PROGRAMME MUSIC, a musical nickname which has passed into academic currency, denoting instrumental music without words but descriptive of non-musical ideas. Musical sounds lend themselves to descriptive purposes with an ease which is often uncontrollable. A chromatic scale may suggest the whistling of the wind or the cries of cats; reiterated staccato notes may suggest many things, from raindrops to the cackling of hens. Again, though music cannot directly imitate anything in nature except sounds, it has a range of contrast and a power of climax that is profoundly emotional in effect; and the emotions it calls up may resemble those of some dramatic story, or those produced by the contemplation of nature. But chromatic scales, reiterated notes, emotional contrasts and climaxes, are also perfectly normal musical means of expression; and the attempts to read non-musical meanings into them are often merely annoying to composers who have thought only of the music. Some distinguished writers on music have found a difficulty in admitting the possibility of emotional contrasts and climaxes in an art without an external subject-matter. But it is impossible to study the history of music without coming to the conclusion that in all mature periods music has been self-sufficient to this extent, that, whatever stimulus it may receive from external ideas, and however much of these ideas it may have embodied in its structure, nothing has survived as a permanently intelligible classic that has not been musically coherent to a degree which seems to drive the subject-matter into the background, even in cases where that subject-matter is naturally present, as in songs, choral works and operas. In short, since sound as it occurs in nature is not sufficiently highly organized to form the raw material for art, there is no natural tendency in music to include, as a " subject, " any item conceivable apart from its artistic embodiment. Explicit programme music has thus never been a thing of cardinal importance, either in the transitional periods in which it has been most prominent, or in the permanent musical classics.
At the same time, artistic creation is not a thing that can be governed by any a priori metaphysical theory; and no great artist has been so ascetic as always to resist the inclination to act on the external ideas that impress him. No composer writes important music for the voice without words; for speech is too ancient a function of the human voice to be ousted by any a priori theory of art; and no really artistic composer, handling a living art-form, has failed to be influenced, sooner or later, by the words which he sets. It matters little if these words be in themselves very poor, for even false sentiment must make some appeal to true experience, and the great composers are quicker to seize the truth than to criticize its verbal presentation or to suspect insincerity. The earliest mature musical art was, then, inevitably descriptive, since it was vocal. So incessant is the minute onomatopoeia of 16th-century music, both in the genuine form of sound-painting (Tonmalerei) and in the spurious forms to which composers were led by the appearance of notes on paper (e.g. quick notes representing " darkness " because they are printed black!) that there is hardly a page in the productions of the "golden age" of music which has not its literary aspect. Programme music, then, may be expected to derive many of its characteristics from ancient times; but it cannot properly be said to exist until the rise of instrumental music, for not until then could music be based upon external ideas that did not arise inevitably from the use of words or dramatic action.
The resources of the modern orchestra have enabled recent composers to attain a realism which makes that of earlier descriptive music appear ridiculous; but there is little to choose between classics and moderns in the intellectual childishness of such realism. Thunderstorms, bird-songs and pastoral effects galore have been imitated by musicians great and small from the days of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to those of the episode of the flock of sheep in Strauss's Don Quixote. And, while the progress in realism has been so immense that the only step which remains is to drive a real flock of sheep across the concert-platform, the musical progress implied thereby has been that from inexpensive to expensive rubbish. What is really important, in the programme music of Strauss no less than that of the classics, is the representation of characters and feelings. In this respect the classical record is of high interest, though the greatest composers have contributed but little to it. Thus the Bible Sonatas of J. Kuhnau (published in 1 700) and Bach's early Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, which is closely modelled on Kuhnau's programme music, show very markedly the tendency on the one hand to illustrate characters and feelings, and on the other hand to extract from their programmes every occasion for something that would be a piece of incidental music if the stories were presented as dramas. Thus, though Kuhnau in his naive explanatory preface to his first Bible sonata seems to be trying, like a child, to frighten himself into a fit by describing the size and appearance of Goliath, in the music it is only le bravate of Goliath that are portrayed. Thus the best movement in the Goliath sonata is a figured chorale (Aus liefer Noth schrei' ich zu Dir) representing the terror and prayers of the Israelites. And thus the subjects of the other sonatas (Saul cured by David's music; The Marriage of Jacob; Hezekiah; Gideon; and The Funeral of Jacob) are in various quaint ways musical because ethical ; though Kuhnau's conceptions are far better than his execution. In the same way Bach makes his Capriccio descriptive of the feelings of the anxious and sorrowing friends of the departing brother, and his utmost realism takes the form of a lively fugue, very much in Kuhnau's best style, on the themes of the postilion's coachhorn and cracking whip. Even Buxtehude's musical illustrations of the " nature and characters of the planets " are probably not the absurdities they have been hastily taken for by writers to whom their title seems nonsensical; for Buxtehude would, of course, take an astrological rather than an astronomical view of the subject, and so the planets would represent temperaments, and their motions the music of the spheres.
Nearly all the harpsichord pieces of Couperin have fantastic titles, and a few of them are descriptive music. His greater contemporary and survivor, Rameau, was an opera composer of real importance, whose harpsichord music contains much that is ingeniously descriptive. La Poule, with its theme inscribed " co-co-co-co-co-co-cocodai, " is one of the best harpsichord pieces outside Bach, and is also one of the most minutely realistic compositions ever written. French music has always been remarkably dependent on external stimulus, and nearly all its classics are either programme music or operas. And the extent to which Rameau's jokes may be regarded as typically French is indicated by the fact that Haydn apologized for his imitation of frogs in The Seasons, saying that this " franzosische Quark " had been forced on him by a friend. But throughout the growth of the sonata style, not excepting Haydn's own early work, the tendency towards gratuitously descriptive music is very prominent; and the symphonies of Dittersdorf on the Metamorphoses of Ovid are excellent examples of the way in which external ideas may suggest much that is valuable to a musician who struggles with new forms, while at the same time they may serve to distract attention from points in which his designs break down. (See SYMPHONIC POEM.) Strict accuracy would forbid us to include in our survey such descriptive music as comes in operatic overtures or other pieces in which the programme is really necessitated by the conditions of the art; but the line cannot be so drawn without cutting off much that is essential. From the time of Gluck onwards there was a natural and steady growth in the descriptive powers of operatic music, which could not fail to react upon purely instrumental music; but of programme music for its own sake we may say there is no first-rate classic on a large scale before Beethoven, though Beethoven himself could no more surpass Haydn in illustrating an oratorio text (as in the magnificent opening of The Creation) than Haydn could surpass Handel.
Mozart's Musikalischer Spass is a solitary example of a special branch of descriptive music; a burlesque of incompetent performers and Incompetent composers. The lifelike absurdity of the themes with their caricature of classical formulas; the inevitable processes by which the " howlers " in composition seem to arrive as by natural laws, further complicated by the equally natural laws of the howlers in performance; and the unfailing atmosphere of good nature with which Mozart satirizes, among other things, his own style; all combine to make this work very interesting on paper. The effect in performance is astonishing; so exactly, or rather so ideally, is the squalid effect of bad structure and performance kept at a constant level of comic interest. (In the Leipzig edition of the parts of this work the modern editor has added a new and worthy act to Mozart's glorious farce by correcting and questioning many of the mistakes!) Mozart's burlesque has remained unapproached, even in dramatic music. Compared with it, Wagner's portrait of Beckmesser in Die Meislersinger seems embittered in conception and disappointing in comic effect. Mendelssohn is said to have had a splendid faculty for extemporizing similar musical jokes. His Funeral March of Pyramus and Thisbe in the Midsummer Night's Dream, and Cornelius's operatic trio in which three persons conjugate the verb Ich sterbe den Tod des Verriiters, are among the few examples of a burlesque in which there is enough musical sense to keep the joke alive. Such burlesques have their bearing on programme music, in so far as they involve the musical portrayal of character and give opportunity for masterly studies of the psychology of failure. Their special resources thus play a large part in the recent development of the symphonic poem by Richard Strauss, whose instrumental works avowedly illustrate his cheerfully pessimistic views on art and life. But into the main classics of programme music this kind of characterization hardly enters at all.
Beethoven was three times moved to ascribe some of his profoundest music to an external source. In the first instance, that of the Eroica Symphony, he did not really produce anything that can fairly be called programme music. Napoleon, before he became emperor, was his ideal hero; and a triumphant symphony, on a gigantic scale and covering the widest range of emotion expressible by music, seemed to him a tribute due to the liberator of Europe; until the liberator became the tyrant. That the slow movement should be a funeral march was, in relation to the heroic tone of the work, as natural as that a symphony should have a slow movement at all. There is no reason in music why the idea of heroic death and mourning should be the end of the representation of heroic ideals. Hence it is unnecessary, though plausible, to hear, in the lively whispering opening of the scherzo, the babel of the fickle crowd that soon forgets its hero; and the criticism which regards the finale as " an inappropriate concession to sonata form " may be dismissed as merely unmusical without therefore being literary. Beethoven's next work inspired from without was the Pastoral Symphony: and there he records his theory of programme music on the title-page, by calling it " rather the expression of feeling than tone-painting." There is not a bar of the Pastoral Symphony that would be otherwise if its " programme " had never been thought of either by Beethoven or by earlier composers. The nightingale, cuckoo and quail have exactly the same function in the coda of the slow movement as dozens of similar non-thematic episodes at the close of other slow movements (e.g. in the violin sonata Op. 24, and the pianoforte sonata in D minor). The " merry meeting of country folk " is a subject that lends itself admirably to Beethoven's form of scherzo (q.v.); and the thunderstorm, which interrupts the last repetition of this scherzo, and forms an introduction to the finale, is none the less purely musical for being, like several of Beethoven's inventions, without any formal parallel in other works. Beethoven's Battle Symphony is a clever pot-boiler, which, like most musical representations of such noisy things as battles, may be disregarded in the study of serious programme music. His third great example is the sonata Les Adieux, I' absence et le retour. Here, again, we have a monument of pure sonata form; and, whatever light may be thrown upon the musical interpretation of the work by a knowledge of the relation between Beethoven and his friend and patron the Archduke Rudolph and the circumstances of the archduke's departure from Vienna during the Napoleonic wars, far more light may be thrown upon Beethoven's feelings by the study of the music in itself. This ought obviously to be true of all successful programme music; the music ought to illustrate the programme, but we ought not to need to learn or guess at quantities of extraneous information in order to understand the music. No doubt much ingenuity may be spent in tracing external details (the end of the first move- ment of Les Adieux has been compared to the departure of a coach), but the real emotional basis is of a universal and musical kind. The same observations apply to the overtures to Coriolan, Egmont and Leonora; works in which the origin as music for the stage is so far from distracting Beethoven's attention from musical form that the overture which was at first most inseparably associated with the stage and most irregular in form (Leonora No. 2) took final shape as the most gigantic formal design ever embodied in a single movement (Leonora No. 3), and so proved to be too large for the final version of the opera for which it was first conceived. Beethoven's numerous recorded assertions, whether as to the " picture " he had hi his mind whenever he composed, or as to the " meaning " of any particular composition, are not things on which it is safe to rely. Many of his friends, especially his first biographer, Schindler, irritated him into putting them off with any nonsense that came into his head. Composers who have much to express cannot spare time for expressing it in other terms than those of their own art.
Modern programme music shows many divergent tendencies, the least significant of which is the common habit of giving fantastic titles to pieces of instrumental music after they have been composed, as was the case with many of Schumann's pianoforte lyrics. Such a habit may conduce to the immediate popularity of the works, though it is apt to impose on their interpretation limits which might not quite satisfy the composer himself. But there is plenty of genuine programme music in Schumann's case, though, as with Beethoven, the musical sense throws far more light on the programme than the programme throws upon the music. Musical people may profitably study E. T. A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul Richter in the light of Schumann's Novellettes and Kreisleriana; but if they do not already understand Schumann's music, Jean Paul and Hoffmann will help them only to talk about it. The popular love of fantastic titles for music affected even the most abstract and academic composers during the romantic period. No one wrote more programme music than Spohr; and, strange to say, while Spohr's programme constantly interfered with the externals of his form and ruined the latter part of his symphony Die Weihe der Tone, it did not in any way help to broaden his style. Mendelssohn's Scotch and Italian symphonies, and his Hebrides Overture, are cases rather of what may be called local colour than of programme music. His Reformation Symphony, which he himself regarded as a failure, and which was not published until after his death, is a composite production, artistically more successful, though less popular, than Spohr's Weihe der Tone. The overture to the Midsummer Night's Dream is a marvellous musical epitome of Shakespeare's play; and the one point which invites criticism, namely, the comparative slightness and conventionality of its second subject, may be defended as closely corresponding with Shakespeare's equally defensible treatment of the two pairs of lovers.
The one composer of the mid-nineteenth century who really lived on programme music was Berlioz, but he shows a characteristic inability to make up his mind as to what he is doing at any given moment. Externals appeal to him with such overwhelming force that, with all the genuine power of his rhetoric, he often loses grasp of the situation he thinks he is portraying. The moonshine and the sentiment of the Scene d'amour, in his Romeo and Juliet symphony, is charming; and the agitated sighing episodes which occasionally interrupt its flow, though not musically convincing, are dramatically plain enough to anyone who has once read the balcony scene: but when Berlioz thinks of the nurse knocking or calling at the door his mind is so possessed with the mere incident of the moment that he makes a realistic noise without interrupting the amorous duet. No idea of the emotional tension of the two lovers, of Juliet's artifices for gaining time, and of her agitation at the interruptions of the nurse, seems here to enter into Berlioz's head. Again, if the whole thing is to be expressed in instrumental music, why do we have, before the scene begins, real voices of persons in various degrees of conviviality returning home from the ball? The whole design is notoriously full of similar incongruities, of which these are the more significant for being the most plausible. There is luinlly a single work of Berlioz, except the Harold symphony and the Symphonic fantastique, in which the determination to write programme music does not frequently yield to the impulse to make singers get up and explain in words what it is all about. The climax of absurdity is in the Symphonic funebre el triomphale, written for the inauguration of the Bastille Column, and scored for an enormous military band and chorus. The first movement is a funeral march, and is not only one of Berlioz's finest pieces, but probably the greatest work ever written for a military band. The Apotheose chorus is in the form of a triumphal march. Because the occasion was one on which there would be plenty of real speeches, Berlioz must needs write a connecting link called Oraison funebre, consisting of a sermon delivered by a solo trombone; presumably for use in later performances. His naive Gasconade genius prefers this to the use of the chorus! Current modern criticism demands plausibility, though it cares little for intellectual soundness: and while practically the whole of Liszt's work is professedly programme music (where it is not actually vocal) and, though there is much in it which is incomplete without external explanation, Liszt is far too " modern " to betray himself into obvious confusion between different planes of musical realism. With all his unreality of style, Liszt's symphonic poems are remarkable steps towards the attainment of a kind of instrumental music which, whether its form is dictated by a programme or not, is at any rate not that of the classical symphony. The programmes of Liszt's works have not always, perhaps not often, produced a living musical form; a form, that is, in which the rhythms and proportions are neither stiff nor nebulous. Both in breadth of design and in organization and flow, the works of Richard Strauss are as great an advance on Liszt as they are more complex in musical, realistic and autobiographical content. Being, with the exception of the latest French orchestral developments, incomparably the most important works illustrating the present state of musical transition, they have given rise to endless discussions as to the legitimacy of programme music. Such discussions are mere windmill-tilting unless it is constantly borne in mind that no artist who has anything of his own to say will ever be prevented from saying it, in the best art-forms attainable in his day, by any scruples as to whether the antecedents of his art-forms are legitimate or not. There is only one thing that is artistically legitimate, and that is a perfect work of art. And the only thing demonstrably prejudicial to such legitimacy in a piece of programme music is that even the most cultured of musicians generally understand music better than they understand anything else, while the greatest musicians know more of their art than is dreamt of in general culture. (D. F. T.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)