Absolute music

From Academic Kids

This article is about Absolute music, the musical term. For the series of compilation albums, see Absolute (record compilation).

Absolute music is a term used within the classical music field to describe music that is not explicitly "about" anything. Absolute music has no words and no references to stories or images or any other kind of extramusical idea. It is also known in classical contexts as abstract music and is in contrast to program music. See also: List of Program Music.

Is all music program music?

Some people and theories argue that there is indeed no such thing as true "absolute music" and that music always at least conveys or evokes emotions. Alban Berg's Lyric Suite was thought for years to be absolute music, but it was discovered it was in fact dedicated to his Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (AMG) and George Perle discovered in 1977 that the last movement contained a setting of a poem by Baudelaire (Amazon.com). While non-professional listeners often claim that music has meaning (to them), "new" musicologists, such as Susan McClary (1999), argue that so called "abstract" techniques and structures are actually highly politically and socially charged, specifically, even gendered. This may be linked to a more general argument against abstraction, such as Mark Johnson's argument that it is, "necessary...for abstract meaning...to have a bodily basis." (McClary, 1991) However, a more loosely specific definition of absolute music as music which was not composed with a programatic intent or plan in mind may be adopted.

As such, most classical music is absolute music, as is suggested by titles which often consist simply of the type of composition, a numerical designation within the composer's oeuvre, and its key. Bach's Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Minor, BWV 1060; Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major (Opus 92) are all examples of absolute music.

Program music was quite popular during the romantic era. Many mainstream "classical" works are unequivocally program music, such as Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony, which is a musical description of ascending and descending a mountain, with 22 section titles such as "Night," "Sunrise," "By the Waterfall," "In Thicket and Underbrush on the Wrong Path," "Summit," "Mists Rise," and "Storm and Descent." Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is clearly program music, too, with titled movements and instrumental depictions of bird calls, country dances, and a storm. Some might criticize Disney's animators for providing a pictorial interpretation of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but nobody can deny an extramusical association for Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. During the twentieth century, the increased influence of modernism and other anti-Romantic trends contributed to a decline in esteem for program music, but audiences continued to enjoy such pieces as Arthur Honegger's depiction of a steam locomotive in Pacific 231. Also, program music lives on in movie soundtracks, which often feature ultra-modern sounding atonal programmatic music.

Music that is composed to accompany opera and ballet is, of course, program music, even when presented separately as a concert piece. Aaron Copland was amused when a listener said that when she listened to Appalachian Spring she "could see the Appalachians and feel Spring," the title having been a last-minute thought, but it is certainly program music. Film scores are always program music, and some of them, such as Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky, have found a place in the classical concert repertoire.

And, of course, there is music that falls in between, with titles that clearly suggest an extramusical association, but no detailed story that can be followed and no musical passages that can be unequivocally identified with specific images. Examples would include Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" or Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, "Eroica".

In popular music, by contrast, the norm is programmatic music, usually vocal. A common term for non-vocal popular music, and thus for practical purposes a term for absolute music in a popular context, is "instrumental" or "instrumental section".

Is all music absolute music?

  • "Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound."
    • Eduard Hanslick, quoted by Wolfgang Sandberger (1996) in the liner notes to the Juilliard String Quartet's album of Janacek and Berg Intimate Letters. Sony Classical SK 66840.

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