Connections Between Romantic Music and Art

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  • 0:00 The Romantic Movement
  • 0:26 Romantic Trends
  • 3:18 Nationalism & Nature
  • 5:54 Fantasy & Exoticism
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Romanticism was a 19th-century European movement that affected virtually all facets of the creative and performing arts. Learn about the connections between Romantic music and visual arts in this lesson.

The Romantic Movement and Romantic Trends

Romanticism was a Western cultural movement that began in the early 1800s as a reaction to the neoclassical love of reason and order that dominated the previous century. Romanticists were imaginative individuals who championed creativity and artistic freedom. The movement affected all forms of art, literature, and music in Europe, eventually spreading to the United States and other parts of the Western world.

Emotional Subjectivity

Within Romanticism, several key trends emerged. Let's explore some of the more common trends we'll see when looking at Romantic art and listening to Romantic music.

Capturing extreme emotional states was a hallmark of this era. French artist Théodore Géricault's painting 'The Raft of the Medusa' depicts a scene of intense suffering and desperation. This iconic work of French Romanticism shows an impending storm at sea that threatens the helpless and starving survivors of a shipwreck. Romantic painters, like Géricault, used bold colors and preferred to paint subjects in motion rather than static portraits or perfectly balanced scenes.

Romantic musicians liked using bold tone colors, a term that describes the unique sound of a musical instrument. To expand the tone color options available, several new instruments were added to the orchestra during this era, including a large amount of percussion instruments, like the triangle, as well as the tuba, concert harp, and celesta, a piano-like instrument that has a sound similar to that of a music box. With this rich orchestral palate, composers were able to create intensely emotional music.

One composer who took advantage of the expanded orchestra to create highly emotional melodies was Pyotr Tchaikovsky. His musical representation of the story of Romeo and Juliet perfectly captures both the passion of the young lovers and the fiery intensity of the sword fights between the dueling families.

Contemporary Events

Romantics often created art based on contemporary events, especially those related to politics. One example is Ludwig van Beethoven's third symphony. Originally composed as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whom Beethoven admired for his democratic ideals, Beethoven later ripped up his dedication page in anger after Napoleon declared himself emperor. Beethoven re-named his piece 'Heroic Symphony, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.' Most commonly known by its nickname, 'The Eroica,' this symphony is one of the early masterpieces of musical romanticism. The use of a descriptive title, rather than a generic one, is a particular hallmark of Romantic era music aimed towards inspiring the imagination. Like Géricault's painting, the music of this symphony involves intense expressions of emotion, changing from lighthearted cheerfulness to pained anguish in seconds.

'The Raft of the Medusa' was based on a contemporary event as well, the highly controversial 1816 shipwreck of a French naval vessel. The captain and chief naval officer saved themselves, abandoning 147 passengers on a hastily made raft. Only 15 survived.


The reason Beethoven was so upset about Napoleon's self-coronation was because he, along with many others, had believed that Napoleon was a champion of the common man. Democratic sentiments were sweeping the continent, and nationalism became an important factor in encouraging revolutionary activity. At the time, many Europeans were seeking independence from the monarchical rule that had dominated Europe for centuries, especially that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As citizens rebelled, contemporary painters helped promote nationalist agendas through their art by glorifying this revolutionary activity. A famous example of this is seen in Eugène Delacroix's 'Liberty Leading the People.' This painting depicts the allegorical figure of Liberty at the head of a motley crowd of French revolutionaries from all social classes. The painting is based on the July Revolution of 1830, a rebellion that dethroned King Charles X.

Some Romantic era composers, like Frédéric Chopin from Poland, wrote music that promoted nationalism by incorporating folk music. Many of Chopin's piano pieces are written in the style of Polish folk tunes and dances, like the mazurka. Other composers like Clara Wieck Schumann wrote music with allegorically political lyrics, like her song 'Forward!'. The title was the slogan for the German democratic movement, and the song became a rallying anthem for revolutionary activists during the political demonstrations of 1848 and 1849.


Attempting to capture the power and beauty of nature was a tempting challenge for artists and musicians alike. Czech composer Bedrich Smetana combined the themes of nationalism and nature in his work 'Die Moldau,' an orchestral piece that takes the listener on a musical journey along the river Vltava. It starts at the river's origin with two small mountain streams in the Czech countryside that combine to flow through the Bohemian forests and finally into the mighty river that surrounds the great city of Prague. Smetana recreates the flowing sounds of the river with a lush and rolling melody played by the string section of the orchestra, while the brass depict the ancient Czech fortresses and castles along the riverbank.

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