Program music: Subject and meaning

Program music is a tricky thing to experience. Whether conducting it, performing it, listening to it or even composing it, it is difficult to avoid falling into a sort of extra-musical purgatory from which emergence is often difficult.

This kind of music has two chief concerns. The first is its genesis: it was a product of the Romantic, pioneered by Liszt and a cornerstone of the ‘Music of the Future.’ The goal of the romantics was hyper-emotional expression, with an emphasis on individuality. Sometimes this meant musical individuality, but it often meant that of the composer—and his ego. Thus it became entirely possible for the subject of program music, whether heroic or tragic, to be a representation of the composer himself rather than a musical exploration of an extra-musical subject such as literature, art or history.

The second concern was the place of this kind of music within the scope of musical form. Program music sat comfortably (perhaps uncomfortably!) at the intersection of absolute music—pure, some would say—and storytelling. The former was, in orchestral terms, expressed most powerfully by the symphony, which was fast becoming a cornerstone of concert and compositional culture as Beethoven’s life drew to a close and the first wave of romantics, including Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Wagner, began to mature. As the symphony orchestra became independent and concert culture evolved, the symphony took on new meanings—and new dimensions. Its evolution into a vehicle for program music was an intriguing form of intellectual and musical currency, albeit only one side of a very large coin.

The latter became increasingly complex. Music had always been used as a storytelling device, and it crossed boundaries very easily. Stories were told around campfires with singing and dancing; this had always been true. Folk-songs were story-telling devices almost as a rule. Opera had found a way to marry music, drama and literature in an entirely new way and was two centuries old by the time the Romantic era began. And even the Catholic Church, with their strict rules about…well, everything…had room for musical storytelling: forms such as the Miserere and Stabat Mater were very popular among composers.

Program music was not always about a story, of course. It sometimes dealt with ideas and philosophies, specific emotions and experiences. A linear narrative was not necessary; but imagery abounded, aided by the unbridled passions of the romantic composer and the ever-expanding orchestra and art of orchestration.

So with program music, where does the musician or listener begin? For that matter, where does a composer begin? The latter is an intriguing question with which to begin. First is the selection of the subject. It is an idea? Is it an existing work, such as a painting or character from a novel? Is the goal to recreate faithfully the inspiration for the music, or to merely suggest it through imagery? Is it an interpretation of that work or a reimagining of it? And then what should the audience listen for? Which is more powerful—symbolism or literal meaning?

Some composers’ intentions seemed clearer than others. The opening of Strauss’ Don Juan is brimming with bravado and virility; it is not only clear that Strauss is introducing us to the legendary lover but that the composer has definite ideas as to what kind of lover he is. We may hear clearly that this man, Don Juan, loves love, loves women, and is a master of seduction. We understand immediately that this is not the scoundrel of Mozart’s opera but the complex protagonist from the original story—with, perhaps, a slightly Straussian influence.

Other times we are entirely unclear as to where we are in a story—or what that story is! In the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, we are informed by the title ‘The Kalendar Prince’ of the subject for the movement. The story involves a young Prince and his misadventures following the escape of a coup-d’état. Rimsky-Korsakov spins a magnificent web of sound, with brilliant orchestration and virtuosic exclamations from every section of the orchestra. It is marvelously exciting music and wonderfully written. But alas—there seems to be no hint of the Prince himself, or anything resembling a narrative of any kind! To try and find one or interpret the program literally is utterly confounding.  

This is where the matter of music interpretation comes into play, along with a host of questions. How intimately acquainted with the original subject matter should the musician be? Is it part of a larger tradition? Such is the case with Don Juan, which Mozart set to great effect, and Strauss revered Mozart; so is it fair to ask whether Strauss was influenced not only by Molina and Byron but by Mozart as well? What of the context of a movement or motif in a larger work? With Scheherazade it is clear that the second movement is not a literal musical telling of the Kalendar story; perhaps the movement is about Scheherazade’s telling of the story rather than the story itself? But then, though the work evokes the mysticism of the Orient, it is at its heart Russian—so, then, should it sound ‘authentically’ Oriental or authentically Russian? Ah, the questions!

There is yet another matter that arises from the performance of programmatic music, and that is music which has been taken from a dramatic work. The orchestral repertoire is full of overtures and suites taken from ballet, opera and stage plays.

How does the meaning of the music change by being transported from the stage to the concert hall? Clearly the audience is now tasked with shifting their attention from singers or dancers to the orchestra. And how should the orchestra respond? After all, they are no longer accompanying theater but are now the main attraction. Certain considerations made necessary due to the technical concerns of accompanying may, in theory, no longer apply. Suddenly a written p, necessary so as not to drown out a singer, may be played mp or mf. Shall the dynamic be altered or will it remain p with a different quality and color? Similarly, a tempo may be adjusted: Allegro with the quarter at precisely 126 may be perfect for a performance with dancers, but with an orchestra on its own it may change. Would going slightly faster (assuming it sounded good!) change the music drastically or give a better or worse effect? Would new meanings reveal themselves? Ah, there is the magic!

In the end, we may be left with one important question: Does program music tell the story of the story—or the story itself?