Program music

Program music is music intended to musically represent, or accompany, an extra-musical theme, contrasting with absolute music. The term is almost exclusively applied to works in the European classical music tradition, particularly those from the Romantic music period of the 19th century, during which the concept was popular, but pieces which fit the description have long been a part of music. Opera and Lieder could in principle be considered program music, but the term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics).


History of program music

Composers of the Renaissance wrote a fair amount of program music, especially for the harpsichord, including works such as Martin Peerson's "The Fall of the Leafe" and William Byrd's "The Battell". For the latter work, the composer provided this written description of the sections: "Souldiers sommons, marche of footemen, marche of horsmen, trumpetts, Irishe marche, bagpipe and the drone, flute and the droome, marche to the fighte, the battels be joyned, retreat, galliarde for the victorie."

Probably the most famous work of the Baroque era is Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons a set of four concertos for violin and string orchestra that illustrate the seasons of the year with rain, budding growth, chilly winds, treading on ice, dancing peasants, and so on. The program of the work is made explicit in a sequence of four sonnets written by the composer. Another well-known Baroque program work is Johann Sebastian Bach's "Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother", BWV 992, whose sections have charming descriptive titles ("Friends gather and try to dissuade him from departing," "They picture the dangers which may befall him," "The Friends' Lament," "Since he cannot be dissuaded, they say farewell," "Aria of the Postilion," "Fugue in Imitation of the Postilion's horn.")

Program music was perhaps less often composed in the Classical era. At this time, perhaps more than any other, music achieved drama from its own internal resources, notably in works written in sonata form. It is thought, however, that a number of Joseph Haydn's earlier symphonies may be program music; for example, the composer once said that one of his earlier symphonies represents "a dialogue between God and the Sinner". It is not known which of his symphonies Haydn was referring to. A minor Classical-era composer, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, wrote a series of symphonies based on Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Program music particularly flourished in Romantic era. Program music can invoke in the listener a specific experience other than sitting in front of a musician or musicians. It is in this way related to the purely Romantic idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk describing Wagner's Operas as a fusion of many arts (set design, choreography, poetry and so on), although it relies solely on musical aspects to illustrate a multi-faceted artistic concept such as a poem or a painting. Composers believed that the dynamics of sound that were newly possible in the Romantic orchestra of the era allowed them to focus on emotions and other intangible aspects of life much more than during the Baroque or Classical eras.

A famous early Romantic program work is Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, commonly known as the Pastoral. Beethoven felt a certain reluctance in writing program music, and said that the music of his symphony was "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds"; yet the work clearly contains depictions of bird calls, a babbling brook, dancing peasants, a storm, and so on. Beethoven later returned to program music with his Piano Sonata Op. 81a, "Les Adieux", which depicts the departure and return of his close friend the Archduke Rudolph.

Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique was a musical narration of a hyperbolically emotional love story he wrote himself. In 1874, Modest Mussorgsky composed using only the dynamic range of one piano a series of pieces describing seeing a gallery of ten of his friend's paintings and drawings in his Pictures at an Exhibition, later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. The French composer Camille Saint-SaŽns wrote many short pieces of program music which he called "Tone Poems". His most famous are probably the Danse Macabre and several movements from the Carnival of the Animals. The composer Paul Dukas is perhaps best known for his tone poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice, based on a tale from Goethe.

In the twentieth century, Alban Berg's Lyric Suite was thought for years to be abstract music, but it was discovered it was in fact dedicated to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (AMG) and George Perle discovered in 1977 that the last movement contained a setting of a poem by Baudelaire. He based important leitmotifs on their initials: A,B,H,F for Alban Berg (A.B.) and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (H.F.).

Popular music as program music

The tradition of purely orchestral program music is continued in pieces for jazz orchestra, most notably several pieces by Duke Ellington.

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. While non-professional listeners often claim that music has meaning (to them) "new" musicologists, such as Susan McClary, argue that so-called "abstract" techniques and structures are actually highly politically and socially charged, specifically, even gendered. More traditional listeners often reject these views sharply, asserting that music can be meaningful, as well as deeply emotional, while being essentially about itself (notes, themes, keys, and so on), and without any connection to the political and societal conflicts of our own day.

While the debate is of interest to many, for practical purposes most scholars use the term "program music" in the narrower sense described above.

Symphonic poems

Single movement orchestral pieces of program music are often called symphonic poems.

See Also

de:Programmmusik es:Mķsica de programa


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