Classical cut loose

Ahead of the Staatskapelle Dresden's performance on Saturday, we offer a primer on romantic music.

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Romantic music started with a bang - literally. Beethoven's groundbreaking Third "Eroica" Symphony of 1803 began with the whole orchestra playing a jolting chord twice at full volume, the musical equivalent of creeping up behind someone and shouting "Boo!" This shock of loud brass, strings and drum beats must have shaken the original audience out of their seats - and it was intended to. It woke the public up to a new musical style that tore up the old rule book, bringing a novel passion and intensity to western art music.

While the symphony's opening can still unnerve new listeners today, the musical movement it heralded remains a head-scratching puzzle to many. What, for example, is the difference between classical and romantic music? Is one part of the other, or are they totally different? And does romantic music automatically have a mood that fits with modern definitions of the romantic, like some early orchestral equivalent of Barry White?

For the curious but confused, help is at hand. These questions and many others will be explored at the Emirates Palace on Saturday at a round table discussion that examines the vexed question of exactly what romantic music is. To clarify in the most enjoyable way possible, a concert by Dresden's Staatskapelle follows the discussion, contrasting the classical style of Mozart and the later romanticism of Bruckner. The evening will give culture buffs a fantastic opportunity to both polish up their knowledge and hear some wonderful music. Meanwhile, for those who can't make it, here are a few pointers to help you sort your Mozart from your Berlioz.

The many meanings of the term "classical" are enough to give anyone brain fog. Most people use the term to describe any serious high cultural music from the 17th century to the present day. Music experts, however, often prefer to describe this tradition with the broad term "western art music". They use the term classical to describe a specific episode within western art music, dating roughly from Christoph Gluck's opera in the 1760s, through Mozart and Joseph Haydn up to Beethoven's early works. The deaf, shaggy-haired composer's mature works then initiated the next phase in western music, albeit one that Mozart's later works had already hinted at. This was the romantic period, which continued and developed throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, including such greats as Schubert, Wagner, Mahler, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But how did this new movement merit its name?

The scope of the term "romantic" has shrivelled woefully over the centuries, and its current use is linked almost exclusively to a particular idea of love whose trappings of red roses and meaningful looks are as formulaic as they are familiar. Back around 1800, however, the adjective described far more than romantic love. It came to describe a cultural movement whose groundbreaking passion reshaped Europe's cultural landscape like a volcanic eruption (which in itself is the sort of image the romantics were fond of). Romantic artists wished to examine the world at large through a prism of passionate, transformative emotion, to wonder at the power of nature and to celebrate intuition and imagination over rationalism. Reacting against the tidy, ordered world of 18th-century culture left shattered by industrialism and revolution, their works celebrated the irrational and the extreme, both in people and the natural word.

These trends cut across the arts. Romantic poets such as Byron thrilled Europe with their tales of high adventure, passion and revenge, while painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Théodore Géricault created images of humans dwarfed by a threatening, sublime natural world. Romantic composers arguably left an even greater mark on western culture, creating some of the most recognised pieces of music ever written. Many people who have never read Byron's poetry or Goethe's plays can easily identify the "da-da-da DA!" of the first bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

So how did these grand romantic impulses translate into musical notes on a page? Before romantic composers came along, classical pieces typically followed an established formula. They would start with a melody performed in a particular musical key, then move through a succession of other related keys until returning to the key they started in. Romantic composers stretched this formula to its limits: instead of gentle, clearly signposted key changes, their music made unexpected bold leaps to remote keys, often without preparing the audience musically for the shift. Indeed, later composers such as Mahler sometimes gave up returning to the original key at all.

This created sharp shifts in mood and tone, making romantic music more vivid and expressive. It was accompanied by great (at times almost bombastic) changes in volume and pace designed to shock listeners as much as to charm them. These dips and peaks and bold changes make romantic pieces into a transformative journey through a suite of emotions and settings.

If all this makes romantic music sound strangely close to a post-summer of love rock wig-out, the comparison isn't as far-fetched as it might seem. Romantic composers and musical virtuosos were the rock stars of their day, cutting loose from the restrictions that had contained their classical forebears. They created music that was not just deeply personal, but that helped foster a cult of personality around romanticism's prime movers.

This isn't to say that the music of classical composers such as Mozart or Haydn doesn't demonstrate a clear personal stamp. It's just that the situation they worked in was rather different. Classical composers generally needed to bag an aristocratic patron if they weren't going to starve. Haydn, for example, spent 29 years composing for the Esterhazy family; most of his music was performed in semi-private seclusion at their palace in the Hungarian borderlands. Haydn composed music that he hoped would help "the man burdened with affairs - enjoy a few moments of solace and refreshment", and his elegant, exquisitely lively music reflects the refined, intimate setting for which it was intended.

By Beethoven's period, which overleaped with the end of Haydn's career, things were changing fast. A network of concert halls was replacing the nobility's grand houses as the best place to hear new music. Popular with a bourgeois clientele, these concert halls earned successful composers enough cash to live without direct patronage, freeing them up to experiment and even encouraging them to sell themselves as brands.

While the new halls fostered romantic music, they also created a new brand of musician showman. Composer virtuosi such as the violinist Niccolo Paganini and the pianist Franz Liszt drew swooning crowds to their concerts while their private lives encouraged scandalous gossip that wouldn't look out of place in today's tabloids. Compared with the earlier centuries' more self-effacing musicians, the celebrity and self-publicity of these romantic figures seems surprisingly modern.

There's often something strikingly visual about romantic music. Close your eyes while listening and it suggests images: mountain streams, the sun rising over rocks, figures dancing, birdsong or storms. These suggestions are often intentional, as many romantic composers strove explicitly to use their music to evoke scenes from nature or suggest emotional states.

This musical impulse has long existed - the changing year mapped by Vivaldi's Four Seasons is a good example - but no one took it quite as far as the romantics. From Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which charted a lover's courtship and descent into madness, to Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, where the piano "paints" impressions of 10 different paintings viewed on a gallery wall, romantic music demonstrates a strong impulse to illustrate as well as to move.

Literature and folk culture also loomed large in romantic music. During a century when Europeans were increasingly leaving the country for the city, romantic composers cast a nostalgic glance back at the world they were losing, working traditional melodies into their scores and setting nature poetry and folk legends to music. The romantic search for roots in nature and a folksy past made it an ideal vehicle for nationalist feelings. Later romantic composers such as the Czech Bedrich Smetana and the Finn Jean Sibelius used folk myths and folklore of their native countries for inspiration, writing music that itself helped fire struggles for national independence.

The romantic repertoire is so large it would be ridiculous to pick out a few "greatest hits" as better than the rest. Here instead are five superlative sample pieces that give some impression of what the movement was about. Ludwig van Beethoven, Third "Eroica" Symphony (1803). Initially dedicated to Napoleon, this mould-shattering piece boasts constant innovation and huge variety of moods, from a triumphant graceful opening to the stately despair of its second movement's funeral march.

Franz Schubert, Winterreise (1827). Dark nature poetry from arguably the greatest romantic songwriter, this song cycle for male voice and piano explores a rejected lover's journey through a winter landscape. Frédéric Chopin, Four Ballades (1835-1843). Written by a composer who was a virtuoso, these unaccompanied piano pieces are complex enough to test the most skilled musician. Despite this, they still give an impression of effortless energy and melancholy tenderness.

Richard Wagner, Prelude to Tristan and Isolde (1859). The introduction to Wagner's greatest opera, this prelude's striking dissonances made it a landmark in western music and give it a haunting, unsettling beauty. Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs (1948). These exquisitely calm reflections on mortality - composed by Strauss at the age of 84 - are a last, splendid swansong to a musical tradition that had already fallen from vogue decades before they were written.