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 real death in classical music.

There has recently been much discussion regarding ‘the death of classical music.’ Such conversations are nothing new, of course; classical music has been dying for some time and yet always manages to outlive the very authors of its obituary. Yet the whispers persist, too often rising to a dull roar and, now and then, erupting as a full-throated shout from the rooftops.

It is most unfortunate, because classical music is actually doing quite well. In spite of the funeral march we have witnessed many exciting developments in the field in recent years: record ticket sales at some orchestras, the introductions of new outreach programs, the establishment of modern music ensembles and festivals, the proliferation of orchestras and opera houses in new markets across the world, exciting young soloists bursting onto the scene and the release of notable and important new recordings. And the music–oh, the music! Mozart and Beethoven have aged extremely well; their music is still as fresh and vibrant as it was in the Enlightenment and Napoleonic Europe. Mahler’s prophecies about the future of his music have come to pass and he has become a repertoire mainstay. The eternally autumnal glow of Brahms’ oeuvre continues to find new ways to warm us and his romantic-era sparring partner, Wagner, has continued its Kantian hold over our collective psyches. Yes, the music is just fine, thank you very much.

But, back to the issue of death. Yes, to read recent articles would leave the music lover scratching his or her head in puzzlement. While there are problems–real problems which need to be solved–the music, that which is most important, is absolutely fine. So why do we keep reading such grim reports?

The fact is that there has been a death in the classical world, a death which we should all mourn. Unfortunately it has gone unreported, its corpse still animated and somewhat coherent. It is a death in two parts, with one all but completely gone and the other still in the throes of Denial. 

This is the death of musical criticism.

The first death is the most lamentable. Full time positions for critics and journalists have been eliminated at major publications across the United States, leaving many audiences without a voice. This may lead to a sigh of relief for musicians and arts administrators in some corners; but the fact is that a critic (a good critic) is an essential voice in a musical community. That these positions have begun to disappear is cause for real alarm and dismay, and we may only hope that they may experience a resurrection in the future.

The second death, however, is regrettable for different reasons. This death is not yet complete, but the animated remains are too often kept alive only by large amounts of hubris. This death, that which still resides in Denial, is the death of the Critic (or Journalist) as Artist.

Musical commentary seems largely to have followed the trend of journalism in general. Fact is replaced by conjecture; insight by opinion; a desire for truth by a desire to be first, loudest or most sensational. This is not to say that it has always been different historically. On the contrary: musical criticism in the 19th and early 20th century was often salacious and motivated by politics, leading to near destruction of some of the greatest musicians in history. Yet there were notable bright spots: this was an art practiced by Schumann, Shaw and Twain, after all! And the one thing those men had in common: they always wrote about the music.

Today, sadly, we seem to read more about the politics and finances of institutions; the personal lives, rather than the musical insights, of performers; and, worst of all, comparisons of performances to other performances (or even recordings.) This last matter is most troubling. To compare one orchestra to the other, especially in the performance of a particular work, is not especially helpful. To compare one performance to an historical performance is often even less productive. Certainly the commentary may be interesting or entertaining, but the only comparison which truly matters is that of a performance to the score. The intentions of the composer are the most important things to consider. What a great conductor or orchestra did in the past; what traditions have developed over time; these are beside the point. To offer any meaningful commentary, one must begin with the score.

Unfortunately it is rarely thus. Aside from the often mediocre quality of the writing in general, especially in non-traditional formats, reviews seem to spend a very little time actually writing about the music. And why should this be so? The musicians of an orchestra have a responsibility to the music: to inspire those who hear it. Likewise, the journalist has an obligation: he must find a way to inspire his readers to love this music, to become curious, to explore, learn and grow. Far too many seem to buy into the most ridiculous aspect of the ‘brand’ of classical music: gleeful snobbery. 

There are excellent journalists writing today, absolutely; but we need many, many more. If the critics are to be the proverbial watchers, then on whom may we rely in turn to watch them? In an age of ubiquitous musical virtuosity, it is time for a few more Virtuosi of the Pen.

The (minor) miracle of a percussion section.

I’m often asked if there are different personalities among musicians who play different instruments. It is an extremely difficult question to answer; after all, it is hard to stop laughing when one is laughing that hard! To explain this to someone who has spent little to no time around musicians, it may seem a bit bewildering. After all, a musician is a musician (is a musician), isn’t he? But naturally, we musicians know differently! Anyone who has witnessed an exchange between an oboist bemoaning her reed, only to be interrupted by a violinist complaining about bowings (or seating)…well, assuming they’re standing far enough away to avoid being caught up in the fray, answers should reveal themselves quite easily.

Yes, I’ve written it before: we musicians are a strange lot, with our own personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and social hierarchy. Most can be explained quite simply: violinists are confident (except for the 2nd violinists, who are…well…let’s not go there.) Violists are the confused middle children of the orchestra. Double bass players are…there. Oboists are charmingly neurotic. Bassoonists are slightly less charming. Trumpet players are also confident–but a little more, ahem, expressive about it. So on and so forth. But percussionists…well, percussionists end up in their own special category. They are sort of the third base coaches of the orchestra world: nobody really notices them unless they screw up. 

Percussion is a special case within the musical community. They are certainly easy targets: many of their instruments appear easy to play, even easy to master. After all, a number of their instruments (triangle, tambourine) are favorite playthings of the pre-kindergarten set, often employed as methods of torture and tests of patience for parents of young children and once-eager early childhood education students. And the timbre of the instruments may be recreated on any number of common household items, with kitchenware being especially popular. 

As always, it is not that simple. Percussion, after all, may allow an exceptionally well educated, mature, well-adjusted adult to utter the following phrase without irony: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” Yes. read that again: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” (Disclaimer: The author of this article has never personally uttered this phrase, though he admits that his triangle playing, while having its moments, is generally quite mediocre.) These instruments are hard. The great composers who wrote for them were unafraid to present a challenge. To be a percussionist requires much more than the ability to hit a drum or find the right keys on the xylophone! In fact, the only thing that should be struck by a percussionist is the word hit from his vocabulary. The percussionist must draw out the sound from the timpani; elicit crisp yet smooth notes from the snare; carefully extract myriad colors (at the right moment and in exactly the right manner) from the cymbals; the list goes on and on. The decisions, often made quickly and on the spur of the moment during rehearsal, are dizzying: which mallets to use? Which size and weight should the cymbals be? What size triangle–which beaters, too, and to hold or mount? Calf-heads or goatskin? Dresden or Berlin? Chain or pedal? Plastic heads or brass? Wood shell or copper?!

Perhaps most surprising of all is the makeup of a section and how well it can function together. Dysfunction would likely be assumed by most of their orchestral colleagues, of course, owing to the fact that the term ‘peanut gallery’ has often been applied to the usually colorful bunch of characters standing (or sitting around) at the back of the orchestra. When one thinks about it, the percussion section is unique: unlike other sections, they rarely, if ever, play together. 

It is not so in other sections. Section wind players learn to shade the principal–and other instruments within the section as a whole– in matters of tone and phrasing. The horns and brass, almost as a rule, develop a single, unified sound and color, with a particular blend being ideal. And the strings! Ah, learning to bow and even play vibrato with as much uniformity as possible–it is their chief concern most of the time, leading to incredible camaraderie (or, on occasion, rivalry.)

Composers rarely write for percussion with any consistency. There is often timpani, of course; that is a given, going back to the early Baroque. But the timpanist plays alone, with few exceptions. There does exist something of a basic unit, early on: the ‘Turkish’ section of triangle, cymbal and bass drum, though it may be argued that in many cases (such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraligo and Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and 9th Symphony) the intention of the composer was to achieve an effect and not to require any particular sense of finesse (though, of course, musicality and finesse are essential when performing these works in the concert hall!) Beyond this, however, there is little in the repertoire to suggest any sort of attempt at consistency. Not only does this tend to vary from one work to another, but there is often a great range and variety within a single work. Percussion may be called for in one movement but not the next; in extreme (but hardly unusual) cases, an instrument may be called upon to play in just a few measures–even just a few notes–in the entire piece.

So it is incredible that the section, all playing sporadically and almost always playing different material (rhythmic, harmonic, timbrel) can achieve cohesion rather than chaos. And yet it happens: a camaraderie and personality develops within the section, jobs are assigned (the establishment of a principal cymbalist, auxiliary, bass drum, etc) and a sound and style emerge. From chaos emerges consistency: yet another miracle of music and the great institution of the orchestra.