I was just reading a great book on Western culture by Jacques Barzun, one of the most learned people alive. This book, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present is an amazingly wise and well-organized history. His thoughts on music are so sound that you would think him to be a musician. On pages 494 to 497 he gives an excellent and concise account of the genesis of program music:
The symphonies of Beethoven, beginning with the Eroica, were found hard to follow by their first listeners. To assist understanding, musical minds that did grasp the form wrote comments for the bewildered, and since the music was dramatic in purpose and effect, the obvious way to help was to suggest a story, with persons and events--as in opera, with which people were familiar. The "plot" suggested for a symphony need not fit closely--a hint about certain passages would prime the imagination. [E.T.A. Hoffman] ... led the way in programmatizing the Beethoven symphonies. Then Schumann, Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner and a host of others filled their writings on music with these supposititious dramas... [Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, p 495]What's wrong with that? Well, nothing really except that, as Barzun says earlier on the same page, "music cannot tell a story." No, it really can't. Music is not a 'language' and narrative is not possible. What music can do is express moods and sensations and how it does that is still rather magical, though there is a neurological lab at McGill University that is hard at work gathering evidence.
Let's talk about origins for a bit. One of the foundational stories in Western culture is the Iliad. Originally it was probably sung to the accompaniment of the four-string phorminx. Of course we don't have any of this music because it was improvised and not written down. A bit later there are some very ambiguous melodies such as this one:
Only words can tell a story. But as in the song by that modern bard, Bob Dylan, music can heighten the effect. And the explanation of 'program' music, as Bazun points out, is the reverse of this. A few descriptive words can aid the listener's involvement with the score. Take this piece, for example:
Now, of course, La Mer has nothing really to do with the sea, any more than a painting of a roast beef sandwich has to do with lunch. Both are artistic representations. But the musical one is inherently abstract. Suppose that you didn't know the piece and had no knowledge of the title and description. Could you guess it was about the sea? Doubtful. In fact, different metaphors could be chosen that might be equally inspiring. But as Debussy chose the one of the sea, we have to privilege that one. Another example: many years ago I spent two summers in Banff, Alberta, Canada, studying guitar in the master-class of Oscar Ghiglia. He is an outstanding teacher and one reason is that he inspires musicality through metaphor. In both years the prelude to the first lute suite of J. S. Bach was played. In the first year, Oscar developed a wonderful metaphor for the student. It was like the plot to an Italian opera and when this dramatic dominant 7th in last inversion--a 4/2 chord--was arrived at he scowled ominously and declaimed "revenge!" It was absolutely perfect! The student will always feel the immense drama of that moment! But, of course, the Bach prelude has nothing inherently to do with revenge. The next year, teaching the very same piece, Oscar chose a completely different metaphor.
Descriptions in words of musical compositions, whether of landscapes, natural phenomena or a narrative, are merely metaphors and have no inherent connection with the piece. Their purpose, and it is a real one, is to inspire the listener or performer to awaken the real excitement of the piece, which is entirely musical: melodies, harmonies and rhythms.
Ok, quick, for those of you who don't know this piece, what piece of geography is it associated with?