The 19th century is distinguished by the restoration of 1814/1815 and the Viennese congress, the following revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the progress of democratization. It is the age of Industrialization, of machines and railroads, of urbanization and an increasing impoverishment, the forlornness of the individual in an anonymous society.
In musical history terms it is the century of Romanticism. Already in Beethoven’s work many romantic aspects reveal themselves, he acts as a formative and exemplary figure for the whole 19th century. Romanticism emanates from the tonal language, the genres and the harmony of the classical period, both periods share their foundation in the ideals of humanitarism and the idea of the purpose-free character and the self legality of music whose only ambition is the embodiment of pure humanity.
However, a new poetic, metaphysical element enters. Music gains religious traits with the intention to pull in and overpower the listener, and is regarded as a force with extrasensory powers combined with subjective inwardness. Interest in mysticism, mythology, the exotic and miraculous, adventure, privation, misfortune and the inevitable grows. The depths of the soul are explored poetically-artistically, later also scientifically. A completely new relation to nature develops, the sublime and an overpowering, strong beauty and power are sensed. The artist tries to find an expression for these sentiments and the genius of nature.
A preference for folklore and heroic legends encourages the development of different, independent national musical styles, influenced by the respective folk music. The folk song presumes the idea of an anonymous traditional poetry, the art song liberates itself of the simple, popular stanza. In the through-composed song with a corresponding piano voice the composer attempts a close connection between music and lyrics.
With Beethoven instrumental music has gained the primacy over vocal music. The advanced, technically improved instruments allow new sound mixtures and increased dynamic contrasts. The symphony now concentrates to link all movements with song-like themes, the sonata pattern is stretched or dissolved. Especially in piano music new small forms develop, e.g. the nocturne, songs without words, intermezzi, impromptus. The piano concert develops into a symphony with a virtuoso solo instrument, chamber music is dominated by the string quartet. Berlioz creates the program symphony, which becomes exemplary, defined by new effects in instrumentation, characteristical, leitmotif-like turns and a mostly poetic program. Inspired by poetry Wagner attempts a unity of the arts in the „Gesamtkunstwerk“ (complete art work) opera. The prelude takes the place of the overture, the music of the opera flows fluently and uninterrupted to support the dramatic action. Verdi is the established master of the Italian opera of the 19th century, following his own ways and using the great vigor of the south Italian melody. Starting from Paris the new genre operetta reaches the European capitals. Chamber music is increasingly cultivated.
Art and music are supported by the so-called „Bildungsbürgertum“ (educated bourgeoisie) with its highly differing claims, and so besides high pieces of art much musical kitsch occurs. Duplication methods and consumption help to promote instruments and sheet music like never before, the technical thinking of the age of industrialization is reflected in the thriving instrumental technique.