Values in music continued to change after the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, however. By the time music critic E.T.A. Hoffman analyzed Beethoven’s instrumental music in 1813, many audiences were beginning to appreciate music that made them feel uncomfortable. For example, Hoffman was very pleased that Beethoven’s music could “destroy” a listener and stir up a sense of “endless longing.”[5] This transition from Mozart’s view to Hoffman’s was gradual, so putting Mozart squarely in the “Classical” era or composers after Beethoven in the “Romantic” era is somewhat messy. Nevertheless, as long as teachers and students bear in mind that historical events are actually a progression, it is safe to simply label segments of the 18th and 19th centuries as “Classical” or “Romantic.”

When composers like Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner are grouped together, people can easily make connections between the pieces, and musicians have an innate concept of how to approach the music. For example, some of Mozart’s compositions show the direct influence of Haydn, including his Symphony No. 36 in C Major, which audiences can more easily discern when they already expect Mozart and Haydn to be similar. Romantic composers are connected by a number of commonalities, but especially by the influence that philosophers such as Immanuel Kant had on music, art, and culture. In contrast to the philosophers of the 17th and early 18th centuries, who promoted the use of reason, philosophers like Kant argued for a more subjective approach. This ultimately influenced Romantic composers like Wagner. Not only did Wagner write more for his own purposes and pleasure, but he also sought to make his music excite the emotions of audience members. In Tristan und Isolde Wagner did not pander to the music critics or write what was popular; instead he used the harmonies and melodies that he personally believed to be the most effective in expressing the desired emotions. Because he wished to show that the characters were full of longing, Wagner frequently delayed the resolution to the tonic and incorporated unusual chromaticism. This effectively creates a sense of unease and longing in the actual listener. Because musicians are aware the Romantic composers typically sought to express emotions in music and kindle the same emotions in audience members, these artists can approach Romantic pieces understanding that they must use dynamics, rubato, and the like to create the composers’ desired effect.

Although Webster’s argument for a more precise periodization of music history in the 18th and 19th centuries has a place in analyses, the accepted Classical-Romantic divide is still relevant today. No periodization is perfect, but because divisions in history are inevitable music historians should aim to choose a periodization structure that shares knowledge the most effectively.  The simple distinction between the Classical and Romantic era is easy for audiences to grasp—whether they are musicians or not—because of the contextual information that it instantly provides. This means that people can more easily make connections between composers, compositions, and historical events. Consequently, audiences will have a richer understanding and appreciation of music.

Works Cited

Hoffman, E.T.A. “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 1193-98. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “Letters to His Father.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 965-70. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.

1. James Webster, “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 110.

[2]. Webster, “Between Enlightenment,” 110.

[3]. Ibid., 114.

[4]. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Letters to His Father,” in Source Readings in Music History, ed.  Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 967.

[5]. E.T.A. Hoffman, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” in Source Readings in Music History, ed.  Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 1194.