View Poll Results: Which do you prefer?

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  • Absolute Music

    27 40.91%
  • Program Music

    7 10.61%
  • No Preference

    32 48.48%
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Thread: Absolute Vs. Program Music

  1. #1
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    Default Absolute Vs. Program Music

    So, which do you prefer?

    [In case you haven't come across the terms before, absolute music is music that does not refer to anything external to itself - e.g. a Brahms symphony, plus many other thousands of pieces! - and program music is music intended to represent something external to the music, whether it's a simple image, scene or work of literature, such as Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet etc. etc. But note that ballets, operas, incidental or vocal music don't count. I'm sure you know what I mean now ]

    Of course, this question is not about which of the two is intrinsically better, because such an issue is far too subjective for one of the two to actually be logically better than the other. So, just which do you prefer and why?

    Personally, I find myself torn between the two of them. As a student of English Language and Literature, and as a lover of classical music (to the extent that I practically make it my life, listen to nothing else, and shove it into my English degree whenever I can!), I find it absolutely fascinating when the two art forms come together; some of my favourite masterpieces are symphonic poems/fantasies/overtures etc. based on great works of literature, precisely because I find it incredible how a piece of music can conjure up the fantasy-literary world of a work of fiction (though, admittedly, you have to know the literature first, or the music could bring anything to mind that fits the general mood of the piece).

    However, at the same time, my favourite composer (as you might be able to guess) is Brahms, and he is noted as someone who preferred to write absolute music. Of course, while I admire him, I'm not going to make that a reason to inherit his likes and preferences, but it still causes me to question why he stayed away from the form. And, naturally, as he is my favourite composer, a lot of my favourite pieces are therefore absolute music.

    The way I conclude this dilemma (at the moment, for my opinion is always changing) is that Brahms provides my utmost inspiration and is unattainable perfection (just as Beethoven was to him and many other composers), but, if I were ever to make a living out of being a composer, my oeuvre would undoubtedly look biased towards program music due to my strong association with literature and my desire to bring the two art forms together.
    Last edited by Polednice; Sep-19-2009 at 15:44.

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    Senior Member bassClef's Avatar
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    Program music for me - I like music to paint a picture in my mind. Sometimes it does even before I know what the subject matter really is - sometimes it even matches!

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    Senior Member haydnguy's Avatar
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    No preference for me. I like both.

    EDIT: Wow I just voted and there is a 3-way tie!!

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    Senior Member World Violist's Avatar
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    I don't care; if it's done well, it's fair game. Pohjola's Daughter is just as moving to me as a great "absolute" symphony.
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Senior Member danae's Avatar
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    Hey, nice thread!

    First of all, when we distinguish between "absolute" and "programme" music (which is a distinction that goes back roughly to 1830, the year Berlioz composed his Symphonie Fantastique), we 're basically talking about instrumental music not intended for the stage. So, any ballet, incidental music, or any genre having to do with an explicit (in the form of words) storyline or plot, is not programme music.

    Having made this distinction, my own preferences lie within the realm of absolute music.

    The main principle of programme music, is that it relies strongly upon the extra-musical idea. Therefore, it is suggested that, in order to fully comprehend a programmatic work, one must be aware of the programme which underlines it.

    However, this is not always necessary for anything other than the intention for a complete and comprehensive analysis of these works. Take, for instance, Rimsky-Korsakow’s Sheherazade, or Mussorgsky’s Night on the bald mountain. They’re fine examples of programmatic music. But how is it that I enjoy these works immensely without having the need to translate the music into action or character?

    I think that even programme music can have audible structure without the need of the programme itself. A symphonic poem (the main vehicle through which composers of programme music presented their ideas) is not the same as a sonata or a theme with variations, but it certainly has a structure that doesn’t necessarily need the extra-musical idea in order to work.

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    Senior Member dmg's Avatar
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    I just enjoy music.

  7. Likes ScipioAfricanus liked this post
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    Quote Originally Posted by danae View Post
    Hey, nice thread!

    First of all, when we distinguish between "absolute" and "programme" music (which is a distinction that goes back roughly to 1830, the year Berlioz composed his Symphonie Fantastique), we 're basically talking about instrumental music not intended for the stage. So, any ballet, incidental music, or any genre having to do with an explicit (in the form of words) storyline or plot, is not programme music.

    Having made this distinction, my own preferences lie within the realm of absolute music.

    The main principle of programme music, is that it relies strongly upon the extra-musical idea. Therefore, it is suggested that, in order to fully comprehend a programmatic work, one must be aware of the programme which underlines it.

    However, this is not always necessary for anything other than the intention for a complete and comprehensive analysis of these works. Take, for instance, Rimsky-Korsakow’s Sheherazade, or Mussorgsky’s Night on the bald mountain. They’re fine examples of programmatic music. But how is it that I enjoy these works immensely without having the need to translate the music into action or character?

    I think that even programme music can have audible structure without the need of the programme itself. A symphonic poem (the main vehicle through which composers of programme music presented their ideas) is not the same as a sonata or a theme with variations, but it certainly has a structure that doesn’t necessarily need the extra-musical idea in order to work.
    Thanks for making that further distinction between absolute and program music; one other common problem that just sprang to mind is that any vocal music is not program music. It's tempting to classify a lot of vocal music as such, such as the abundance of song cycles that set poetry to music, but (sadly) these don't count! In this sense, I do have a preference for program music, but I would have to say that it is because I have a broader preference for music informed by literature, not all of which is program music.

    Having said that, you raised an interesting issue with regards to program music that functions very well without a thorough working knowledge of the program itself. I think that is certainly true, but I would also add that the value of the program should never be underestimated.

    As a personal example, when exploring the works of Dvorak, The Noon Witch (a symphonic poem based on Karel Jaromir Erben's poetry) immediately became one of my favourite pieces even though I had absolutely no idea about the Czech poetry that it was based on. The title (and a wikipedia summary!) were enough to give me a vague idea of 'this is the good person's motif; that is the bad person's... how delightfully epic!'.

    I already knew that the composition was a masterpiece, but when I thoroughly researched the poetry it was based on, and uncovered all the motifs, it was instantaneously more astounding. The picture it painted became much more vivid; the sound of the various motifs much more devastating. Not only that, I discovered sounds in the piece that I simply hadn't heard before, which is always a lovely surprise - particularly when such a hidden sound is representative of a character's actions.

    This is probably more particular to symphonic poems that are quite tightly connected with the literature they represent; in the case of Dvorak's works, there are many motifs that constantly develop in line with the literary plot. However, in other program music, it's clear that composers simply take the idea of an entire scene - or even the entire poem/play etc. - and just use that single point to develop the entire musical piece without adhering to the chronology and development of the literature.

    Still, my message is that while program music can be wonderful without understanding the program; and while it can be slightly more wonderful with a wikipedia summary of the program (or concert notes); the value of understanding the program intimately should not be underestimated, and, if you have the opportunity to make yourself familiar with it, then you absolutely should. In this sense, I think great program music has the added bonus of introducing us to new masterpieces in another art-form (i.e. literature).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Polednice View Post
    I find it incredible how a piece of music can conjure up the fantasy-literary world of a work of fiction (though, admittedly, you have to know the literature first, or the music could bring anything to mind that fits the general mood of the piece).
    Indeed. Which makes
    intended to represent something external to the music
    a null set.

    Quote Originally Posted by danae
    First of all, when we distinguish between "absolute" and "programme" music (which is a distinction that goes back roughly to 1830, the year Berlioz composed his Symphonie Fantastique)
    Odd how this symphony gets credited with starting programme music, as it ignores Beethoven's sixth and a host of Haydn symphonies and tons of other pieces going back hundreds of years. And ironic, too, as Berlioz symphony was written first and then the programme. The programme was written to explain the music (as Berlioz quite rightly knew that it would be incomprehensible without a programme, and programme's were pretty well expected then anyway), so it's really that the story of Symphonie Fantastique that tells the music, not the music that tells the story.

    Quote Originally Posted by danae
    The main principle of programme music, is that it relies strongly upon the extra-musical idea. Therefore, it is suggested that, in order to fully comprehend a programmatic work, one must be aware of the programme which underlines it.

    However, this is not always necessary for anything other than the intention for a complete and comprehensive analysis of these works. Take, for instance, Rimsky-Korsakow’s Sheherazade, or Mussorgsky’s Night on the bald mountain. They’re fine examples of programmatic music. But how is it that I enjoy these works immensely without having the need to translate the music into action or character?
    Because the first assertion, that "programme music relies strongly upon the extra-musical idea," must have been wrong.[/quote]

    Fugue, you may recall, means to flee or to chase. There's a program right there. And surely the sonata form could also be considered a program, as well as theme and variations. Indeed any given form could be seen as a program that generates all those works we think of as "abstract."

    In a very real sense, music cannot conjure up anything. It's just itself. We can assign extra-musical meanings to any piece, but to gauge the force of the assertion that music can convey something, one need only look at the hundreds of examples of composers reusing melodies and motifs from earlier works. The programs or stories change, you see, but the music stays (largely) the same. How is that possible? Because the music itself, those pitches, those rhythms, those harmonies, already "means" something, something musical, not tied to a particular story but somehow mysteriously tie-able to almost any story.

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    The problem with Beethoven's sixth et. al. is that the 'program' is usually a few sentences attached to a movement. His music is not really program music in that the extra-musical comments are simply to set the mood; and as Beethoven said, they could most likely be derived without us having to be told what they are.

    Program music, then, is probably best understood as incidental music without the play. Its intentions are to remain closely linked to a particular plot, but the action is supposed to take place within the mind. Thus, while all forms of music have some kind of 'program', we mustn't conflate that idea with the much more specific genre of Program Music. Indeed, music cannot intrinsically conjure up anything external to itself, but that feature doesn't necessarily detract from utilising music to invoke certain ideas or scenes. Program music, then, is a piece of music, the composer of which tells us (in not so many words): 'I know that this is music, and music cannot be intrinsically associated with anything but itself, but just imagine that this is 'X Play' by 'Y Playwright', now allow your mind to paint the plot, and then judge my work'.

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    Senior Member danae's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by some guy View Post

    Odd how this symphony gets credited with starting programme music, as it ignores Beethoven's sixth and a host of Haydn symphonies and tons of other pieces going back hundreds of years.
    Agreed. Programme music didn't start with Berlioz of course. Beethoven's 6th, as you mentioned, as well as Haydn's Farewell symphony, are but a few examples.
    Nonetheless, it was around that time (1830) when the issue "absolut vs. programme" music appeared in the rhetoric with regard to new music.

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    I voted no preference.

    If the the structure of a play or film is influencing the structure of a music piece, that still wouldn't be much different from absolute music. Literature and music have similar structures, often modeled not too surprisingly after the act of lovemaking, but that is a different topic altogether. I believe paintings would incorporate this structure too if they could reveal themselves in a span of time as music and literature do. (I've spent much of my life off and on searching for a grand unified theory of aesthetics in my layman's way.)

    Hence I find only subtle differences between the end result of the two. I consider the program to be one of many valid springboards for the creative act of making music.

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    Quote Originally Posted by danae View Post
    Agreed. Programme music didn't start with Berlioz of course. Beethoven's 6th, as you mentioned, as well as Haydn's Farewell symphony, are but a few examples.
    I think it started even earlier than that. An obvious example is Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

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    This is a very interesting discussion. I think it may have a connection with how different people listen to music. Some people tend to naturally write their own 'programme' to any music they here, including absolute music. They see pictures in their mind, and this helps them to enjoy the music. I should not be surprised if such people find extra enjoyment in programme music. (I am making assumptions here with no data to back me up. I'd be interested to see if other people agree).

    I have never really done this, except with pieces such as carnival or the animals or flight of the bumblebee where you really can't avoid it! And so I have a slight preference for 'absolute music' and especially symphonies. Having said that, I love a good deal of programme music, but again, I still listen to it mostly as just music, with no other associations - and yet I love bird-calls in music so go figure! I don't think that makes me any better or worse than listeners whose imagination is more vivid than mine, and both kinds of music have their merits.

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    I'm a big fan of program music, but one of my favorite musical quotes (by Stravinsky, no less) is (something along the lines of): "Music is incapable of expressing anything but itself." So, is there really such a thing as program music?

    Violist brought up Pohjola's Daughter, surely one of the great tone poems of all time. Its program comes from the Kalevala where Vainamoinen tries to woo the maiden of the north. She gives him several impossible tasks to complete in order to win her love, including the not-so-easy challenge of tying an egg into a knot! She laughs at his various attempts, all of which he fails, and he goes on his way feeling defeated.

    Now, do you think ANYONE would know this is a tale from the Kalevala with any amount of ease without being told what it's all about before hand? I HIGHLY doubt it. My point is that I agree with Stravinsky: music can only express ITSELF and certainly not a story.

    Pohjola's Daughter doesn't need a back story, though, to stand as a great work of music unto itself.

    I have also been known to create my own program with works of absolute music. In Sibelius's 3rd, I see lots of pastoral scenes. In his 6th, it about Gothic cathedrals.

    So, for me, music is music period. Programs are cool because you can see how the composer works to suggest a certain mood or story, but the music should stand on its own two feet, too. So it's impossible for me to choose program over absolute, or vice versa. I just choose good music!
    "Music is not philosophy." --Akira Ifukube

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    Senior Member emiellucifuge's Avatar
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    i dont really categorise, Ill just listen and determine from there.

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