Programme Music Then and Now

DURING the peaceful summer of 1900, at the festival of the Society of Swiss Musicians held at Zurich, was produced the symphony in E minor, opus 115, of Hans Huber, a Swiss composer born in 1852. This formidable piece of music was planned at first as a melodic celebration of Arnold Böcklin, the painter, and the composer intended to name each movement after one of this artist’s pictures. This purpose was afterward abandoned, and only in the finale, a series of variations, was the original idea of musically delineating paintings carried out. The other movements sought safety in the old and well established field of broad mood representation. Böcklin’s temperamental and personal feelings, it seemed, might be expressed without binding the symphony to a programme so detailed as to be destructive of spontaneity of style.

But in the last movement the composer showed to what programme music in these days might aspire. No less than eight variations are found in this movement, and they represent the following pictures by Böcklin: The Silence of the Ocean (in the Berne Museum), Prometheus Chained (owned by Arohold of Berlin), The Fluting Nymph (owned by Heyl of Darmstadt), The Night (owned by Henneberg of Zurich), Sport in the Waves (in the New Pinakothek, Munich), The Hermit Fiddling before the Statue of the Madonna (National Gallery, Berlin), The Dawn of Love (owned by Heyl of Darmstadt), and Baccanale (owned by Knorr of Munich).

Those who are familiar with the habits of composers will observe that all these pictures deal with subjects already introduced into the realm of musical representation. Silences and darknesses, either on sea or in mountains, have long found tonal embodiment in a more or less solemn adagio molto, major if peaceful, minor if troubled. Prometheus, both chained and unchained, has been done in music many times. Usually the composer seeks him in Æschylus, not in Böcklin. Fluting, guitarring, or harping nymphs, Greek, Roman, Alpine, and even Piccadilly, have been melodiously and harmoniously set forth in divers pieces. They are always allegretto grazioso and attended by triple rhythms. Night, with muted strings and distant horn calls, is an old orchestral friend, and is usually followed by morning, crescendo, with strings, wood, and all the brass unmuted. Love scenes, andante molto espressivo e appassionata, are always with us. Why not ? Sidney Lanier, poet and musician, said, “Music is love in search of a word.” As for bacchanales, we have had them in all styles, from tempo di valse to allegro furioso, according to the state of the bacchantes.

Huber is a fair example of the modern composer of programme music. He is not an extremist, like Strauss, nor a conservative, like Goldmark. In spite of his attempt to travel a roundabout way through painting, in itself a representative art, in order to utilize music as also representative, he has not undertaken to delineate in tones anything which has not been already delineated without the intervention of painting.

Upon his achievement, then, we may profitably hang a brief inquiry whether any of the modern writers of programme music are doing anything in itself new. We may ask ourselves whether it is not rather the manner than the matter that is novel, or at least whether the originality is not to be sought in incidents of detail rather than in the process itself.

To examine into this matter microscopically would be to make an essay at determining how far all music is representative or strictly absolute.1 The loose dictum that music is the language of the emotions may after all mean a great deal, for music which represents nothing, but appeals to us wholly as tonal architecture, is so scarce that one hardly knows where to lay his hands upon it outside of the fugues of Jadassohn.

The early writers of sonatas formulated this scheme of movements: the first, an appeal to the intelligence through the exhibition of design; the second, a slow movement, seeking by its passion or its tenderness to move the feelings; and third, the finale, a lively movement to afford relief after the intensity of the second. Yet even in this plan, upon which the most extended compositions of absolute music have been built, we find that human feeling is always considered; for even in the display of design in the first movement, there is an endeavor to arouse that emotion which springs from a contemplation of the workings of Nature’s first law, order.

The point which we must bear in mind is that the classic composers, who were the leading authors of absolute music, did not strive to blot out the emotional element from their works, but that they subordinated it to the demands of artistic form. When the romantic period arrived, composers had reached the decision that the representative powers of music were of greater importance than its formal beauties, and that thereafter forms must be occasional, not typical, —that every composer must feel at liberty to modify old forms or devise new ones according to the demands of the thought to be expressed.

This seems to be the doctrine of the composers of the present period. No one seems to be willing to compose music in the broad and indefinite manner of the early sonata writers. Every one is burdened with a profound message, a message which he desires to frame in terms of tone. Yet it is rare indeed that the message is original in itself. We have come upon a period of literary music. We must go to the concert hall, not to listen to an “ Eroica ” symphony, a piece of programme music of which the programme was entirely original with Beethoven, but to hear a prelude to CEdipus Colonnus, a symphonic prologue to William Ratcliffe, a musical analysis of Nietsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, or a set of variations setting forth with manifold details the history of Don Quixote.

We have heard so much of this species of music that when a composer entitles his composition simply “ Symphonic Variations,” we grope blindly for an explanation, and we heave a sigh of relief when we learn from the programme book, inseparable companion of programme music, the information that each variation represents one of the composer’s intimate friends. We do not know these friends ourselves, and in some cases even the programme-book writer does not know them; but still we are happy, for we have found that this music is not mere music, but that it represents something outside of itself.

The composers of to-day have a vast storehouse of musical materials from which to select their means of expression. In the first place they have all the conventional formulas which were invented by the fathers of the art, and which have been handed down from generation to generation, till there is nowhere a musical public to whom their significance is unknown. When we hear the oboe singing a solo in undulating triplets, with an accompaniment of soft strings, we know at once that we are in the presence of pastoral scenes. When the strings rush up and down the scale in alternate ascending and descending passages of considerable breadth and sonority, we know that we have embarked upon the multitudinous sea. It is unnecessary to recount the instrumental formulæ which have become parts of the common speech of music. It is necessary to do no more than to remind the reader of the readily accepted meaning of the major and minor modes, of chromatic scale passages, of sustained and slow movements as contrasted with those of rapid and agitated character.

All these things belong to the oldest machinery of composition. But in addition to these the contemporaneous composer has the enormous sweep and variety of modern harmony and the gorgeous tonal pallette of the modern orchestra. Haydn and Mozart managed to compose their symphonies within the range of half a dozen keys, none of them far away from that selected as the fundamental one. A composer of to-day chooses a key in order that he may at least finish in it, for the elasticity of the new harmony permits him to wander at will through all the major and minor keys in the course of a single movement.

Haydn and Mozart found it possible to say all that they had to say with two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, tympani, and the usual distribution of stringed instruments played with bows. In some of their later works they introduced clarinets. The symphonic composer of to-day equips himself with a piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, an English horn, four clarinets, a bass clarinet, a double-bass clarinet, three bassoons, a contra-bassoon, eight horns, three trumpets, a bass trumpet, three trombones, two tubas, kettle drums, bass drum, and cymbals, snare drum, triangle, bells, gong, six harps, and enough bowed instruments to bring out something approaching balance of tone. Sometimes even all these are not sufficient unto the day, and the composer introduces instruments not recognized in the honorable society of music at all. The far-darting Strauss, for example, has borrowed the wind machine of the theatre to realize a storm in his “Don Quixote.”

With such means of expression at hand it is not at all astonishing that the composers of to-day produce results which would have amazed the fathers of programme music. Yet the elders were not afraid, even with their slender means, to attempt quite as much as their Titanic progeny in the way of detailed description. True, they were not so overwhelmed by a consciousness of their own superiority. They approached their delineative undertakings in a charming spirit of innocence. Not fearing to drown the stars with their splashings, they plunged into the sea of tone-painting as children into woodland streams. Your modern, on the other hand, makes a to-do like the Cyclops bombarding the ship of Ulysses.

It is not essential to the purpose of this article to enumerate all the early attempts to write programme music. The most interesting, because the most logical, was that of Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) in his “Bible Sonatas.” In these six compositions for the clavier, the piano of his time, he essayed to describe such incidents as the battle of David and Goliath, the dissipation of Saul’s melancholy by the power of music, the marriage of Jacob, and other similar topics. He wrote an interesting preface to his music, explaining his aims and defending this style of composition. He tells us of a remarkable piece of programme music by one of his predecessors. This composition was entitled “ La Medica,” and it described the sufferings of a sick man, the attentions of the physician, and the progress of the illness. At the end came a gigue, with this significant programme note in the score: “The patient is progressing favorably, but has not quite recovered his health.” And the failure to reach recovery was indicated by the persistent postponement of a carefully prepared modulation in harmony! Thereupon Kuhnau imitated the deceit of Jacob by a similar postponement.

Kuhnau’s Bible sonatas invite a much more extensive examination than is practicable here. Those who care to know more about them should read J. S. Shedlock’s The Pianoforte Sonata. It is sufficient for us to note that Kuhnau proceeded logically. He admitted that only the broad emotions could be published in music, and that textual explanation was necessary when anything else was attempted. In this he joins hands with a more modern author, Wilhelm Ambros, who wrote an admirable little volume to demonstrate how far music could go in representation without the aid of poetry.

Kuhnau at any rate took care to write under the passage delineating the hurling of the stone at Goliath what may be called the stage business. “Vien tirata la sel.ce frombola nella fronte del gigante.” The passage is principally a rapid ascending scale, precisely the same idiom as that used by Wagner to illustrate the hurling of the spear at the head of Parsifal. The close relation of these two composers on this single point is further shown by the fact that a slurred scale on the clavier in the early music foreshadows the glissando passage for harp in the complex score of the later master. The calm confidence with which Kuhnau embarked upon the task of depicting the conflict between David and Goliath is delightful. This stupendous struggle was to be set forth by one player on one instrument. Richard Strauss would need for the same purpose an orchestra of not less than one hundred and twenty-five men.

The great Bach also exercised his ingenious mind, though briefly, in the field of programme music, when he composed his “Cappriccio on the departure of my dearly beloved brother.” In this he depicts the persuasions of friends trying to induce him to give up the journey, makes a picture of the things which may happen to him, utters the lament of companions saying adieu, and winds up with a cheerful fugue on the post-horn call. Almost at the same time Francois Couperin composed a set of connected pieces called “The Pilgrims,” and Rameau was painting his “Tender Girl” and “The Cyclops.” Both of these masters wrote for the clavier, thus providing food for the imagination by the fireside of a winter night.

These old writers of programme music seem to have been troubled with no misgivings. They formulated no theories. They followed the impulses of their charming natures and left posterity to solve the riddles of the speech of melody. The musicians of to-day are burdened with theories; and much of their programme music is open to the suspicion of being designed as much to support their doctrines as to provide the world with æsthetic joy. Wagner was not the only propagandist in the world of tonal art. Yet there are substantial arguments on both sides.

For example, Felix Weingartner, one of the coolest, keenest, and most scholarly of contemporaneous conductors, a student of the history and the philosophy of music, a thinker and a doer, has written a pithy little book called The Symphony since Beethoven. In it he awards a leading position among modern composers to Hector Berlioz, but finds himself unable to praise the final orchestral movement of his “Romeo and Juliet.” This bears the inscription: “Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets; Invocation, awakening of Juliet; frenzy of joy and first effects of the poison; anguish of death and parting of the lovers.”

Weingartner admits that this is almost ridiculous. He declares that music is “debased and shorn of the subtle peculiarities of its being if he [the composer] attempts to bind it bar by bar or episode by episode to a programme. Music can interpret moods, it can represent a mental state that some event has caused in us, but it cannot picture the event itself.”

On the opposite side, we find arrayed no less a champion than Ernest Newman, one of the two or three men in Great Britain who write pregnant criticism of musical art. He holds that Beethoven deceived even himself when he wrote a line over the score of his “Pastoral Symphony,” requesting that it should be regarded rather as an expression of feeling than as mere tone-painting. Mr. Newman holds that tone-painting was its chief merit, and furthermore that tone-painting has come to be a clearly defined art. Composers photograph externals now as their predecessors of two hundred years ago could not. “Who,” asks Mr. Newman, “would believe that a windmill could be represented in music ? Yet Strauss’s windmill in ‘Don Quixote’ is really extraordinarily clever and satisfying.”

This same “Don Quixote” of Strauss is the most complicated and ingenious piece of musical realism invented in these strange modern times. Yet it contains nothing that has not already been attempted by other composers. For example, in a pamphlet written by Arthur Hahn for the purpose of elucidating this score we are informed that some strange harmonies introduced under a simple melody in the introduction “characterize admirably the well-known tendency of Don Quixote toward false conclusions.” What have we here but a new avatar of Kuhnau’s deception of Jacob ?

What of the eighth variation, the “ Journey in the Enchanted Bark ? ” Don Quixote, seeing an empty boat, is sure that it has been sent by a mysterious power that he may embark in it to do some glorious deed. Once he and Sancho are afloat, the knight’s theme is transformed into a barcarolle. The boat capsizes, but the two reach the shore, and give thanks for their safety. But Froberger, who died in 1667, wrote for the clavier a description of the Count von Thurn’s passage of the Rhine, in which all the dangers encountered by him are, according to the testimony of Matheson, set before our eyes in twenty-six little pieces. And the count’s boat upset, too.

In his “ Symphonia Domestica ” Strauss went still further into the domain of musical realism. He told the story of a day in his family life, using three principal themes, representing papa, mamma, and the baby. In this remarkable composition one even hears the baby spanked. But had not Kuhnau already composed the striking of Goliath’s head by the stone from David’s sling?

The truth is that Strauss, and the few who have chosen to bear him company, are, as Mr. Newman puts it, realists in music. In the programme music of today there are also idealists, and they are the men who are carrying out to their ultimate possibilities the ideas defined in the naïve compositions of Kuhnau. Mr. Newman argues that programme music of the most detailed and definite sort is good art, but only when accompanied by printed explanation of what it means. He has therefore little sympathy with that large number of modern composers who satisfy themselves and try to satisfy their hearers by giving a simple key, such as a quotation of verse, to the general purpose of a composition. This is what Liszt did with his finest symphonic poem, “Les Préludes,” and Wagner with his splendid “Faust ” overture. In the same way Schumann suggested the underlying thought of his great Piano Fantasia in C major. Others have contented themselves with mere titles, as Tschaikowsky did in the case of his “Symphonic Pathétique.”

But taking all these moderns and their works into consideration, we find that one indisputable fact remains. They are doing in a larger way what their forerunners of more than two centuries ago did in a primitive fashion. In so far as its philosophy is considered, Kuhnau penetrated to the very heart of the matter, but he had neither the musical nor the instrumental materials for a more imposing embodiment of his thought. He recognized the fundamental truth that moods and feelings were the food of music. The greatest modern masters have adhered to this principle. Even Strauss, the arch realist, has succeeded best when he has done so.

There is still another factor in the development of programme music. The earliest writers of it did not conceive the notion of attempting to interpret literature. Kuhnau painted Bible pictures, for music was still the handmaid of religion; but in a secular literature whose best products were a translation of Robinson Crusoe and bad German imitations of the Italian jingles of Marini, he saw nothing suggestive of tone poems. The literary movement in music was to come much later. Since the dawn of the romantic period in German letters music has pursued poetry, fiction, and the drama in search of material.

Behold then the natural result when literature sought its own inspiration in the psychological dissecting-room. Soul analysis, the quest after the hidden springs of our moral corruptibility, so fascinated composers that the tragedies of Ibsen and Maeterlinck reëchoed in pessimistic proclamations through solemn assemblies of instruments. To this complexion have we come.

Were this a discussion, instead of a mere presentment, one might be tempted to ask, what next ? To answer would not be difficult. Almost from the birth of instrumental music, composers have tried to make the art in some measure representative. Theorists and critics point out the impossibility of defining in music the cause of the emotion which the music can so beautifully embody. But one writer like Mr. Newman, declaring that every composition should be accompanied by a printed explanation, and that realistic programme music is genuine high art, is likely to command more sympathy from contemporaneous composers. He at any rate supports them in their practice. They are all traveling in the same path, and absolute music is apparently approaching the end of its history.

  1. Musicians use “ absolute ” to indicate music without text or programme.