Thoughts on Programmatic and Absolute Music


In this post, I will be presenting my thoughts on programmatic and absolute music. What are these terms, and what do they mean? Do they apply to all music? Is the ‘meaning’ of music truly set in stone, or is it all up to the listener?

Imagine one day you are outside. The bright sun peers down at you, bathing you in warmth and light. But suddenly clouds appear, thunder rumbles, lightening strikes, and you hurry to avoid getting drenched in buckets of rain. Where had such violence come from? Imagine for a moment that this was the music which accompanied such a horrific, intruding storm. Can you hear the howling of the wind or rustle of leaves, and perhaps the distant rumble of thunder amid it all? Is there not an overall negativity to the music, making one think of of summer storms and energetic weather?

Two points: Firstly, my personal views on what music ‘is’ or ‘is not’ are my own, and should never be taken absolutely (as a solid fact). If you share these views, then wonderful! If you do not, it is completely fine. Music can be both absolute and subjective in meaning; to claim one or the other these days…

And secondly, those who are fanatic for the music of Antonio Vivaldi would probably have been expecting to hear this music, the ‘presto’ from his g minor concerto known as ‘Summer.’ For those who are unaware, this concerto is the third in a collection of four, scored for violin solo and string ensemble, entitled ‘The Four Seasons.’ These concerti depict and present the seasons, which are accompanied by verses that the composer himself devised.

All seasons have been recorded by Trevor Pinnock and his ensemble. Personally I never grow tired of hearing this music, whatever the season.

Now, regarding this concept of poems and music, a question to consider: can the music lend imagination regardless of text? Or does one need to rely on text in order for the music to become true? Almost like with film music: do we need context on screen to associate with music, or vice versa? More may be read about the Four Seasons here–I encourage it! Philosophy and psychology in music are things about which I think often.

Now, these definitions are long overdue but I humour you. The definition of programmatic music, according to Britanica, is as follows: ‘music which carries an extra meaning, a literary idea, a scenic description or personal drama. The definition of absolute music according to Wikipedia is as follows: ‘music which has no clear representation and is not ‘about’ anything. The above example by Vivaldi is ‘about’ something; the g minor concerto, RV 577, is not ‘about anything.’ It is absolute; simply a concerto for many instruments in the key of g minor in three movements. And yet I was able to half-convince the reader (hopefully) that the music was about a storm, or something terrible and dramatic. Do we need to be told what music is ‘about’ in order for everything to work?

Looking back on history, would we not say that most art or creativity is absolute? ‘Without greater meaning?” A painting of a battle or a starry night or a self-portrait is just itself. But I ask you to consider: in the Baroque era, where the nature of the music is to entice emotions and to express, can the music truly be absolute and ‘about nothing?’ Can we chalk everything down to ‘string music in the minor key’ or ‘slow and sombre music in d major for flute and continuo’? This takes away all the imagination and creativity, in my own opinion.

Suppose, on hearing a piece of music, your imagination runs wild and in your mind you picture a scene or scenario. Or perhaps you feel intense feelings. If music does these things to the listener, then why? Are these feelings or thoughts we have about music learned, or do we learn to associate certain music with certain feelings or trappings of our imagination?

Marin Marais was an imaginative and talented composer of French Baroque music. He was an expert player of the viola da gamba. This piece is one of my favorites…and perhaps you may hear why. My French is horrible but I’m going to guess it is entitled ‘The human voice’ or ‘the voice of the human.’ What does the music depict? Perhaps a weeping, a sigh; is this the purpose or intent of music? Or is it absolute, with the title chosen simply ‘just because’? Perhaps more research must be done on my part…or perhaps these are good questions for one to consider.

A visionary composer, Marais also wrote a sonata for viola da gamba about his…experience…regarding some kind of operation. Dramatic music not for the faint of heart!

In the modern composing world, unless I’m browsing the wrong forums (or remembering my college education ‘fondly’), attention to meaning in music is a rare topic. Either music is absolute or it is program music ( a comment on the modern music scene, for example) or accompanied and saturated in a sob story. Then again I have been guilty of doing the same thing…and my example isn’t even that good!

All of that being taken into account, who is to suggest that it wasn’t the same in the Baroque era? “I went on a trip only to come home and find that my wife had died. So I wrote this violin piece to express all that turmoil.”

So ensues the myth or legend that Bach wrote the above chaconne in memory of his wife. Bach’s music for me (and I imagine a few other listeners) will pack a lot of emotional punches; cathartic, perhaps. Sublimation too is the art of expressing the deepest emotions in the form of art. Perhaps my definition is poor and you may rely on the experts instead. But because we have no evidence of personal feelings from the Baroque era, we can assume either way; music was written for a deadline to receive a fee so you could afford rent and food and no real thought went into the notes, or all the music is expressive and beautiful and filled feelings which we can all identify and relate to.

But how does music do this, exactly? Is there such a thing as music being universal in the sense that is can affect the listener regardless of their background, beliefs about music, and anything else which is conscious? Perhaps I am rambling, as I was intent on discussing programmatic and absolute music…but if it is moving and entices the listener to feel or imagine, than can any music be without purpose or absolute? Perhaps I am getting my meanings and definitions confused.

Another great German Baroque composer Heinrich Biber was rich and imaginative in his music. One of his pieces which might shock the ear is the Battalia in D Major which depicts soldiers going about their business. We open with a hearty march, we hear them sing, drunk, in the bar with many voices (a confusing moment, to be sure!); we hear the raging battle with canons, and we hear a lament for the wounded. Surely without the description, one may be lost when listening!

But Biber wrote, too, a lovely set of sonatas representing animals. For long as human have been around, it seems like we’ve been trying to musically imitate the sounds of various creatures. This, of course, is another example of programmatic music (at least, I think so?) as they seem to imitate either the sound of various animals, or perhaps represent their mannerisms? I wonder how audiences reacted to this music.

Here we have an example of Telemann; a lovely and lively concerto in A major…depicting, of all animals, the frog. Never have these green, hopping, amphibious creatures been so harmonious! And we cannot forget the D major concerto of Vivaldi, ‘The Goldfinch. But a good question to consider (and I may be repeating myself here) is: with programmatic music, how does the music lend to the imagination? Do we ‘get what the music is about’ only after hearing the notes, or would we ‘know’ what’s going on regardless? Couldn’t someone just say, “Oh, what a lovely flute concerto!” and leave it at that?

Indeed another example of the Baroque era being completely insane and unlike the period: the giant suite for ensemble entitled ‘Les Elements’ which opens with chaos. If you have not had your coffee yet this morning, I suggest you listen to something soothing and tranquil before opening this link; I too was shocked when I heard this piece. It sounds more akin to 20th century writing, and I guess it stretches the question of “Is Baroque-period music still what we think of as ‘Baroque’ music?”

The creation of the universe opens with such harsh dissonances and twirling strings and flutes, like stars shooting by and planets being formed. And yes, this suite is a ballet, intended to be danced; perhaps Stravinsky was onto something…

Another question could be occurring to you: did Bach write programmatic music with the purpose of being programmatic? Oh yes, he did! The Capriccio in B flat major, BWV 992 is one of Bach’s instances of sublime emotion. Its six movements all contain stories and themes; speculatively, it is about a brother (either meaning blood relation, like one of his actual brothers…or possibly a friend/pal/comrade/ etc) who is drafted into an army.

The six movements are as described: I) Friends gather and attempt to dissuade him from departing; II) They picture dangers which may await him; III) They offer a lament; IV) Since he cannot be tempted to stay, they bid farewell; V) Aria of the Postilion; VI) Fugue on the subject of the Postilion. Given those descriptions in mind; listen to the playing of Robert Hill and try to see how the music conveys those ideas. Who would have thought that a mere harpsichord could be so expressive? Is it the instrument, or the notes played?

Bach’s piece may have been modeled on a piece by the composer Kuhnau, a composer contemporary to Bach, who wrote a work for keyboard entitled the ‘Biblical Sonatas’ which each narrate a story or passage of the Bible. While I have yet to give this set of sonatas a listen, I will link here a lovely performance of the music!

At this point, this post has been several days in the making, written at all odd hours of the early morning. My aim is to either attempt to answer questions but more importantly to give more questions; such is the nature of art. And while programmatic and absolute music is not limited to the Baroque era (programmatic music as an idea has indeed survived into the current day) I’ll refrain from discussing anything written past the 1700’s due to lack of familiarity.

How does music make us think of certain images or scenes? How does one do it ‘correctly’ or ‘incorrectly’? Are these concepts which are learned, and therefore associated with over time? What makes music happy or sad, and why are these things which are disagreed upon? Why is one of the most famous piece of organ music by Bach associated with Halloween and vampires? This, I feel, is an example of ‘learned’ association,’ where the piece is utilized in media for the sake of media and it simply stuck. A post regarding the pipe organ is being drafted as we speak, but there will be more to come on the subject at a later date.

Here in the corner of New England which I live, it is cold. It has been cold for the better part of two weeks. -3 with or without wind is harsh to live in; I’m sure folks in Alaska or Canada or Antarctica have it worse and I shouldn’t complain. And hopefully I do not freeze outside of my own house, like Purcell did!

But the harshness of winter and bitter cold may have some good, as it led Purcell to compose an aria for an opera. This chilling aria has not only text which one can relate to, but he music is what we’d call text painting’; the notes represent what the text is telling.

The opening strings give the impression of chattering teeth, of bitter cold; so too does the text. “What power art thou, which from below hath made me rise, unwillingly and slow?” I have no context for the aria or the opera in which it is presented. Does one have to experience the cold and chilling weather for this music to resonate? The opening motion of the strings in fashion of trills sound like chattering teeth; is the fact that Vivaldi used the same motion a coincidence?

Purcell’s aria reminds me of a similar piece by Spanish Baroque composer Sebastián Durón. Soft strings, varying harmonies, a lovely line for the voice; I know nothing of the Spanish language but I’ll venture that the aria has something do with waves, fish, and the seas. What is the music meaning to present, or represent? Or could it merely be ‘just because’–an absolute piece of music?

Now, looking at Sebasitan Bach once again…one of my favorite organ chorales by him. Of course there are many different performances, and I’m not going to make a contest of which one is the best. Such opinions are subjective.

So what does the music make you think of or feel? Bach’s works, in my opinion (well actually I believe this about all the Baroque era) have the capability to affect the listener, regardless of sacred or secular nature. After all, I’m a musician, not a linguist; when I hear religious music in Latin, I am moved by the notes and not the words. His use of varying harmony in the chorale prelude above (paired with excellent organs, registrations, and performances) make the music comforting, consoling, and some may say healing.

I would like for a moment to consider the St. John Passion. Bach was not a composer of opera, nor of operatic music; however his music still contains all the drama of an opera. My first experience of this passion was with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists, and to this day this recording remains the pinnacle, in my opinion.

While opening of the St. Matthew may be seen as darkly elegant and full of gorgeous counterpoint, the opening chorus of the St. John is rather on-the-nose and exquisite in its rawness. The flurry of strings, winding and turning while the bass notes are stagnant, topped with piercing tones given by oboes—the dissonance struck me, at first, but perhaps that was the goal of Bach!

I did not know what a Passion was when I first heard this music. It tells the story of Christ’s betrayal, torment, crucifixion, death, and burial. Perhaps amid these opening notes of the oboes Bach tells the future–to be pierced with nails as a crowd calls you “Lord” perhaps in mockery. Is this text-painting at its finest? I could go on for pages about this music–and perhaps one day I will–but to highlight this particular movement is important, given the context of my entire writing here.

I do encourage discussion, as much as possible, among my readers. This concerto for strings in a minor by Heinichen has stuck with me for a few years now; perhaps as the first notes are struck you may understand why. I ask of you, the reader–what do you envision upon hearing such music? A storm? Perhaps a marching army? Or what about someone in a rush but stuck in traffic, and frustrated about their situation? Music can be effective without a story attached, and perhaps we, the listeners, music create our own story when the notes fill our minds and ears.

Until next time! Best wishes to you all, and I thank you for reading.

I appreciate you for reading very much! I hope you enjoyed this post, and may consider donating in order to fuel my creativity.


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