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? 

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Composition: Inspiration, craftsmanship and identity.

I know the precise moment in which I became a composer.

It was the fourth in a string of events–hardly well paced–that set me on the path to this life in music; for while I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a musician, it took me some time to learn how to truly live music. The first three events led me to believe that I’d arrived, that I’d achieved something; but they were only sections of a prelude, elegant and naive phrases with clumsily written cadences.

The first came at the age of 14 or 15. It is not much of a story to tell, in all honesty. I was a violinist at the time, or at least I tried to be; I’d been playing for 7 years and had a modest repertoire, as well as a seat as principal second in my youth orchestra, so I allowed myself this delusion. And I was becoming quite a good timpanist; my talent for this particular instrument had emerged and, as my passion was somehow equaled by my work ethic, I was starting to prove my worth. And yet I somehow felt musically incomplete, as if part of me was not expressing itself with any satisfaction. So it was that I awoke one morning with a simple thought: I need to compose. So simple and seemingly innocent was this thought (which would give me little rest in the following days) that I did not realize the terrible danger it posed to my well-being. For to compose may lead, in some cases, to becoming a composer; and to be a composer means to live for music–and live through music.

And so I began to write. First, some clumsy attempts at a Requiem–a natural choice for a reasonably well-adjusted teenager. Then, after an argument with an older classmate who happened to be a trombonist, a terribly naive solo sonatina which was embarrassingly inoffensive in its simplicity. And then came the first hint of danger: the desire to compose a string quartet. I gave into this temptation without protest; and in a matter of a week or so, I had composed my first complete work.

By the time my last days of high school arrived, I found myself in a strange place: I was to study composition at a major conservatory with a renowned composer. I was quite terrified; besides being entirely self-taught in this discipline, writing what I had through a process of trial and error, I had no idea what it really meant to be a composer. I knew what it meant for Beethoven and Mahler, of course; but what did it mean for me? At the moment, it meant that I would no longer be a full-time performer, and having intended to pursue a career as an orchestral timpanist, this was no small change.

Then came the second event. I found myself seated by a composer of some reputation and accomplishment, a man who had lived an admirable life. I had in my possession a few of my works, including some preludes for piano and a movement of the symphony I was desperately trying to finish. I was 17, and felt compelled to finish it before that dreaded milestone of 18. I had little more than a month to go and had found myself needing to work harder on this trifle (which had begun as a serenade for 8 instruments and would end up as a 40 minute symphony for chamber orchestra) than I had planned. My world was filled with potential, but also uncertainty; this made me quite uncomfortable indeed. I’d come to this discussion, which was largely informal, hopeful that this great composer, a man who had worked with Ravel, would critique my work. My hopes were dashed unceremoniously when he informed his audience that it was a policy of his–and had been his entire career–not to critique or peruse the works of other composers. I hid my disappointment as best I could and stuffed most of my music hastily back into my bag. And then came the miracle. As he fielded questions and listened to others speak, he began stealing glances at my bag. One page, then another, and a smile played over his lips. Very discreetly and gently, he motioned to me to lean towards him. With a subtle, kind smile and a friendly but very serious look in his eyes, he said in a voice barely above a whisper “Keep writing.” He leaned back again, gave me a wink and a nod, and resumed his business of fielding questions. There I sat, stunned and encouraged, my doubts erased. I might become a composer yet.

Then came the third event, the moment at which I was certain I’d finally made it. In my first lesson with my professor at conservatory–the second semester, as he’d been on sabbatical in the first– I brought the four works I’d completed in the previous few months. I’d worked with particular obsession on two of them: a Symphony in One movement, and the first movement of a concerto for piano. Another seemed trivial by the work I’d completed since; it was merely a set of dances for piano, not very innovative at all. It was the fourth work, however, that I knew I needed to begin with: a string quartet. It was a strange work to me, very different from any of the others, living in a completely different sound world. I set it before him, and he took it to the piano. Sitting there, he paused, and then began to play. He played the entire first movement, an expansive adagio which lasted 12 minutes, and when he concluded, he sat silently. I waited…and waited…and waited. Terror had taken a new meaning now, and I was quite ready to slink out of the room. Finally he turned to me with a serious look. “This has a…certain lyrical beauty,” he said to me. “It is deeply felt…expressive. And I’m not sure yet what it means. Are you sure you’re only 18?” I was stunned–not to mention relieved that he had something good to say. When I recovered and was able to reply, leading to a wonderful conversation and my first true lesson as a composer, I realized what this moment meant: nobody had ever told me how they felt about my music. The work was performed a few months later, then withdrawn and reworked, with the revised version receiving its premiere a few months later under its new title: Symphony for Strings, Op. 2. The Op. 2 would lead to the fourth event.

The lead up was dramatic, at least to my mind. I was preparing for my first lesson with Dr. A, a renowned, celebrated and highly influential teacher whose former students were household names in the composition world. I was to study with him for three weeks at a festival, and I knew it would be intense: two lessons per week, plus master-classes, and I’d been told that while he was very kind and encouraging, he was also no-nonsense and extremely tough. The Symphony for Strings had been one of the works I’d submitted as an audition, and I was eager to bring it to him along with my most recent misadventure composition, a tone-poem for baritone and chamber orchestra which can only charitably be described as heavily influenced by certain late-romantic German composers. As I sat down with the good Doctor and handed him my scores, I recalled the horror I’d felt in similar situations over the previous few years; I came to the conclusion that they didn’t measure up to the anxiety I felt at this particular moment. The pedagogue spent a few minutes flipping through the scores, moving from expressionlessness to a visage of great thought, even consternation. Finally he came to the Op. 2, and smiled a bit. “Ah, yes, Joseph. I remember this!” I perked up. “Yes, Joseph–this work is why I accepted you. Very good, very good. Now, tell me, Joseph: who are you trying to imitate?” Time stopped. My heart pumped its last. My breath would not come. I hoped against all hope for the floor to open and simply swallow me, and it rewarded my faith with stubborn inaction. My career, I knew, had just ended. “Um…Dr. A…I…I never try to imitate anyone!” I stammered. “I try to write with my own voice, you know, and of course don’t try to…” He smiled. “Poppycock! Absolute bull. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear! Now tell me–who are you trying to imitate?” I was speechless. Was my acceptance, then, a cruel joke? Was he regretting his invitation? Did he not even think me worthy of mercy?! He sighed and stood up, clapping his hands together, and exclaimed “My dear boy, everyone tries to imitate the composers they admire, especially when they are young! You’re how old? 21?” “Twenty,” I managed to croak. “Twenty years old!” he cried. “You are a baby! You have a lot to learn yet–and you can, you will! It is good to imitate others–it is a way to learn, and for you to realize what it is about their music that moves you, that makes you who you are–because your love for their music is part of you, an important part! But to become a composer, you must learn how to find your notes and to move beyond imitation. This ‘Vagabond,’ a clever tone poem–but it is not you. It is well written–but it is not you! That is why you are here. I will teach you to stop imitating and to be you. Don’t worry–I know you’re a good boy. Now, let’s get to work.” The three weeks flew by, and I completed three short works in that time. When I returned to conservatory that fall, I presented them to my teacher, who responded with this: “Well, you accomplished in one summer what I wanted to do with you all of this year. Joseph…you sound like you.”

The words of Dr. A have stayed with me all these years (and it is hard to believe that this happened nearly a decade ago.) They will stay with me my entire life, I’m sure. That was the moment in which I realized what it meant to be a composer, not merely one who writes. But just as importantly, it taught me the value of personal heroes. Lists are arbitrary and offer little insight; a top 5 or top 10 can be interesting, to be sure, but are fraught with the peril of value judgments and subjectivity. But to have admiration for someone–not idle, but active inspiration–can serve to drive us forward. We aspire to match them–not in their achievement, but in their desires, curiosity and ideals. As I continue to work and grow as a composer (not to mention as a conductor,) I will focus on these men (and women), their ideals and contributions. And perhaps, from time to time, I shall write about it.