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 orchestra: An introduction

Looking for a way to introduce children to the orchestra? I’ve written this as a guide. This is intended for middle school students, though it may be suitable for high school students as well. 

 

The Orchestra: An Introduction

A symphony orchestra is a complicated instrument. Made up of anywhere from 20 to over 100 musicians, it plays a very wide variety of music, written from the year 1600 to the present day.

 

The orchestra has 4 groups–families–of instruments. These include the woodwinds, the brass, the percussion and strings.

The woodwind family includes flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. The brass includes French horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba. The percussion includes timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and xylophone–though there are literally hundreds of percussion instruments. The percussion also includes the piano and a piano-like instrument called the celesta. Finally, the string family includes two groups of violins (called first and second violins), violas (which are slightly larger than violins), violoncello (often just referred to as ‘cello’) and double bass (also called contrabass, but usually just called ‘bass.’)

 

The orchestra has been around since about the year 1600, but it has changed dramatically over the centuries.

From about 1600-1750, the orchestra was anything but standard. Many pieces of music called for just strings–violin, viola, cello, and bass–and a harpsichord (another piano-like instrument and an older cousin of the modern piano) or organ which was called ‘continuo.’ Sometimes the music would include parts for winds and brass, most commonly flutes, oboes and bassoons (clarinets had not yet been invented!); trumpets and timpani were called for fairly often, with French horns and trombones being less usual.

This was referred to as the ‘Baroque’ era. It was typified by very ornamental–fancy–music, with a lot of improvisation expected by the performers. What we now refer to as concert music–music written just to be listened to–was rare. The Catholic Church was the main power throughout Europe and had very strict rules about what kinds of music could be written, so many of the important composers writing music would only compose sacred music (music for religious services). When not writing this kind of music, composers would write music for dancing, or music based on dances. Sometimes they would be very clever and write dance forms in their church music.

Some of the most important composers from this era include Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, from Italy; George Fredrich Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, from Germany; and Henry Purcell, from England.

The next so-called musical era began roughly around 1750 and lasted until about 1815. This became called the ‘classical’ era. Instead of the excess and fanciness of the Baroque, music from the Classical era focused on simplicity, order, elegance and logic. Dance forms were still written and religious music was still very important, but a major step was taken forward as a new musical form was developed. This new style, called ‘sonata form,’ would give rise to string quartets (works for two violins, viola and cello), concertos (a work for one solo instrument accompanied by an entire orchestra, which replaced the Baroque concerto grosso, which featured multiple soloists playing with the orchestra) and, most of all, the symphony. The symphony was a four movement work which was almost always structured the same way. The first movement was in ‘sonata form’: a slow introduction, an exposition (in which the themes were ‘exposed’), a development (in which the exposed themes were played around with in many different ways), a recapitulation (in which the exposition was repeated) and a coda (a totally new section of music that ended the movement.) The second movement was a slow movement, sometimes song-like. The third movement was a minuet, a courtly dance. The fourth movement was in ‘sonata allegro’ form, a modified version of the sonata movement used in the first movement.

Symphonies were being written by many composers all over Europe, and the orchestra was adapting to be able to perform them. Orchestras had once been the sole province of courts (the houses of royalty) and opera houses (which were funded by and catered to the very wealthy); that was slowly beginning to change, with orchestras still attached to courts but finding themselves a little more independent.

The orchestra was now starting to become more standard. The ensemble typically included 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and a larger string section (usually 6 first violins, 6 second violins, 5 violas, 4 cellos, and 2 basses.) By the end of the Classical era, clarinets had become more widely used and were added to the orchestra permanently. The orchestra also began to use trombones around this time; trombones had, to this point, been used almost exclusively in religious music and opera.

Some of the greatest and most well known composers lived and worked in the Classical era. These included Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, all of whom were Austrian or German and spent a large amount of their careers in Vienna, Austria.

 

By the end of the Classical era, Europe had changed a great deal. In 1750, the beginning of the classical era, popular opinion was that royalty–which controlled most of the money in Europe and were the unquestioned heads of state in their countries and territories–had been selected by God to lead their countries. Royalty had all the power and made all the decisions, controlling even which religions their subjects followed! By 1815, however, Europe–and other parts of the world–had changed forever. Revolution in France had unseated the crowned heads and shown that the people could bring about change–and that the people could also become royal, or close to it. In addition, a former colony of the British Empire had led a revolution of their own and become the United States of America–while declaring that every human being had a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals were spreading quickly across Europe, and musical life was changing with it. Beethoven had become not only world famous, but had also become a darling of the royalty that patronized him (that is, paid him to write music for them.) For the first time, a musician was almost considered an equal of the elite–quite a change indeed!

At the same time, the newly liberated and empowered people of Europe had more time to enjoy themselves and more money to enjoy life, too. More people were able to attend the opera; commoners had the time to study music and the money to buy printed music and bring pianos and other instruments into their homes. Opera and orchestral music was now joined in popularity by lieder (German for ‘song’) and a wider range of ‘chamber music’ (music for small ensembles, such as string quartets, that could be played in small rooms.)
But the symphony orchestra was growing. Beethoven died in 1827 and left a large shadow over the rest of Europe; he had been regarded as a giant, a living legend, and had made the symphony (and the orchestras which played them) equally gigantic. Some questioned whether anyone else would ever be able to write symphonies again!

But the symphony not only survived; it thrived. New composers continued to compose music that was even more complex, long and involved than the great symphonies of Beethoven. When Haydn and Mozart composed symphonies, they usually lasted 20 minutes. Beethoven’s last symphony lasted over an hour. Symphonies in this new era, called the Romantic, were often 45 minutes to one hour in length. They also called for a larger orchestra; now there were usually 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion and a large string section of 14 first violins, 12 2nd violins, 10 violas, 8 celli, and 6 basses.

Classical music was built around simplicity, elegance and logic. Romantic music took a different course: it focused on uncontrolled emotion, raw power, and wild passion. Stories (called programs) were often included, and usually involved the supernatural; magic, dreams and spirits found their way into everything from string quartets and symphonies.

Some of the composers from this era included Richard Wagner (who wrote mostly operas); Robert Schumann; Felix Mendelssohn (who also conducted and took a great interest in music of the past); Johannes Brahms (who idolized Mozart and Beethoven and urged restraint instead of uncontrolled passion); Franz Liszt (who invented the ‘tone poem,’ a symphonic work which told a definite story); and Piotr Tchaikovsky.

 

Towards the end of the Romantic Era, around 1880-1900, came another shift. In this ‘Post-Romantic’ era, the orchestra became even larger (including 4 of each woodwind, 4-8 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani and a large percussion section, harps, and a larger string section) and symphonies were often 45 minutes to one hour long. In this time, the symphony or philharmonic (as orchestras had begun to call themselves) were thought of as ‘societies.’ The musicians in the orchestra were part of a musical family, and the people who attended the concerts and who helped to organize concerts were often called ‘The Society of the Friends of Music.’ In the beginning of the Romantic era an orchestra was usually the resident musical ensemble in an opera house. Now, in the post-Romantic, symphony orchestras were usually independent from opera and gave many ‘subscription’ (orchestral) concerts.
Another change was the rise of the conductor. In the Baroque, music was led by the person playing the harpsichord. This continued in the Classical, though the first-first violinist (called the concertmaster) usually led. It was not until the end of the Classical era that the conductor as we see him today–standing on a podium, directing the orchestra with a baton–became common. Throughout the Romantic, the conductor gained power and influence and by the end of the era the conductor had become a force, the leader not only of performances but of the orchestra itself. Conductors had usually been something else within the orchestra (a pianist or violinist); conducting had now become its own, independent profession.

 

The 20th century continued the trend of an expanding orchestra and ever growing conducting field. Symphony orchestras were now, finally, equal to opera orchestras. At present, the orchestra is an indispensable part of concert life throughout the world, with many professional orchestras giving concerts every week of the year.

 

 

The Hierarchy and Structure of the Orchestra

The best orchestras are musical families, small societies within society. Although each and every member of the orchestra is important, there are some ‘chairs’–positions–that carry special importance.

 

Concertmaster – Sometimes called the  ‘leader’ or the ‘first violinist,’ the concertmaster is the first chair first violinist. Many regard this as the most prestigious position in the entire orchestra. He (or she) is certainly the most visible: the concertmaster is the last person (other than the conductor) to come onstage before the concert begins. The concertmaster tells the principal oboist when to tune the orchestra. The concertmaster also plays any solos that a composer writes for a violin. The concertmaster is also the leader of all the violins, and really for the entire string section; he or she is the person whom the conductor will ask for advice on string matters during rehearsal.

 

Principal Oboe – As the concertmaster is the leader of the string section, the principal oboe is regarded as the leader of the woodwind section. At rehearsals and concerts the principal oboe will sound the tuning note–a very important job. He or she sets the standard for the sound and color of the woodwind section. The oboe also has many important solos in orchestral music.

 

Principal Horn – French horns are technically part of the brass family, but they’re really sort of musical free-agents: they play an important part in the woodwind family, too. The principal horn is a link between the two families, and will often play very, very important solos, especially in music of the Romantic era and later.

 

Principal timpani – The timpani have been in the orchestra as long as the orchestra has existed. In Baroque and Classical music they were often paired with trumpets to add extra rhythmic emphasis. In the Romantic they began to take a more prominent role–even getting solos! The timpanist is the ‘2nd conductor’ of an orchestra, a foundation for the entire ensemble.

 

The conductor – The conductor is the most visible part of the orchestra. He or she is in charge of leading the entire group in both rehearsal and performance. A conductor is also in charge of leading the orchestra as an organization: choosing what music the orchestra plays, deciding how rehearsals are run, helping to select the musicians who play in the orchestra, choosing which soloists play concertos with the orchestra, and helping to bring the orchestra closer to its community. The conductor has to know every note played by every musician in every piece of music being played. He or she has to know how all the instruments work; how music is composed; how the different parts of music go together. He or she must also be an effective communicator, a good teacher, a strong leader, a good problem solver, and firm yet respectful to the members of the ensemble.

 

 

The Concert Experience

Concerts have evolved over the centuries, but they have always had one thing in common: they are social events, a chance for people to experience music together.

A symphony concert will usually last 2 hours and includes 3-4 pieces of music separated by an intermission. The pieces of music may include overtures, concertos, suites, tone poems and symphonies; works with chorus, such as oratorios (a story, usually taken from the Bible, performed by chorus, vocal soloists and an orchestra) and masses, may also be included. A ‘typical’ concert will open with a short (10-15 minute) overture, be followed by a concerto (20-30 minutes) and, after a 20 minute intermission, the program will end with a long work (30-60 minutes) such as a symphony.

There is a tradition and ritual that accompanies most classical music concerts. The orchestra begins to take the stage about 20 or 30 minutes before the concert is to begin. The musicians come out one by one or a few at a time, take their seats and warm up on their instruments. By the time the concert is about to begin, 5 or 10 minutes before ‘downbeat’ (the start of the concert,) there is a lot of noise–disorganized and seemingly chaotic! There is agreed to be an unusual beauty about this, however, and the audience is by now in their seats, eagerly awaiting the start of the concert.

When the concert is to begin (often at 7 or 8 in the evening), there are two people missing: the concertmaster and the conductor. At the appointed hour, the lights are dimmed, the audience stops murmuring, and there is silence. At this moment, the stage door opens and the concertmaster walks out. The audience applauds as the concertmaster walks to his seat, and the concertmaster faces the audience and takes a bow. He or she then turns to the orchestra–the principal oboe, to be precise–and nods. The principal oboist then plays a single note–an A-natural–and the orchestra begins to tune: first the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, each group one at a time. When the strings have finished tuning, the concertmaster takes his seat and the silence resumes. A moment passes, then another. At last, the stage door opens again, and this time the conductor walks out. The entire orchestra stands up; the conductor walks to his platform (called a podium), shakes the concertmaster’s hand, takes a bow, and then stands on the podium. The silence returns as all the musicians take a moment to prepare themselves. Then the conductor raises his hands; the orchestra readies their instruments; the conductor gives a downbeat, and the concert begins.

It is customary to clap at the end of a piece. In musical works with multiple movements, the audience is encouraged to wait until the final movement has finished to clap (that is, not to clap between each movement.)
In the case of a really fine performance, the audience will stand at the end while they clap, called a ‘standing ovation.’ In exceptional performances, they audience may shout ‘encore, encore!’ an Italian term meaning ‘again.’ In this case, the orchestra may have a different piece of music (usually short and very exciting) which they will play–sort of a bonus track.

Since concerts are social events and usually involve serious music in beautiful (and often famous) places, people will often dress up to attend. Once upon a time, men would wear dinner jackets or full evening dress (called ‘tuxedos’ and ‘tails’ in America) and women would wear very fancy and elegant ball-gowns. More recently the trend has been for men to wear a very nice dark (navy blue or gray) suit and tie and for women to wear a nice dress. Most recently, however, people have dressed down even more, sometimes wearing khakis and a button down shirt or even a t-shirt and jeans. This is no longer frowned upon the way it once was and people are encouraged to dress comfortably. This author will admit a preference to the less recent trend of seeing concert-goers dressed in elegant, sartorial splendor. Not only does this demonstrate a respect for the dinner-jacket and dress clad musicians, the music they are playing and the elegant venue in which they are making the music, but the author is of the conviction that when people are well dressed, they feel better themselves. In the end, however, whatever the attire, classical music concerts remain a wonderful human and social experience for all involved and the symphony orchestra continues to both represent and serve its community as a very pleasant duty.