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Program music

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Program music is music intended to evoke extra-musical ideas, images in the mind of the listener by musically representing a scene, image or mood [1]. By contrast, absolute music stands for itself and is intended to be appreciated without any particular reference to the outside world. The term is almost exclusively applied to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic music period of the 19th century, during which the concept was popular, but pieces which fit the description have long been a part of music. The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics), and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder.


History of program music

Renaissance Period

Composers of the Renaissance wrote a fair amount of program music, especially for the harpsichord, including works such as Martin Peerson's The Fall of the Leafe and William Byrd's The Battell. For the latter work, the composer provided this written description of the sections: "Souldiers sommons, marche of footemen, marche of horsmen, trumpetts, Irishe marche, bagpipe and the drone, flute and the droome, marche to the fighte, the battels be joyned, retreat, galliarde for the victorie."

Baroque period

Probably the most famous work of the Baroque era is Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons a set of four concertos for violin and string orchestra that illustrate the seasons of the year with rain, buzzing flies, chilly winds, treading on ice, dancing peasants, and so on[2]. The program of the work is made explicit in a sequence of four sonnets written by the composer. Another well-known Baroque program work is Johann Sebastian Bach's Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, BWV 992, whose sections have charming descriptive titles ("Friends gather and try to dissuade him from departing," "They picture the dangers which may befall him," "The Friends' Lament," "Since he cannot be dissuaded, they say farewell," "Aria of the Postilion," "Fugue in Imitation of the Postilion's horn.")

Classical era

Program music was perhaps less often composed in the Classical era. At this time, perhaps more than any other, music achieved drama from its own internal resources, notably in works written in sonata form. It is thought, however, that a number of Joseph Haydn's earlier symphonies may be program music; for example, the composer once said that one of his earlier symphonies represents "a dialogue between God and the Sinner". It is not known which of his symphonies Haydn was referring to. A minor Classical-era composer, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, wrote a series of symphonies based on Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Romantic period

Program music particularly flourished in Romantic era. As it can invoke in the listener a specific experience other than sitting in front of a musician or musicians, it is related to the purely Romantic idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk describing Wagner's Operas as a fusion of many arts (set design, choreography, poetry and so on), although it relies solely on musical aspects to illustrate a multi-faceted artistic concept such as a poem or a painting. Composers believed that the dynamics of sound that were newly possible in the Romantic orchestra of the era allowed them to focus on emotions and other intangible aspects of life much more than during the Baroque or Classical eras.

Beethoven felt a certain reluctance in writing program music, and said of his 1808 Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) that the "whole work can be perceived without description it is more an expression of feelings rather than tone-painting"[3]. Yet the work clearly contains depictions of bird calls, a babbling brook, dancing peasants, a storm, and so on. Beethoven later returned to program music with his Piano Sonata Op. 81a, Les Adieux, which depicts the departure and return of his close friend the Archduke Rudolph.

Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique was a musical narration of a hyperbolically emotional love story he wrote himself. Franz Liszt did provide explit programs for many of his piano pieces, but he is also the inventor the symphonic poem. In 1874, Modest Mussorgsky composed using only the dynamic range of one piano a series of pieces describing seeing a gallery of ten of his friend's paintings and drawings in his Pictures at an Exhibition, later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. The French composer Camille Saint-Sans wrote many short pieces of program music which he called Tone Poems. His most famous are probably the Danse Macabre and several movements from the Carnival of the Animals. The composer Paul Dukas is perhaps best known for his tone poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice, based on a tale from Goethe.

Possibly the most adept at musical depiction in his program music was the German composer Richard Strauss, whose symphonic poems include Tod und Verklrung (portraying a dying man and his entry into heaven), Don Juan (based on the ancient legend of Don Juan), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (based on episodes in the career of the legendary German figure Till Eulenspiegel), Don Quixote (portraying episodes in the life of Cervantes' character, Don Quixote), Ein Heldenleben (which depicts episodes in the life of an unnamed hero often taken to be Strauss himself) and Sinfonia Domestica (which portrays episodes in the composer's own married life, including putting the baby to bed). Strauss is reported to have said that music can describe anything, even a teaspoon![1]

Twentieth century

In the twentieth century, Alban Berg's Lyric Suite was thought for years to be beingst is abstract music, but it been discovered it was in fact dedicated to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, and George Perle discovered in 1977 that the last movement contained a setting of a poem by Baudelaire [4]. He based important leitmotifs on their initials: ABHF for Alban Berg (A.B.) and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (H.F.).

Popular music as program music

The word "program music" is not used while speaking of popular music. The tradition of purely orchestral program music is continued in pieces for jazz orchestra, most notably several pieces by Duke Ellington. Instrumental pieces in popular music often have a descriptive title which suggests that they could be categorized as program music. Also lots of instrumental albums that have been related that are completely devoted to some programmatic idea (for example China by Vangelis or Songs of the Distant Earth by Mike Oldfield). Genres of popular music that often have music that could be seen as program music include ambient, new age, surf rock, jazz fusion, progressive rock, art rock and various genres of techno music.

Is all music program music?

Some people and theories argue that there is indeed no such thing as true "absolute music" and that music always at least conveys or evokes emotions. While non-professional listeners often claim that music has meaning (to them), "new" musicologists, such as Susan McClary (1999), argue that so called "abstract" techniques and structures are actually highly politically and socially charged, specifically, even gendered. This may be linked to a more general argument against abstraction, such as Mark Johnson's argument that it is, "necessary...for abstract have a bodily basis." (McClary, 1991) However, a more loosely specific definition of absolute music as music which was not composed with a programatic intent or plan in mind may be adopted.

More traditional listeners often reject these views sharply, asserting that music can be meaningful, as well as deeply emotional, while being essentially about itself (notes, themes, keys, and so on), and without any connection to the political and societal conflicts of our own day.

As such, most classical music is absolute music, as is suggested by titles which often consist simply of the type of composition, a numerical designation within the composer's oeuvre, and its key. Bach's Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Minor, BWV 1060; Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major (Opus 92) are all examples of absolute music.

Program music was quite popular during the romantic era. Many mainstream "classical" works are unequivocally program music, such as Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony, which is a musical description of ascending and descending a mountain, with 22 section titles such as "Night," "Sunrise," "By the Waterfall," "In Thicket and Underbrush on the Wrong Path," "Summit," "Mists Rise," and "Storm and Descent." Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is clearly program music, too, with titled movements and instrumental depictions of bird calls, country dances, and a storm. Some might criticize Disney's animators for providing a pictorial interpretation of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but nobody can deny an extramusical association for Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. During the twentieth century, the increased influence of modernism and other anti-Romantic trends contributed to a decline in esteem for program music, but audiences continued to enjoy such pieces as Arthur Honegger's depiction of a steam locomotive in Pacific 231. Also, program music lives on in movie soundtracks, which often feature ultra-modern sounding atonal programmatic music.

Music that is composed to accompany opera and ballet is, of course, program music, even when presented separately as a concert piece. Aaron Copland was amused when a listener said that when she listened to Appalachian Spring she "could see the Appalachians and feel Spring," the title having been a last-minute thought, but it is certainly program music. Film scores are always program music, and some of them, such as Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky, have found a place in the classical concert repertoire.

And, of course, there is music that falls in between, with titles that clearly suggest an extramusical association, but no detailed story that can be followed and no musical passages that can be unequivocally identified with specific images. Examples would include Dvořk's Symphony No. 9, From the New World or Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, Eroica.

In popular music, by contrast, the norm is programmatic music, usually vocal. A common term for non-vocal popular music, and thus for practical purposes a term for absolute music in a popular context, is "instrumental" or "instrumental section".

While the debate is of interest to many, for practical purposes most scholars use the term "program music" in the narrower sense described above.

Symphonic poems

Single movement orchestral pieces of program music are often called symphonic poems.

See also


Further reading

  • Junot, Philippe (?). "The New Paragone: Paradoxes and Contradictions of Pictorial Musicalism" in Morton and Schmunk, p.28-29.

External links


  1. ^ Richard Strauss Biography. URL accessed on 2006-04-26.

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