Programmatic versus Absolute Music: Part 1

In the early 19th century, a debate had already started about what music should be as an art form. You can’t touch or see it, and it begins and ends, but can be repeated. This intangibility and finite nature made it difficult to define it, and having an opinion on this matter became fashionable and important for writers, performers and appreciators of music. Two general aesthetics emerged: Programmatic music and absolute music. Should music be loved for its craftsmanship, and be rendered untouchable, above our personal feelings and the changing events of the world around us? Or should it be harnessed as a powerful tool to tell a very specific story, even if that story may lose its subtleties as its audience changes?

For example, let’s say you’re you’re feeling sad about a particular thing, such as a rain storm that ruined your plans to go on a walk today (only semi-autobiographical). You then write a piece of music to express your specific sad experience of the rainy day, and put in plenty of word painting describe rain, write instrumental lines that reflect falling rain, thunder and other aspects. You even take painstaking efforts to express other things around you like a phone ringing, someone else talking in the other room, perhaps a TV upstairs or a bird outside, replicating the experience as much as you can. Your personal reactions will of course be there too. That composition will now only apply to you and your rainy day, and although people may enjoy listening to it, they’ll never experience it quite as you intended because they weren’t there, and they aren’t you.

Is this okay? What about writing a piece of music that, even if it’s inspired by an experience of personal sadness, is still open-ended enough to appeal to a listener just with its harmonies, melodies, form, and other aspects related to music as a science? Then, whether you were there or not, you can get what feels like a full experience of listening to the music without needing context, program notes and a biography of the composer to understand it fully.

This is the central point of debate for composers around the turn of the 19th century. What is music’s purpose as an art form? Let’s see what various well-known composers did in response to it. We’ll begin with Mendelssohn and Berlioz today and continue on the topic in later entries.

Felix Mendelssohn

While his most enduring legacy is his compositions, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a great instrumental player, conductor, music historian, writer, teacher, founder and director of what’s still one of Europe’s most respected music conservatories (Leipzig Conservatoire), and painter. Scholarly research of his life raises interesting questions surrounding his pristine, nearly superhuman reputation–multitalented, excelling at everything he did, kind, intelligent and free of scandals–but that’s a topic for another blog series. For now, let’s talk about some of his most famous compositions and how they show a nearly 50-50 balance between programmatic and absolute music.

Mendelssohn’s compositions balance his passion for musicology, Bach’s counterpoint, and compositional methods from earlier periods with his Romantic-era bias for a good story. To well-crafted counterpoint and meticulous harmonic progressions, Mendelssohn adds emotional heft, personal feelings and descriptions of things in the world around him. His works satisfy our brain’s need for logic and our imagination’s need for adventure all at once.

Midsummernight’s Dream: Incidental Music

Mendelssohn composed his famous Midsummernight’s Dream incidental music to accompany a reading of the famous Shakespeare play. This means that it was never intended to be performed by itself, but as a part of something else, a different art form (theatre) fused with music. This is a great example of highly programatic music, literally telling the story of the play. As you listen you can hear Mendenssohn’s musical interpretations of four main characters sleeping in the woods, fairies flying around them, even a donkey, and that’s just in the overture, or introduction.

Other notable movements are the nocturne, which is played while the characters sleep again, because it doesn’t make use of the character motifs. It is an example of more absolute music, music for its own sake, in the middle of the play, and it’s one of the most popular movements to be played alone in concert. The wedding march, meant to accompany a wedding on stage, is now one of the most popular choices at real weddings in the Western world today. While this music was meant to be stuck to its play, the quality of the music by itself pulled it away and suites of this music-usually the Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne ad Wedding March-are still a concert staple today.

The Hebrides: Fingal’s Cave Overture

Mendelssohn spent much of his professional life in the UK, premiering works, conducting, performing and on scholarly business. The lure of its natural beauty, folklore and culture influenced his writing significantly. This overture is inspired by his visit to the Hebrides, an island chain off of Scotland’s rugged upper West coast. There, the wind is fierce, rain falls sideways, and the cliffs are steep and awe-inspiring. As part of a concert tour in Scotland, Mendelssohn took a boat trip to see Fingal’s Cave at the recommendation of his sister, who had visited before. Fingal’s cave is enormous, filled with naturally occurring hexagonal basalt pillars, and looks like a manmade concert hall. It’s even supposed to have excellent acoustics. Mendelssohn may not have even set foot on the island, having probably only seen the cave from the boat, but he jotted down what would be the opening theme of the Hebrides Overture while on the boat and completed the overture soon after his return.

Mendelssohn’s own experience at the cave was probably brief, and the influence his trip had on the music itself is atmospheric at most. One can imagine mystery, awe, and water (running notes in the strings) in his opening melody that he supposedly jotted down at the scene, but everything else– the gales of wind (loud tutti passages with percussion), imposing rock (brass chorales), and contrasting themes– was composed afterward. What the actual experience couldn’t contribute, his compositional talent made up for, and this work is another example of a balanced meeting between programmatic music and absolute music.

Hector Berlioz

French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is one of Western music’s most amusing and unique personalities. In short, he was highly driven by emotion, with his music inspired directly by his active pursuit of dreams and love. He did things his way, in his musical language, staying absolutely true to the way it happened in his head, his experience, and this was polarizing. Berlioz was a member of the highest circles of music performance, composition and conducting alongside other titans of European music like Schubert and Rossini and Mendelssohn, so his music got lots of attention. However, many people during his time did not like what they heard; it sounded nothing like music other people were writing. Harmony, counterpoint and timing were idiosyncratic and followed unusual patterns. Today, Berlioz’s music is popular and seen as ahead of its time. Perhaps Berlioz should have lived a generation or two later, and then he would have been right at home.

Symphony Fantastique

At the highly emotional age of 22, Berlioz fell intensely, obsessively in love with Shakespearian actress Harriet Smithson, whom he met through professional engagements. She initially rejected his heartfelt and desperate wooing attempts, and although they did eventually marry, it eventually fell apart. During the period in which she rejected Berlioz initially, he wrote this now famous work for orchestra. It is based on dreams that he had, his own suffering, and things that he wished could happen to him. It is a “dramatic symphony,” a multi movement symphonic work that tells a specific story.

The movements all have narrative titles, making storytelling even easier:

  • 1. Reveries and Passions: Berlioz introduces a young, emotionally fragile artist/musician (sound familiar?), who meets the woman of his dreams and falls desperately in love with her.
  • 2. A Ball: The artist can’t shake the image of the woman he loves. This movement describes a dance, or a ball, where the artist can’t forget about her despite his efforts to have fun.
  • 3. Scene in the Countryside: Two shepherds converse over a long distance using pipes (represented by oboe and english horn in the music). They speak of the first shepherd’s desire to be optimistic and to one day have a companion. Doubt and pessimism constantly force their way in and there’s a storm. After the storm, the first shepherd is alone; his friend has left.
  • 4. March to the Scaffold: After a frenzied march to guillotine, the artist is publicly and dramatically murdered. The graphic nature of the movement goes as far as to depict his head bouncing down the stairs to the scaffold!
  • 5. The Witches’ Sabbath: Now in Hell, the artists happens upon hoards of witches and other terrifying creatures that have gathered for his funeral. The woman he loved arrives at the funeral to mock him as well. The movement is sarcastic, dancelike, and boisterous.

Berlios coined the term idee fixe, meaning a motif that represents someone or something, to aid the narrative of his works. Symphony Fantastique has an idee fixe that represents his love for the woman. It appears in every movement to unify them, but shows the development of the story by changing in character. Listen to the very opening of the symphony; the first melody played is the idee fixe. Its off-kilter rhythmic structure strikes me as youthful, excited, and earnest. When it reappears in the ball, it is still optimistic and carefree. In the countryside, it begins to change form into something darker. By the march to the scaffold, it has become a perverse, rhythmic battle cry. In the witches’ dance, it is a sardonic taunt. This adds another level of narrative value and unity to the otherwise highly contrasting movements of Symphony Fantastique.

If you like Berlioz, you may also enjoy his other dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, or L’Enfance du Christ, another work for orchestra and solo singers depicting the events leading up to birth of Christ. Both of these works are great examples of Berlioz’s unique language.

1 thought on “Programmatic versus Absolute Music: Part 1

  1. […] of the tone poem, literally a story told in music, was fashionable, having been used by Berlioz who we discussed in regards to his Fantastic Symphony. Smetana was also living during a time of rallying for Slavic pride and heritage in his native […]


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