Instrumental music that interprets a story, depicts a scene or painting, or illustrates a literary or philosophical idea. The term was first used by Franz Liszt in the 19th century, when programme music was especially popular with composers of Romantic music (see Romanticism), but there had been a great deal of descriptive music before then. Examples include Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons concertos (1725), Ludwig van Beethoven's Eroica and Pastoral symphonies (1803 and 1808), Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture (‘Fingal's Cave’, 1830), and the symphonic poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss.
Narrative and descriptive music Liszt coined the phrase ‘programme music’ in the mid-19th century, originally using it for music that is introduced by a ‘programme’ and expresses (rather than describes) a poetic idea. Nowadays it is applied to any purely instrumental music based on a literary, pictorial, historical, biographical, autobiographical, or any other extramusical subject, as opposed to absolute music – music with a purely abstract meaning. The programmatic element can be as vague as simply having a descriptive title given to it by the composer to set the mood, or a much more detailed depiction of a scene or story. Often, however, it is impossible to tell the difference between the depiction of a scene and the composer's reaction to it.
Early programme music Musical descriptions of actions and events have existed from the earliest times. One of the first developments of real programme music came in Elizabethan England with composers for the virginal, whose music is often very descriptive. Titles such as Giles Farnaby's Dream, and Doctor Bull's Myself and Up Tails All are typical. This tradition was continued well into the 18th century by the music of the French harpsichordists, notably François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, and German composers such as Johann Kuhnau, whose Biblical Sonatas are programme music similar to that of Liszt – each one is introduced by a summary of what the music depicts.
Popular subjects One of the first popular forms was battle music, using musical sounds to depict the sounds of battle, an early example being Clement Janequin's chansonLa Bataille (1529). The tradition continued with pieces for harpsichord such as William Byrd's The Battell, through to the 19th century with Beethoven's Battle Symphony (written for a mechanical orchestra) and Pyotr Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (1880). Another popular subject has been the description of nature in one form or another. Vivaldi's Four Seasons (1725), Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (1808), and Claude Debussy's La Mer/The Sea (1905) are perhaps the best-known examples.
Symphonic poems In the 19th century, composers such as Hector Berlioz took Beethoven's idea of the symphony a stage further, developing the Romantic programme symphony. Despite its basically classical form and abstract tradition, the symphony provided a framework into which the Romantic composers could put all kinds of extramusical ideas. Berlioz's use of an ideé fixe (fixed idea) to depict characters in his Harold in Italy symphony (1834) and Symphonie Fantastique (1830–31) paved the way for the development of the symphonic poem and its use of Richard Wagner's leitmotif. The symphonic poem became very popular as a form in the latter half of the 19th century and was particularly favoured by Liszt and Richard Strauss. In the 20th century, programme music became less popular for a while with the rise of neoclassicism and serialism, and was even looked down upon as less ‘serious’ than absolute music, but its appeal to the general public has never been in doubt.
Links with other arts Because programme music attempts to convey an extramusical idea, it very often has links with other artistic disciplines, and its inspiration may come from sources such as literature or painting. Particularly during the Romantic period, music looked outside its traditional forms for inspiration – as personal expression had become the goal of the artist, the classical notion of abstract formal beauty had become outdated – and increasingly turned to the other arts. In Britain and Germany the literary tradition has been a significant source of inspiration, while in France and Italy it is more likely to be painting and sculpture.
Berlioz, (Louis) Hector
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