Why are we so drawn to Romantic piano repertoire?

28 January 2022
By John Evans
What makes us lean towards the Romantic repertoire? Surely it’s more than just a pretty tune? John Evans speaks to pianists and professors to find out why we love to wallow in the music...

by John Evans

The article is taken from Pianist 109


As humans, we are experts in emotions.

Experts in love, death, pain, pleasure, loss, regret… you name it, we’ve experienced it. And when we judge a performance of music of the Romantic period, many of us do so on the basis of its ability to inspire our emotions. 

Adam Ockelford, professor of Music at Roehampton University in London and author of Comparing Notes: How we make sense of music, says this is entirely natural. ‘The emotional centres are deep in the brain, in the pre-human area,’ he says. ‘We needed them as a basic survival response and we share them with other animals. For example, a loud sound close-by produces a violent response in us. In contrast, a baby’s voice produces a caring response.’

Ockelford’s point is that we cannot separate the thinking and feeling parts of the brain from the emotional. Indeed, he says the root of our basic emotional response to sound lies in the dawn of life itself. However, of all the emotional triggers, it is music that is the most sophisticated.

‘Take the opening chord of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra or the so-called Tristan chord in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. They trigger a primitive, emotional response in us. These are isolated events, of course, and over a passage or phrase, each sound following another produces a more nuanced response. Some of these are learned while others may be triggered simply by a shift from major to minor. Among the learned responses, a diminished seventh chord, a chromaticism or a tremolo lead us to expect an event, be it a resolution or a surprise.’


Ludwig and Malwine Schnorr von Carolsfeld in the title roles of the original production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in 1865. ©Wikimedia Commons


So, it seems, we are mere putty in the hands of music. We think we’re smart and in control of our emotions but then along comes a chord or a phrase and we’re a mass of conflicting emotions over which we have no control. At least that is the situation for ‘we’ as listeners. But ‘we’ as pianists or performers must surely retain control of our emotions if we are to effectively communicate music’s emotional possibilities to our listeners. 



Head versus heart


As a music student I well remember being reminded of the eternal struggle of head and heart when playing piano music of the Romantic era; the responsibility of the performer to shape, control and communicate the music, notwithstanding their emotional response to it. For me, it was a struggle that would reach its climax on the concert platform when, if I wasn’t careful, a combination of nerves, adrenaline and an acute sense of self would lead me to abandon every finally judged and considered nuance, and indulge myself at the expense, warned my teacher, of the music.

Even among top-flight pianists you occasionally encounter a similar relaxing of the boot straps. I was reminded of this when listening to recordings of Chopin’s Impromptu No 3 in G flat Op 51 recently. Chopin was an enthusiastic advocate of the metronome, at least for a few years, and would pepper his scores with markings. In time, he stopped doing so but still gave tempo indications which, since we know from his metronome timings how fast he regarded prestos, andantes and so on, are pretty reliable. 


Frédéric Chopin


Chopin marks Impromptu No 3 Tempo giusto, but even had he not, a pianist would tune into the music’s lyrical and self-propelling character. Not Grigory Sokolov. He plays it almost largo, imbuing it with a pathos other pianists simply don’t hear. But wouldn’t you believe it – YouTubers’ comments are largely positive: ‘I love this tempo’, ‘Heart-achingly gorgeous’, 'Stunning’.



Adam Ockelford is neither surprised by their reaction nor by Sokolov’s idiosyncratic performance. ‘There are composers and there are performers. The two are very different. Regarding the latter, their playing is a blend of intuition and a conscious decision to play in a certain way, often informed by the way others do, although sometimes by a deliberate decision to strike out on their own.

‘That decision can offend listeners. For example, you go to Wigmore Hall to hear Chopin only to find it’s being played differently from the performance model you have in your head. That can be a shock but it doesn’t mean the performance is any less valid. Music is neither right nor wrong. What makes it so fascinating and enduring is its ability to evolve and, like a chameleon, to change how it’s perceived by each succeeding generation.’

Pity, then, the poor performer of Chopin et al who must navigate their way through what seems to be an ever-shifting, ever-changing musical world at the mercy of perception and emotion, and where one listener’s poison is another’s pleasure. How do they do it? Where do they begin? 


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The clues are in the score

Ory Shihor: "Whether music is from the Baroque or Romantic period, it is still written by humans who experienced the same emotions and communicated as we do today." ©Michael Roud


Ory Shihor (pictured) is founder and CEO of the Piano Talent Performance Academy based in the US that prepares students for music college. He focuses on gifted young pianists but no matter how talented they are, for him, their journey always starts at the same place. 

‘Everything begins and ends with the score,’ he says. ‘However, the crux of the matter is “landing” on an interpretation that balances what is in the score with some historical and cultural knowledge, and the pianist’s own taste and ability.
‘Whether music is from the Baroque or Romantic period, it is still written by humans who experienced the same emotions and communicated as we do today. For me, these things are absolute and I apply them to every music genre. Accordingly, when I teach, I try not to pigeon-hole the music or the composers as in “Mozart must be played lightly with some cuteness”, or “Chopin’s torment must be felt through rubato”.’

In short, according to Shihor, free of the conventions that surround particular musical periods, his students can get on with the business of interpreting the music as human beings rather than guardians of sacred texts. What ensures their performance does not dissolve into an indulgent ramble is his insistence that their knowledge of the music begins and ends with the score.


Pianist Noriko Ogawa. ©T. Tairadate


Likewise, Noriko Ogawa (pictured), a teacher, performer and contributor to this magazine, looks to the score for clues to a composer’s intentions. Not only that but also to their characters and influences.

‘Chopin wrote many pieces based on dance forms such as the waltz, mazurka, and polonaise,’ she says. ‘This proves one needs to have a good musical pulse when playing Chopin. I always make sure I am aware of note values, including the little notes that can make us freak out when we see them and which we try to play too fast.’  

Of course, this sense of pulse that Ogawa refers to sounds like it could militate against the elasticity, or rubato, Chopin’s music demands. She has an answer for this, also. 

‘Because Chopin is beautiful in every beat of every bar, it is easy to fall into the trap of sitting on every chord and enjoying yourself too much. To avoid this, when learning Chopin, I first practise the music strictly in tempo in order to understand where all the beats are, then decide on and design my rubato. I “save” lots of room for it, then when I come to a phrase where I cannot give in, I use this saved room without distorting the pulse.’



Her approach sounds overly considered. However, from what we know of Chopin, a tasteful and meticulous man, he would surely be in sympathy with it.

In any case, for Ogawa, Schumann and not Chopin more closely fits her template of the Romantic composer. ‘Schumann is probably the most romantic composer in my opinion,’ she says. ‘We get very personal with his music and become convinced “Robert is mine”.’

However, as with Chopin, she’s careful to impose some order on what, without it, could become chaos. ‘Schumann likes repeated dotted rhythms but he always writes beautiful melodies. Again, when I learn the notes, I practise on time to really get to know where the downbeats are. Schumann shifts downbeats so it’s the performer’s job to know where all the bar lines are.’

Likewise, when it comes to Liszt, a bit of preparation never hurt anybody, she says. ‘Liszt knew how to make the piano ring out. The piano can get so loud very easily in his music. He writes lots of crescendos but very few diminuendos. So, to avoid the piece becoming a cacophony of sound and to make the crescendos really count, I make sure I always come down before each crescendo. Creating  a good dynamic range is so important to Liszt’s music.’ 


Franz Liszt (left) and Johannes Brahms


But while Ogawa may take special care building her crescendos in Liszt’s music, when it comes to Brahms, carefully demolishing them a gradation at a time is the key. ‘Brahms’s music is the most pessimistic in my opinion,’ she says. ‘He takes pages to build up but after the climax, he writes diminuendo very early. Climbing up to the peak, we have to come down very carefully.

‘They may be labelled the same but the Romantic composers are so different from one another. For me, Schumann is genuine and really personal, Chopin is the most “perfectly written” and Brahms is the most pessimistic with a difficult personality. Realising this, helps to inform my playing.’


The look of love

Pianist Lucy Parham: "As I’ve grown older, I find less is more."


Lucy Parham, an award-winning pianist whose popular concerts of words and music in the company of some of the UK’s greatest actors bring the Romantic composers to life, explains her approach to the music simply and powerfully. ‘I love you,’ she tells me. Not me, of course. Instead, she’s explaining how the sentiment at the heart of Romantic piano music can be subtly but powerfully conveyed.

‘You could declaim it or look the person in the eye and say it calmly and simply. The latter, I believe, is much more sincere. In fact, this quieter, more pared-down style of expression is, she says, how she has come to perform music of the Romantic era in general.

‘As I’ve grown older, I find less is more. A lot of what composers write speaks for itself. The pianist is simply the conduit; the means by which the composer speaks to us. However, especially when you’re younger and playing all this great music for the first time, you feel you must share your enjoyment of it and as result, the playing can be overblown.’

I suspect Chopin would agree and especially with what Lucy says next. ‘Good taste is paramount when playing, and never more so than when playing the music of the Romantic composers. You must resist layering on emotion like double-cream. Instead, beauty of sound is vital.’

And while the music can sometimes seem like a box of chocolates to be enjoyed without restraint, much of it conforms to Classical structures and disciplines, with all the restraint that implies, she says. ‘The early Romantics were influenced by Beethoven and Bach,’ says Parham. ‘There’s this all-pervading sense of structure. You have your four walls which you must respect.’

Of all the Romantic composers, Parham says the hardest to play is Chopin. ‘He’s like Romantic Mozart. He can expose every shortcoming in your technique and musicality. The control – physical and emotional – that he requires is huge.’
Which brings us back to that old tug of war between the head and the heart that characterises a performance of piano music not only from the Romantic era but any music concerned with universal concepts such as love and death.

Without one, there is no balance. With both, there is perfect harmony.

This article was taken from Pianist 109. Get your copy here.