Romantic Period Counterpoint

Romantic Period Polyphony

The musical style in the Classical period was more restrained, exhibiting balance and symmetry.  As the Romantic ethos pervaded music, the focus turned to emotions and individualism.  Drama filled the music, and chromatic harmony with expressive tone colors were the norm.  Program music, nationalism, and spirituality were driving forces.  Composers created virtuosic piano music and dramatic operas.  Beethoven was a transitional figure, and his music embodied the evolution from Classical to Romantic styles.

Every musical element was expanded in this period, from the range of dynamics to the size and scope of musical forces, partly owing to the development of valved brass instruments and their capabilities.  Harmonically, the music grew much more dissonant in general, with a wider variety of root movements and more frequent distant modulations.  Rhythmically there was increasing complexity, with asymmetric meters and polyrhythms.  The structural forms continued to show increasing contrast between sections.

Polyphony did enjoy a revival in the early 19th century, sparked by Mendelssohn.  However, most composers used it to provide contrast to the more pervasive homophonic texture.  Examples of polyphonic music are discussed below and are linked in the Materials section.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote music that perpetuated the Classical style, by later 19th century standards.  The fugue from his Prelude and Fugue in G major, Op. 37, No. 2 for organ is not harmonically adventurous.  Much of the fugue moves in a homorhythmic fashion.  However, the fugue from Opus 37, No. 3, Prelude and Fugue in D minor, is much more chromatic and dissonant.  These compositions are in the style of J. S. Bach.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was a very talented and creative composer, as well as a world-class pianist.  While she subjugated her music career to her family and husband Robert, she did produce a catalogue of well-written original music.  Her Prelude and Fugue No. III, Op. 16 for Piano demonstrates her command of chromatic harmony and contrapuntal technique.  It uses Bach’s framework for counterpoint, as do most Romantic period pieces in this style.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was an expert in contrapuntal technique, particularly the canon.  His Geistliches Lied, Op. 30, Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauren is an example of a choral double canon with organ accompaniment.

Brahms also wrote a collection of 11 chorale preludes for organ.  The one included in the Materials below is based on a Chorale by Michael Praetorius, written in 1609.  The title is Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Opus 122, written in 1896 for organ.

Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a transitional figure.  A Russian nationalist who taught Igor Stravinsky composition and orchestration, he demonstrated a firm grasp of counterpoint.  Written in 1878, the Finale of his String Quartet in F, Opus 12, is a good example.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was director of the Paris Conservatory for 15 years, and  influenced many who followed him.  You can see the evolution in his style by comparing the Finale of the C Minor Piano Quartet, written in 1880, with No. 6 from his 8 Pièces brèves, Op. 84, Fugue in E minor for piano completed in 1902.

Camille Saint Saëns (1835-1921) wrote two collections of fugues for piano, Op. 52 and Op. 111 (1887 and 1899).  No. 3 in F minor, from Op. 52 is a representative early example. No. 3 in E-flat minor, from Op. 111 is a more chromatic example.  These are well-crafted late 19th Century works in the polyphonic genre.  


Mendelssohn:  Prelude and Fugue in G major, Op. 37, No. 2  (PDF

Mendelssohn:  Prelude and Fugue in D minor, Op. 37, No. 3   (PDF

Schumann, Clara:   Prelude and Fugue No. III, Op. 16    (PDF)

Brahms:  Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, Opus 122 (1896)   (PDF
(Based on an anonymous chorale harmonized by Michael Praetorius in 1609)  (PDF)

Brahms:  Geistliches Lied, Op. 30, Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauren (PDF)  

Rimsky-Korsakov:  String Quartet in F, Op. 12, IV (1878)  (PDF

Fauré:   C Minor Piano Quartet, Finale (1880)  (PDF

Fauré:   8 Pièces brèves, Op. 84, No. 6 Fugue in E minor  (PDF

Saint Saëns:  Fugue, Op. 52, No. 3 in F minor (1877)  

Saint Saëns:  Fugue, Op. 111, No. 3 in E-flat minor  (1899)  (PDF

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