Absolute vs. Programmatic Music
Tue, 05 Dec 2017

During the mid to late 19th century, the revival of older music became quite popular. Publishers distributed editions of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, and audiences became acquainted with hearing their repertoire. This revival troubled many living composers who believed it difficult to compete with the “greats” of the past. While some composers of this time decided to approach this issue by expanding upon these great historical forms, others believed that in order to create a spark to catch the public’s eye, they must create something entirely new and innovative.

This week let’s look at a 19th-century dispute over “absolute” music and “programmatic” music. Absolute music is the idea of music for music’s sake and included people such as Johannes Brahms who believed that music is a complete and beautiful work in and of itself and does not need support from outside sources. Brahms often times used these past composers as models on which he expanded with his own ideas.

As an advocate of absolute music, music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote the following in his book, On the Musically Beautiful: “What kind of beauty is the beauty of a musical composition? It is a specifically musical kind of beauty. By this we understand a beauty that is self-contained and in no need of content from outside itself, that consists simply and solely of tones and their artistic combination…”

On the opposite side of the issue, supporters of programmatic music wanted something new in their music that pointed away from the past. These composers used outside sources such as poetry, stories, visuals, etc. to enhance the meaning in their music. Often times, the composition would be accompanied with an actual program that explained the story and meaning linked to this outside source. Composers such as Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz make up this group of programmatic composers that was coined the “New German School” by music critic Franz Brendel in 1859. Though Liszt and Berlioz were not actually German by birth, Brendel considered them German in spirit due to their use of Beethoven as a model. Other composers who used this programmatic technique include Bruckner, Wolf, R. Strauss, and Mahler.

Later this week we will look at an example of both absolute music and programmatic music. Do you prefer the idea of music for music’s sake or do you enjoy an accompanying program? Let me know your thoughts…there are no wrong answers! 

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