Programme music – 1.The term and its meaning.


1. The term and its meaning.

The term ‘programme music’ was introduced by Liszt, who also invented the expression Symphonic poem to describe what is perhaps the most characteristic instance of it. He defined a programme as a ‘preface added to a piece of instrumental music, by means of which the composer intends to guard the listener against a wrong poetical interpretation, and to direct his attention to the poetical idea of the whole or to a particular part of it’. Very few of the programmes of Liszt’s own symphonic poems are of a narrative character. He did not regard music as a direct means of describing objects; rather he thought that music could put the listener in the same frame of mind as could the objects themselves. In this way, by suggesting the emotional reality of things, music could indirectly represent them. Such an idea – already familiar in the writings of Rousseau – was also expressed by Beethoven when he described the Pastoral Symphony as ‘mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerey’ (‘more the expression of feeling than painting’).

The close connection in some of Liszt’s thinking between ‘narrative’ and ‘emotional’ depiction has led to confusion over the use of the term ‘programme music’. Some prefer to attach the term purely to instrumental music with a narrative or descriptive ‘meaning’ (for example, music that purports to depict a scene or a story). Others have so broadened its application as to use the term for all music that contains an extra-musical reference, whether to objective events or to subjective feelings. The responsibility for this broadening of the term lies partly with Friedrich Niecks, whose romantic enthusiasm caused him to overlook, in his influential work on the subject (1907), the vital aesthetic distinction between representation and expression. It is the narrow sense of the term which is the legitimate one. The other sense is not only so wide as to be virtually meaningless; it also fails to correspond to the actual usage of composers and critics since Liszt’s invention of the term.

Programme music, which has been contrasted with Absolute music, is distinguished by its attempt to depict objects and events. Furthermore, it claims to derive its logic from that attempt. It does not merely echo or imitate things which have an independent reality; the development of programme music is determined by the development of its theme. The music moves in time according to the logic of its subject and not according to autonomous principles of its own. As Liszt wrote: ‘In programme music … the return, change, modification, and modulation of the motifs are conditioned by their relation to a poetic idea …. All exclusively musical considerations, though they should not be neglected, have to be subordinated to the action of the given subject’ (Schriften, iv, 69).

Liszt thought of himself as putting forward a new ideal for symphonic music, an ideal that had been foreshadowed in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and in certain works of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Berlioz, but which he nevertheless thought to be absent from the body of classical music. He considered the idea of exalting the narrative associations of music into a principle of composition to be incompatible with the continuance of traditional symphonic forms. The term ‘programme music’ came to be applied not only to music with a story but also to music designed to represent a character (Strauss’s Don Juan and Don Quixote) or to describe a scene or phenomenon (Debussy’s La mer). What is common to all these is the attempt to ‘represent’ objects in music; but a certain confusion has entered the use of the term by its application to any form of musical ‘depiction’, whether instrumental, or vocal, or incidental to an action on the stage. Properly speaking, however, programme music is music with a programme. Further, to follow Liszt’s conception, programme music is music that seeks to be understood in terms of its programme; it derives its movement and its logic from the subject it attempts to describe. On that view it would be wrong to call, for example, Couperin’s Le tic-toc-choc a piece of programme music. The logic of Couperin’s piece is purely musical, even if its thematic material is derived from the imitation of a clock. By contrast, the logic of Liszt’s symphonic poem Tasso is (according to the composer) derived from the events of Tasso’s life: it is the sequence of those events, and their intrinsic nature, that dictate the development of the music. (But it should be said that Liszt’s own programme music did not always follow his own theoretical precepts.)

However the term is used, it is clear that the idea of music’s representing something is essential to the concept of programme music. It is important to understand, therefore, what might be meant by ‘representation’ in music. The first distinction to make is that between representation and Expression. It is only recently that attempts have been made to formulate the distinction with any precision, and there is no agreement as to the relation between the terms. But that a distinction exists seems obvious to any lover of the arts. A painting may represent a subject (the Crucifixion, say) and it may also express an emotion towards that subject. To represent a subject is to give a description or characterization of it: it is to say (in words or in images) what the subject is like. Such a description may or may not be accompanied by an expression of feeling. Furthermore, there can be expressions of emotion that are not accompanied by representation. Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music is certainly an expression of grief, but it contains no attempt to represent or describe the object of grief. It has been argued that all music expresses emotion. If that is so, then, unless some distinction can be made between representation and expression, all music would have to be regarded as representational. To say that would lead to the conclusion that there is no essential distinction between music and painting in their relation to the world.

It is a matter of dispute whether music is capable of literally representing its subject, in the way that painting and literature represent theirs. What passes for representation might often be more accurately described as ‘imitation’, as when a piece of music mimics the sound of a cuckoo. That there is a difference between representation and imitation is clear. An architectural detail can imitate the curve of a seashell without becoming a representation; or a man can imitate another’s manner without representing it. Representation is essentially descriptive: it involves a reference to objects in the world and an attempt to describe them. Imitation is merely copying, and its intention may be no more than decorative. Examples of musical imitation have abounded from the very beginning of music. Indeed, both Plato and Aristotle ascribed an imitative character to the music of their time. It is nonetheless debatable whether music is made representational by imitation alone. Certainly Liszt had more than mere imitation in mind when he introduced the concept of programme music.

It is seldom clear what is meant when it is said that music can represent things. The question arises whether music can actually describe the world or whether it is merely evocative. If representation in music were merely a matter of evocation, it would be misleading to describe it as representation, for that would imply an unwarranted analogy with the descriptive arts of literature and painting. That is why Liszt insisted that true programme music had a narrative or descriptive element which was essential to the understanding of it. In other words, for Liszt the subject has become part of the meaning of the music; to listen to the music with false associations was, in Liszt’s view, actually to misunderstand it. Whether or not there is ‘programme music’ in Liszt’s sense, it is clear that it would provide the most plausible example of representation in music. It is further clear that in its strictest sense programme music does not include music that is merely expressive, imitative or evocative. It is doubtful even whether Debussy’s La mer is a description rather than an evocation of its subject, although the titles of the movements seem to suggest a certain ‘narrative’ component to its meaning (for example, one of the movements is entitled ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’, which prompted Satie to remark that he particularly liked the moment at 11.15).

Programme music must further be distinguished from the ‘representational’ music that accompanies words, whether in lieder, in oratorio or on the stage. While all these share devices with programme music and have influenced it continuously throughout the history of music, it is still necessary to distinguish music that purports to carry its narrative meaning within itself from music that is attached to a narrative arising independently, whether through the words of a song or through the action of a dramatic work. The distinction is not absolute, but, unless it is made, the idea of programme music as a separate genre must remain entirely illegitimate.

Opusalb by Grove dictionary

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