Development And Current Relevance Of Program & Absolute Music

Program Music

Program Music of the Romantic era is descriptive instrumental music that tells a story. The essence of program music is found in its musical representation and description and served as fuel for ideas for composers, as well as a reference point for audiences. Program music incorporates the use of legends, scenes, characters, literary works, Shakespearian plays and other plays as well, seasons, animals, country sides, paintings, philosophies, nationalities. Examples include; Richard Strauss’s composition Also Sprack Zarathrusta, Vivaldi’s composition The Four Seasons, Debussy’s composition Nuages, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6, Prokofieve’s Peter and The Wolf and Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition to name a few.

The program and music were intricately related to one another in such a way that one fostered the development of the other. Nearly anything was possible in the realm of program music. It is a music which is accompanied by written program notes to aid audience understanding of what was going on musically in their absence of musical text, libretto or other such device. Opera and music with religious texts, and songs were not included as part of the program music genre.

In its attempt to describe objects and events, the music follows a logical path in correlation to the development of the thing being depicted. According to Liszt, one of the early progenitors of program music, “In program music ... The return, change, modification and modulation of the motifs are conditioned by their relation to a poetic idea. ... All exclusively musical considerations, though they should not be neglected, have to be subordinated to the action of the given subject.”

Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastic sonically describes a series of altered mind fantasies based on a surrealistic love affair involving romance, solitude, love, murder torment and hell. This particular work is propelled by story line and character depiction. Berlioz was able to take advantage of huge orchestration liberties in order to support the story line in what ever way he deemed necessary.

Operatic music of the past really set the stage for musical acceptability of the new and interesting sounds found in programatic music. Since the days of Oratorio and the early works of Monteverdi, opera has has served as a driving force for musical change and innovation. It set in motion the use of broader orchestration and ever increasing use of chromatics, dynamics, form and articulation supporting the emotive and visual content of the opera. Program music was the next development or maybe an offshoot in a continuing upward spiral of musical Western advancement. It was the emotive and visual content with out the libretto and vocal text content. The audience member still had the text to refer to but now more attention was being focused on the instrumental music content free from any vocal depiction of story line.

Absolute Music

Absolute music, on the other hand, is a non representational form of music. It has no need to serve any agenda other than the music itself. It does not make use of words, scenes, dance, drama, characters, philosophies or anything extra musical to describe it. Absolute music is applied exclusively to the Euro-classical music tradition from the Romantic period. It suggests a work must have a “musical purity” to be considered absolute. This excludes anything with words, sonic depictions of events, objects or anything else extra musical. There is no reference to anything outside of the music itself. Expression is based solely on the music, free of visual, mental or verbal depiction. According to strict definition, if the meaning of the music is referenced to external objects, or even emotive expression of the mind, it can not be absolute.

Stravinsky tells us that art becomes absolute through objectivity, musical structure and form. As a great proponent of musical objectivity his works seem to reveal a disconnect of ego allowing each musical composition to truly stand on its own, speaking its own unique solemn truth. Although Stravinsky was castigated for his beliefs, his works stand as a 20th century testament to his philosophy.

The sonata form has no reference or application to anything other than the musical form itself. There are no outside objects or meanings attached. Music becomes music through the development of repetition, predictability, patterns and a heightened sense of tension release. A composer may be able to create music which has a string of unrelated notes, patterns, phrases and motifs but does this constitute the meaning of absolute music? Paramount to any artistic endeavor is and underlying current of purpose, direction, theme and content.


Program music was and still is a way to explore extramusical devices, themes, color, texture as well as new techniques which may not otherwise be easily or readily accepted by a ticket buying audience. It was also a way of expanding the boundaries of musical form, instrumentation as well as orchestration. Program music helped to distance and differentiate the Romantic era composers form those of the Classical period composers. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 is an early example of program music. His titles included a depiction of the pastoral country side with extra musical effects including a brook. Although the Pastoral Symphony is capable of standing on its own as a musical work free of depiction, a congenial flavor, sonorous atmosphere and somatic effect is added to the benefit of the audience with the inclusion of programatic content.

Another similar yet earlier example of program music can be found in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The musical depiction is not mandatory to the development of theme, form, musical direction or anything else which might be considered programatic. The music has since become highly recognizable and synonymous with the changing of seasons.

Pictures At An Exhibition by Mussorgsky, on the other hand, defines program music in a slightly different sense. The composition began as a sonic depiction of paintings by artist/architect and close friend Victor Hartmann. Recently deceased, Mussorgsky paid homage to his friend when an exhibition of Hartmann’s works depicting his travels abroad. The objects of art found in the gallery become integral to the thematic, structural, motivic and formal development of the work as a whole as Mussorgsky finds himself walking through the gallery, stopping to view each painting while absorbing each individual impact. The paintings become the musical vehicle with which to move each listener through musical space and time, as the viewer moves from one painting to the next. Each painting has its own tonal palette complete with motif, theme and development. The promenade theme is the device used to take the listener from one painting to the next. This was a very clever device with which to engage audience interaction. The narrative aspect is told through the music and its sonic depiction of each painting. The whole work is integrally tied: music to object being depicted, and object being depicted to music.

While Beethoven may have been the first to introduce the concept of program music, it was Liszt who championed the idea to acceptable heights with his creation of the Symphonic Poem. By employing the aspect of operatic overture, complete with its programatic tendencies and expanding it musically, Liszt began creating more complex, one movement instrumental works which was later echoed in works by Debussy, Ravel and Mussorgsky among others. The symphonic poem concept spread to France, Britan, Sweden, Czech and Russia. Sebelius featured concert sets based around celestial events, Tchaikovsky wrote Romeo & Juliet and Richard Strauss took the form to its highest symphonic apex with the use of extra musical devices and instruments added to crate the effects such as musical bleating sheep on stage.


Program music has found its way into many aspects of contemporary music and life. Music for film is an arena in which the use of drama, extra musical effect, theme and story line combine to create an integral sonic/visual/emotional/artistic whole. The audience member is surrounded in a time space environment designed to carry them to new heights of sonic and visual experience, similar in tradition to the theater works of Richard Wagner.

Composers can also be found receiving commissions outside the traditional venues with scores created for special out door events, celestial events, commemorative events, community events, national events, personal events, grand openings, theater and dance events as well as memorial events. A severe lack in the general population of music purchasers and music creators is widely prevalent in the commercial and non commercial music industry as to the power of music to direct behaviors and create positive motivational healing. For the most part composers see a need and try to fix it. Creating a musical commission is similar to an architect submitting a proposal to receive a commission to create a new building.

Composers of program music seem to have been allowed a certain amount of artistic freedom which became acceptable to by a paying audience. Under the guise of descriptive elements and devices, new tonal and orchestral freedoms were allowed to flourish in a way which may not have occurred otherwise. If a story line, object, philosophical thought, or setting can be attached to an abstract musical concept, then the tendency is for the new musical idea or sound to become more readily acceptable in terms of a general audience setting. Ticket sales also seem to reflect what is generally considered acceptable and popular. It may well be that program music needed to come about as the result of a shift from the courts of and noble patrons to the mass audience. This just may have been the out let needed for the music to advance as much as it did harmonically (Wagner), texturally (Mahler and Strauss), and sonically (Ravel and Debussy).

It would seem the resolution of any conflict of agreement towards program music and absolute music lies in the fact that music is generally considered a language of the emotions. Music is an art form which accesses the musical force of sound and vibration to trigger thoughts, feelings, memories, and action, in many cases. He first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring received enough of an emotive and physical response to have people yelling in their seats to shut the music off and then apparently inciting riots in the streets. Is this an effect of music to trigger changed emotive and behavioral response. When Phillip Glass began performing his new style of minimalist music with this traveling ensemble, some audience members were apparently driven to leave their home, purchase objects and then purchase a ticket with the expressed purpose of throwing these objects at the performers to get them to stop playing and disrupt the performance. This is a lot of work for some one who apparently does not care for a particular brand of music. A very interesting phenomenon according to Glass. Although the music is inciting action, albeit a negative action, it still requires a form of participation and involvement by the listener. This type of behavior is and its possible ramifications are interesting, to say the least.

Movie music today is program music in a slightly different context. Soundscapes and scores are created for the movie theater which would be considered way outside the norm of a standard symphony concert attending audience. The squealing pigs and shock and awe sounds found in the score for the original Exhorsist may not be as acceptable as the scores John Williams composed for the Star Wars series by most symphony audiences. As with Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, some of the movie music can stand on its own, other scores are integrally embedded as part of movie whole and can not stand on their own. A recent exciting development in this genre of music is Symphonies are now playing the scores to the film live as the movie is playing.

On a personal note, as a performer and composer, it has always been a personal contention to write music for the environment in which it was intended. This environment can include music for; persons in my ensemble, theater, modern dance, concert stage, compact disc, sports bars, private parties, jazz audiences, classical audiences, Indian audiences, major events, political dignitaries, music festivals, retailers, traveling in cars, skiing. My catalogue is pretty big. What is important in program music and absolute music is proper placement in relation to environment along with a full range of emotive / visual content. In other words, it would probably be unrealistic to perform intimate concert music in a sports bar with TV’s on and many people wanting socializing and expect them to sit and listen and or hear your performance. The same holds true for people purchasing tickets expecting a unique concert experience. They probably would not want to sit and listen to a mediocre rock cover tune when they came to a quality listening environment to experience something else. The bottom line which still remains is music carries certain programatic and absolute emotive requirements which carry over into the translation of style, venue, level of acceptability by a paying audience and relevance to setting in which it is placed.