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.
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.
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.
Painters like John Constable, recreated sweeping landscapes, like 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows,' painted in 1831. Arching over this idyllic scene is the rainbow surrounding the cathedral, which lends a fantasy-like quality to the scene. This brings us to the next trend.
Realms of Fantasy
An exploration of all things fantastic, including the idyllic, the irrational, the world of dreams, and the surreal, was encouraged during the Romantic era. Sometimes, the imagery was lighthearted, like Constable's cathedral or Felix Mendelssohn's musical depiction of mischievous fairies in his overture to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'
Sometimes, the realms of fantasy took a much darker turn. Francisco de Goya's painting 'Witches' Sabbath' depicts a coven of witches holding a black Sabbath ritual, the same subject composer Hector Berlioz chose for the fifth movement of his 'Fantastic Symphony', titled 'Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath.'
With the imaginative realms of fantasy came a fascination with the exotic. As intercontinental travel conditions improved, painters and musicians tried to capture the sights and sounds of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Many Romantic era composers experimented with adding exotic sounds to their compositions by avoiding traditional Western scales, creating unusual harmonies, and using innovative compositional practices. A famous example of exoticism is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic poem based on the story 'Arabian Nights.' The most famous movement from this piece is Scheherazade, a musical depiction of the legendary harem storyteller who kept herself alive through her ability to charm a cruel emperor with her enthralling tales. Scheherazade was also a popular subject for Romantic painters, including Sophie Anderson.
Romanticism was an artistic movement that affected the visual and musical arts during the 19th century. There were several key trends that helped to define the Romantic era.
Emotional subjectivity involved representing people in extreme emotional states. In music, this often involved using a full orchestra for power and a variety of instrumental tone colors, as is heard in Tchaikovsky's 'Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture'. Painters used bold colors to capture subjects in motion as in the 'Raft of the Medusa'.
Romantics were often involved in political movements like nationalism, using their music and art to promote revolutionary activity. For example, Delacroix's painting 'Liberty Leading the People' was a response to a revolutionary uprising that toppled King Charles X of France, while Beethoven's third symphony was composed as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte. Nationalism was also reflected in composers' use of folk music in compositions and their creation of rallying political anthems.
Romantics often turned to nature and realms of fantasy for inspiration. Smetana used a flowing string melody to recreate the sound of the Vlatva river, while Mendelssohn used the same instruments to represent mischievous fairies flying through the forest. Sometimes, the fantastic took a darker turn, like Francisco de Goya's painting of witches at a black Sabbath, which was the same subject composer Berlioz chose for the fifth movement of his 'Fantastic Symphony'. Finally, Romantics were often fascinated with the exotic, and brought the sights and sounds of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to Europe through their music and art.
Once you finish the video, you should be able to:
- Define Romanticism
- Explain what emotional subjectivity is and how Romantic artists and musicians portrayed it
- Describe how artists were inspired by contemporary events
- Discuss the impact of nationalism on Romantic art
- Compare how nature was captured by musicians and artists
- Recall the inspiration of fantasy and exoticism in Romantic art and music