Thursday, September 30, 2010

Programmatic Music vs. Absolute Music

There are pretty much two styles of music that we encounter in our studies and performance practice throughout our entire collection of musical repertoire. These two styles are known as Programmatic Music and Absolute Music.

Programmatic music is a style of music that needs some sort of extra, non-musical material to give information to the audience that will enhance their listening experience. This information could be in the form of the title of the music work or in the program notes of the musical performance. Programmatic music tends to be based on poems, paintings, or events and the music is sometimes accompanied by pictures, text, and dancing. Program music is also a term used for instrumental music with the absence of a vocalist or text (which leaves things like art songs and opera out).

Though there are early examples of programmatic music, this style flourished most in the romantic era in the form of tone poems. Examples of program music are pieces like "The Four Seasons" by Antonio Vivaldi, "Symphonie Fantastique" by Hector Berlioz, "Danse Macabre" by Camille Saint-Saëns, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Paul Dukas, and "Don Quixote" by Richard Strauss

Absolute Music, in contrast, is music that is able to stand on its own without any outside sources because it makes sense without the non-musical ideas. In some opinions, the extra ideas which are thought to enhance the listeners' experience actually detract from the listening experience. In a sense, absolute music is "pure music." Examples of this style are most symphonies and piano sonatas of the classical era and several symphonies in the romantic era.

The reason I'm discussing these two styles is because I've been only composing programmatic music. I'm not sure whether I would say that I've done it intentionally, but I've certainly found it much easier to write. When I have a concept to depict, I find that the music tends to write itself and I'm able to pour out works (whether they are of high quality for my skills as a composer or not) at a reasonable rate. I'm proven to myself that I can write or expand a musical idea till it runs dry and switch to a different idea to continue my piece. However, this has also proven to be a rather dangerous approach to writing music for myself after seeing the results in duration for my wind quintet, Godai (20-25 minutes in duration) and my brass quintet, Mimi-nashi Hoichi (15-20 minutes in duration).

I'm now being challenged to write absolute music and the music I'm working on now (Viola, Oboe, and Clarinet) is being assessed as absolute music even though I've started it with a programmatic concept. I'm not sure how this piece I'm working on or the pieces to follow will work out. Though I have established for myself that I agree that any musical work should be able to stand on its own without extra material.

So I open these questions to the reader: Programmatic Music or Absolute Music? Should all music be able to stand on its own? Does non-musical material detract from music?

1 comment:

  1. I say, without a story/meaning behind any work of art, it is not art. I say all pieces of music have a story behind them, and true absolute music does not exist.

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