History of Programme Music
When Liszt invented the term ‘programme music’ he was aware that he had not invented the thing that he sought to describe. Berlioz’s symphonies are essentially narrative in conception; so too is Weber’s Konzersrück for piano and orchestra, a descriptive works in one continuous movement (made up of several section in different tempos) which was one of the first Romantic examples of the symphonic poem. One of the difficulties involved in tracing the history of programme music lies in the elusiveness of the distinctions discussed above: whether all ‘representational’ music should be considered programme music; whether a deliberate expressive character is sufficient to rank as a ‘programme’ in Liszt’s sense. Clearly there are many different ways of deriving a history according to the way in which those fundamental critical (and philosophical) questions are answered. For example, the French harpsichord composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were in the habit of giving titles to their pieces. To some writers on this subject the presence of a titles is sufficient to bring a piece under the rubric ’programme music’/ but to others that way of thought involves a confusion , for it seems not to distinguish a piece that either evokes its subject or (in some more concrete sense) actually attempts to describe it. Many critics of Couperins music, for example, would prefer to speak of the relation between his keyboard pieces and their ostensible ‘subjects’ as one of expression and not one of representation. The borderline between expression and representation is a hazy one, and it is often impossible to say of a piece by Rameau or Couperin on which side of the borderline it might lie.
If mere imitation is not regarded as a sufficient criterion of programme
Music, it must be concluded that the story of the genre is considerably shorter than might otherwise appear. It seems to have no medieval examples. Even Jannequin’s famous chanson ‘La bataille’ or ‘La guerre’ (published in 1529 and thought to refer to the battle of Marignan of 1515), is hardly to be considered true programme music: while it imitates the sounds of battle, there is no narrative sequence to those sounds and no attempt to subordinate the musical structure to the evolution of an extra-musical theme. Less certain cases are provided by suites in which the titles of each piece form a narrative sequence. Byrd’s Battle, a suite for keyboard of fifteen piece-entitled (for example) ‘The Marche to the Fight’, ’The Retraite’ and ‘The Burying of the Dead’ – does, in a sense, have a programme, but the programme serves to unite the separate musical units and to explain their expressive characters; only in a very limited sense do and the pieces attempt also to describe the scenes referred to.
Other puzzling cases are those in which a composer declares himself to have been inspired by some literary or artistic source. Again there are Renaissance and Barque example of composer who have written pieces under the inspiration of pictures. Biber, for example, wrote in about 1671 a set of fifteen mysteries for violin and keyboard after copperplate engravings of Bible themes; there is an earlier instance by Froberger. Such cross-fertilization between a representational art (such as engraving) and music is familiar feature of more recent music. Mussorgsky’s Picture at an exhibition provides a romance example of the same kind of musical device . here, though, there is the added representational refinement of a ‘promenade’ linking some of the pieces, indicating the presence of a ‘narrator’ in the music, a kind of ‘reflector’ in Henry James’s sense, who Mussorgsky’s work comes nearer to the central example of cross-fertilization is the quartet by Janacek composed after reading Tolstory’snovvela sonata. The mere fact that Janacek’s quartet was so inspired no more makes it into a programme narrative of the events in Tolstoy’s story than it make Tolstory’s story into ‘representation’ of Beethoven’s sonata. Inspiration, even when consciously reffered to, cannot suffice to make music into programme music.
There is no doubt that programme music was established by 1700, when Johann Kuhanau published his six Bible sonatas. Each of them is preceded by a summary of the story that the music is meant to convey, and each is divided into recognizable parts, corresponding to the events of the narrative. The pictorialism is naïve compared with the symphonic poems of Lizt and Strauss, but there is no douby that the music lays claim to a
Narrative significance or that the composer intended that significance to be a proper part of the understanding of the music. Later examples of similar narrative music are vivaldi’s concertos the ‘Four Seasons’, which are prefaced by short ‘programmes’ in verse, and Couperin’s Apothéoses, extended representations of Lully and Coreli ascending to find their proper places of rest upon Parnassus, in which each section refers to a separate episode in their aphothéosis. Comparable pieces were written by telemannand other French-influenced composers. The development ofsuch programme music was affected by the ballet de cour, whichrequired just such pictorial accompaniments to its solemn and dramatic performances; but by the mid-eighteenth century programmemusic had emancipated itself from any suggestion of a balletic meaning. A notable example is the long orchestral work by Ignazio Raimondi called les aventures de télémaque dans l’isle de Calypso, based on Fénélon’s epic poem. This, published in 1777,includes one of the forst attempts to diversify the ‘narrative’ by representating its several characters in different ways: Calypso for example, is representated by a flute, and Telemachus by a solo violin.
By the time of Beethoven even the most abstract and classical of musical fortas had become capable of bearing a programmatic meaning. The Pastoral Symphony is but one example of a piece that seems to be straining to break free of the constraints imposed by its Classical format in the interests of a pictorial idea. The ‘Lebewohl’ Sonata Op.8la is another. Both have precedents, in the eighteenth-century depictions of Nature and in Bach’s capriccio for his departing brother. Like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Dittersdorf’s symphonies based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, they attempt to combine a narrative depiction with a rigorous musical form. This led Beethoven’s admirers to suppose that the idea of a ‘purely musical’ structure was after all an illusion, and that the greatness of Beethoven’s symphony, in particular its architectural perfection, was of a piece with its profound extra-musical meaning, and that great symphonic writing was but the expression of an independent poetic idea. This impression was enhanced by Beethoven’s hint that an understanding of his sonata Op.31 No.2 could be induced by a reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.Schering(1936) attemted to explain Beethoven’s entire output as programmatic reflections on themes from Shakespeare’s and Goethe.⁵
Whatever one thinks of those speculations, which have been further extended to the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart (the French theorist Momignyeven set a verbal text to a Mozart quarter movement as an interpretation of it⁶), there is no doubt that the greatest step towards true programme music in the Romantic sense was made not by Beethoven but by Berlioz, who introduced into musical representation for the firsttime a
Distinction vitas to any true narrative portrayal of things in the world, the distinction between subject and object. By his use of the solo viola in his symphony Harold en Italie and by his exploitation of its deeply subjective protagonist the feeling, suffering and rejoicing being at the centre of the narrative and the external circumstances of his experience. Berlioz also introduced the device of the idée fixe, a melody representative of a character of feeling, which reappears in variety of forms and develops Wagnerian leitmotif, through which device the narrative pretensions of music were to receive their most striking confirmation. The leitmotif a which develops sometimes out of all recognition in order to convey the evolution of its narrative theme, permitted representation in music without a hint of imitation. By means of this device later composers, in particular Liszt and Richard Strauss, were able to associate specific themes with a fixed representational meaning. The traditional devices survived, and with Strauss imitation was carried to extremes never previously envisaged, but is was through the leitmotif above all that music was able to emulate the descriptive range of language and that Liszt was able to approach the ideal he had set himself, the ideal of music that could not be understood even as music unless the correct poetic conception was invoked in the hearer’s mind.
It is possible to doubt that Liszt ever realized that ideal, or indeed that it is capable of realization, because the conception of musical understanding underlying the theory of programme music may not be coherent one. Nonetheless, once the theoretical foundations of the genre had been laid, programme music became highly important. Indeed the ‘programme’ survived as a basic determining idea in symphonic music until well into the reaction led by Schoenberg in Vienna, by Bartok in Hungary, and by the cosmopolitan Stravinsky. It gave rise to many of the great works of Czech and Russian nationalism, to the symphonies of Mahler and to the French school of orchestral writing.
The concept of programme music also led to the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy. But it is doubtful that their music should be regarded as truly programmatic in the Romantics’ sense; impressionism may rather have constituted a partial reaction against the narrative pretensions of the symphonic poem it was another attempt to put evocation in the place of narrative. It would be better therefore to compare Debussy's Préludes with the orders of Couperin, and to consider that the titles (which Debussy was at pains to put not at the beginning but at the end of the pieces) serve to
Indicate an expressive atmosphere rather than a definite descriptive significance. Indeed, it seems that Debussy did not intend knowledge of the subject to be essential to an understanding of his music. It is from Debussy’s pure style and clean textures that much of the most abstract of modern music has taken its inspiration.
By the end of the nineteenth century the increasing afflatus of Romanticism had served once again to destroy the distinction between representational and expressive intentions in music. So long as music aims to capture a particular episode, a particular sequence of events or a particular human character, then its representational claims are not in doubt. When, however, it attaches itself to a programme phrased entirely in emotional or quasi-religious abstractions, it is doubtful that it can be considered to be a depiction rather than an expression of its subject matter. For example Tatyana Schloezer wrote a programme for the symphony No.3, ‘Le Divin Poème’, by Skriabin (whose mistress she was) beginning:
The Divine Poem represents the evolution of human spirit, which, turn from an entire past of beliefs and mysteries which it surmounts and overturns, passes through Pantheism and attains to a joyous and intoxicated affirmation of its liberty and its unity with the universe (the divine ‘Ego’).
That is an example of the ‘programme’ at its most self-important. It is also an example of the degeneration of the concept from something relatively precise to something entirely vaporous. For Skriabin, Mahler and their contemporaries the ‘programme’ was on the verge of becoming irrelevant to an understanding of the music. The entire burden of the musical movement lay now in expressions; representation had been cast aside. In so far as the programme continued to exist it was a source of exasperating literary preciosities rather than of genuine musical ideas. It is hardly suprising that composers soon began to turn their backs on programme music and find their way to expression through more abstract musical means. In the 1960s and 1970s. however some revival of programmatic or semi-programmatic devices could be noted, for example in the works of Maxwell Davies, Leeuw, Norby and Schafer.