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  • Ian Dorich

Berlioz and Programmatic Music of the Romantic Era

Berlioz used Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julliet as the basis of his romantic era music

masterwork. The idea of using a story as composition was a key factor in the music of this time. Berlioz, a french composer, was well known for his other works such as Symphonie Fantastique which was dedicated to his infatuation for Harriet Smithson, a beautiful Shakespearean actress. Unfortunately, Smithson did not even attend his performance of this piece according to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique: Keeping Score. Similarly to Berlioz’s Romeo et Julliete, many other of his contemporaries used the Shakespearean play as a plot for their works such as Prokofieff’s and Tchaikovski’s musical interpretations of Romeo and Juliet. Because of the influences of other composers’ programmatic music as well as his own flavour, Berlioz was able to create his own rendition of Shakespear’s play.

Programmatic composition is the use of an outside narrative to drive the piece forward.

Programmatic music (the opposite of this being “absolute music” which is a composition that is written only for the sake of the music rather than having an external influence). These ideas in music actually go back to the baroque era but were popularized because of the piece Symphony No.6 - “Pastorale” by Beethoveen who was one of Berlioz’s greatest influences. This symphony depicts a “Merry Gathering of Peasants” that is interrupted by a “Tempest, storm” as mentioned in an article by NPR. Some other famous programmatic works include The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky as well as Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder which depicts Othello by Shakespeare (see below for larger list of programmatic examples). The use of programmatic composition has greatly influenced the music of the 19th and 20th centuries and is not a style that will most likely not seize to develop any time soon.

Berlioz was a french composer who grew up playing the guitar and the flute. He went to

school originally to study medicine like his family wanted but he dropped that career path to

study musical composition at Paris Conservatoire. Being A passionate fan of Beethoven, he

imitated much of his music although he wrote long melodies rather than using short motifs.

Berlioz went on to become a successful composer and conductor touring throughout Europe.

Using the techniques of programmatic music was a key factor of the romantic era. The

ability to tell or retell a story with the sound and depth of music allowed for composers to add another dimension to the drama and emotion in the art of the time. Through programmatic the excitement was driven for the revival of Shakespeare and the romanticism of historical and fictional events.

Examples of programmatic music:

1. Berlioz : "Roméo et Juliette" sous la direction de Daniele Gatti

2. Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture (Full with Cannons)

3. The Nutcracker Suite Full Album: Tchaikovsky

4. Beethoven - Symphony No. 6 (Proms 2012)

5. Berlioz : Symphonie Fantastique

6. Proms 2016 - Gustav Holst - The Planets [Edward Gardner, National Youth Orches...

7. Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture (Full with Cannons)


“Berlioz Music Scores.” Berlioz Romeo and Juliet,

“Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique: Keeping Score.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

Classic FM,

Gibbs, Christopher H. “Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68.” NPR, NPR, 12

June 2006,

“Hector Berlioz.”, A&E Networks Television, 17 May 2021,

“Romeo and Juliet (Hector Berlioz).” LA Phil,


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