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? 

The industrial nature of art.

I recently came across a posting which printed a letter written by Oscar Wilde to a fan who found curious the following line in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”

True to his witty and sartorial nature, Wilde replied: 

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde

It is difficult to know if Wilde was being serious or, per usual, tongue in cheek with the flower analogy. However, if he was indeed being serious, he missed a wonderful chance to elucidate about art. A flower is absolutely useful: it provides a brilliant canvas upon a meadow which serves to attract all manner of life. It also provides pollen which sustains bees and butterflies who, in turn, pollinate other life, keeping nature in perfect working order. And a flower gives off seeds which allow future generations to grow and flourish! Finally, a flower may be unique to a certain environment or locale, ensuring that one may identify his surroundings. And so art is to us: it provides us a canvas upon which to express our experiences in life; it allows us to share ideas with others; it provides life for future generations, and a path for those who may lose their way; and, finally, it is both universal and unique to culture and country, allowing us to identify and empathize. Perhaps it is the so-called industry of mankind, which so often struggles to value art, which is most useless to nature. 

Music: The Universal Language and the miracle of Notation

“Music is the universal language!”

So begin countless speeches and essays. It is a popular sentiment, spoken and written by musicians, music lovers and community leaders the world over. It may be a rallying cry to save music education; it may be the opening salvo at a gala; it may be the first line of a dissertation or biography. Music is the universal language–the, not a. It is an absolute. 

Music is the universal language–even western art music, so often referred to as ‘classical music’ and increasingly maligned as elitist and out of touch. In fact, despite this accusation, one may say that it is especially western art music which is universal, as it seeks to express human emotion and idealism through sound. But it is the frequency and often casual nature with which the sentiment of universality is expressed which tends to detract from the power of that very message. Are we fully aware of just how awesome this force is–and how lucky we are to have such a system of codification?

Musical notation is often considered by non-musicians to be a mystic language.Even trained–and, dare I say it, professional–musicians some times take it for granted. Musical notation contains a vast amount of information. It has certainly evolved over the centuries, not least of all due to reasons of practical culture. To read one of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s encyclopedic ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ would seem to a lay-person to be devoid of direction, especially if it were being compared to a page of a symphony by Mahler; but this is where oral tradition would have taken precedent in the age of Bach, as he would expect the musician playing his work to understand the style and thus be able to make informed decisions almost instantly. Returning to our comparison with the latter is perhaps a bit unfair, speaking musicological, given not only the century and a half between the creation of Bach’s magnum opus and the symphonic career of Mahler, but the radical shifts in culture and practice, musical and general. Allowing ourselves this comparison, for the sake of argument, we are taken from a single musician playing in a style to a society of musicians playing his (Mahler’s) style, with the composer now willing to leave nothing to chance and therefore providing an encyclopedia of his own.

In each case, however, we have been left more than a simple guide to the music. We have been given a map, complete with topographical detail, landmark histories and even weather reports. We are given everything, even where information seems to be missing. A universal language indeed! We are reminded that the universe is not merely the physical expanse of space, but also time (past, present and future), dimension and the world of the metaphysical. 

How often do we stop to realize how lucky we are for this gift of notation? This has been a recent realization for me. In doing research for an upcoming concert, pouring through recordings and articles, I kept coming across videos of ‘reconstructions of the original (choreography.) Ah–reconstructions! How often must we reconstruct other art forms? We can often only guess at the choreography of a 19th century ballet, or what a completed painting of a great master lost long ago would look like, or what Shakespeare’s pronunciations would sound like–and then we must create a context for that. It makes for wonderful scholarship, of course, and a fine exercise in empathy and understanding–but it also leaves us with little more than conjecture and speculation, sophisticated though it is. 

How fortunate we are, then, to be able to know exactly what Bach meant? Or Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler–the list is endless. Scholarship (formal or informal) is essential, naturally, to become a well-rounded musician and to understand style. But when starting to rehearse a Beethoven symphony or Mozart opera, we do not have to guess; we do not need to start from scratch. The map exists, and we may spend our time interpreting–and understanding–rather than trying to remember through reconstruction.

This is not to say that the musician is reduced to an animated scholar. Imagination is crucial. Through a knowledge of style, history and the individual’s own virtuoso technical ability, music springs from the page and is brought to life. And what life! Each performance, when given the proper attention and enthusiasm from ensemble and audience alike, may become a premiere. What an opportunity for time-travel and empathy. For even in the 21st century we may find ourselves astounded by the invention of Bach; by the endless wonder of Mozart; by the raw power of Beethoven; by the epoch-making (and forward-looking) Mahler; and countless others.

Style could easily take up a series of articles and I cannot begin to delve into such a complex subject in such a modest essay, but I will allow one brief comment concerning musical responsibility.

A musician has two responsibilities: understand the style and honor the intent of the composer. Style is the realization of notation while intent is the interpretation and manifestation of empathy with the soul of the composer. Any good musician may master style but it is in the search for intent that we may become artists.

Notation allows us to communicate in spite of our human limitations. Yes, it truly is the universal language.