PROGRAM MUSIC (I) The question on most folks’ minds since I announced “program music” as the topic for January 12 is: what is program music? Some of you have offered possibilities, but only one or two came close to what the term means to music historians. So here it is: instrumental music that refers to or means something outside itself, without the use of text; the “program” is the “something outside itself”. This can be interpreted to suggest “descriptive” music, but this descriptiveness has to be by analogy, only through the music, by and large. We have run into this issue a bit when we discussed “word painting”, but that term is used when a single word or a short phrase of text is set to music that suggests the meaning of the word(s); in this case, the text must be present. But program music has no text; instruments alone “describe” or suggest or refer to larger, broader, more general topics (like a story line or plot, or something one can see) than a single word, and sometimes to abstract concepts (like a mood or sensory experience). It’s interesting that in “program music” we often see the intersection music with not only poetry but also visual arts, architecture, and landscape; the 19th-century Romantic movement in particular developed this multi-art approach.
Program music can take the form of a single-movement work (symphonic poem or tone poem [but without a text!] or a concert overture); a full symphony (called a program symphony); or incidental music, used within a dramatic work, but with no text in it. It can be devised in a number of ways, as we shall see. In the case of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, four short three-movement concertos are paired with sonnets likely written by the composer himself.
Antonio Vivaldi (engraving by François Morellon de La Cave, from Michel-Charles Le Cène's edition of Vivaldi's Op. 8, 1725)
VIVALDI’S “FOUR SEASONS”—WINTER AND SPRING Perhaps you already know that Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), living in Venice, was teaching and composing at the Ospedale della Pietà, a convent, orphanage and school for girls, some of whom were foundlings, but some of whom were from well-to-do families who wanted their daughters educated and made proficient in music to attract a favorable husband. As an Italian Vivaldi wrote operas, of course, and sacred music as well as instrumental works. The concerts of sacred and instrumental works performed by the music students were so famous for their excellent quality that people from all over Europe and even England would come to attend them. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a set of solo concertos that were published in 1725 as the opening compositions of collection of 12 concertos called Il cimento dell’ armonia e dell’ inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention). Each of the four had a companion sonnet—given below—which the music followed closely. In fact, according to the notes by Martin Pearlman for the Boston Baroque recording, “captions over parts of the music—sometimes over individual instrumental lines—indicate pictorial effects even beyond those in the sonnets”.
VIVALDI’S(?) SONNETS FOR THE FOUR SEASONS Translated by Steven Ledbetter for the Boston Baroque recording, TELARC, 2008 Winter
Mvt. 1: Shivering frozen, in the icy snow at the horrid wind’s harsh beath; Running while constantly stamping one’s feet, and feeling the teeth chatter from the overwhelming cold;
Mvt. 2: passing quiet and contented days by the fire while Outside the rain soaks people by the hundreds;
Mvt. 3: walking on the ice with slow steps, for fear of falling, turning cautiously; Turning suddenly, skipping, falling down, Going on the ice again and running fast Until the ice breaks open; Hearing, as they burst through the bolted doors, Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds at war. This is winter, but it brings such joy! Spring
Vivaldi's Four Seasons Winter Norway Mari Samuelsen - Violin
Mvt. 1: Spring has arrived, and merrily the birds greet it with happy song, And the brooks, at the blowing of the zephyrs, with sweet murmuring rush along, Then wrapping the air in a black cloak, come lightning and thunder chosen to herald it; then, when these are silent, the little birds return anew to their melodious enchantment;
Mvt. 2: and now in the peasant flowery meadow, To the soft murmur of fronds and plants, sleeps the goatherd with his Faithful dog at this side.
Mvt. 3: To the festive sound of pastoral bagpipes Nymphs and shepherds dance under their beloved sky At Spring’s glorious arrival.
Vivaldi's Four Seasons Spring Classical Concert Chamber Orchestra
Hector Berlioz in 1845
BERLIOZ’S SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was perhaps the quintessential Romantic composer: highly individual in his approach to composition, a devotee of the theatrical arts—particularly of Shakespeare, highly imaginative in his choice of subjects for his operas and program works, and an inveterate and incomparable inventor of innovative compositional structures. Certainly his own life experiences strongly influenced his works, especially the Symphonie fantastique. Attending Shakespeare’s plays (in French, of course, in 1827), he fell in obsessively love with the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson (1800-1854), whom he witnessed as Ophelia in Hamlet and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, without ever having met her. Following his passion, he contrived to court her—actually, stalking would be a more accurate term—and in 1833 they finally married. After having one child with Hector, Harriet saw that his career was careening upward but hers was descending; her jealousy and drinking led her to verbally and physically abusing him. The last straw was his taking a mistress. Harriet left him in 1843. (There’s more—much more—of that story but not enough room here to tell it all.)
Berlioz’s passionate obsession with Harriet fostered a story in his imagination which became the “program” of a 5-movement symphony. This structure was suggested by his hearing Beethoven’s Symphony 6, also in 5 movements and having suggestive titles for each movement. Berlioz’s fantasy was of quite a different magnitude and nature than Beethoven’s, however. In its original version, not only was it full of opium-induced phantasmagoric fantasies, sacrilegious events, and remnants of the horrors of the Reign of Terror, but Berlioz’s own story, or program, for it was even printed up and copies handed out to the first audience at the premiere in 1830. In addition, Berlioz invented a brief, memorable melody which he referred to as an idée fixe—an obsession, which represents “The Beloved”, the object of his great passion and occurs in some variant in every movement, and not always as a beautiful image as the story becomes darker and darker. In short, this over-the-top symphony is utterly a Romantic masterpiece!
To boot, Berlioz had a truly wonderful sense of instrumental color, which he used to the utmost in his new symphony. He included several new or unusual instruments not before heard in a symphony, certainly not in one by Beethoven or his predecessors. These are the ophicleide, an unpleasant-sounding bass brass instrument for which the tuba substitutes these days, a battery of percussion, and two harps along with traditional strings, woodwinds and brass. Enjoy reading the program before hearing the music! The whole symphony is about an hour long so we’ll hear only the first movement.
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Movement 1. (From Michael Steinberg’s September 2017program notes for the San Francisco Symphony)
“Part One: Reveries, Passions—The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a celebrated writer [Chateaubriand] calls ‘the surge of passions,’ sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being of whom he has dreamed, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. Through a bizarre trick of fancy, the beloved image always appears in the mind's eye of the artist linked to a musical thought whose character, passionate but also noble and reticent, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved. “The melodic image and its human model pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. This is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first allegro. The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of unmotivated joy, to one of delirious passion, with its movements of fury and jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation—all this is the subject of the first movement.”
Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14: 1 Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas | Orchestra: San Francisco Symphony
Framz Liszt in 1858 by Franz Hanfstaengl
FRANZ LISZT: LES PRÉLUDES
Although Liszt (1811-1886) was most famous in his time as a concert pianist over whose performances women would swoon, he composed many works for piano (very difficult), choral music, and instrumental works. Among the latter, he is credited with inaugurating the symphonic poem, or tone poem as it was also called by the end of the 19thcentury. His Les preludes is a fine example of the genre. Liszt used it originally without text as the overture to a cycle of pieces built around the theme of the ancient Four Elements, settings of poems by Joseph Autrans for male chorus and piano. He separated it from that cycle, orchestrated it, then found a poem—a program--that correlated with the music (and incidentally with Autrans’s poems in the Elements cycle). As an independent work, this third of his 12 symphonic poems, Les preludes was premiered in 1854.
Liszt’s compositional technique in this work by which he conveyed his programmatic information was through a motif, a 4-note figure which changes slightly as the story line requires. At first it is presented in isolation with a rather mysterious or undefined sense of fate, but eventually it gets altered. The pitches change to give different senses of emotional content and action; at times there are other notes introduced within the 4-note pattern to expand it into a grander or more elaborate statement. Liszt invented the term “transformation of themes” for this process. Liszt clearly suggested events in the poem in the way he changed not only this motif but by altering its setting in orchestration. There can be no doubt about the arrival of love and happiness, the devastation of the horrible storms of life, the need for recovery from wounds, the call to arms once more, and the final triumph of the hero.
ALFONSE DE LAMARTINE: LES PRÉLUDES (Liszt’s interpretation from Lamartine’s Nouvelles meditations poétiques, as given in David Guion’s post of 4/30/2021 online)
What else is life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?
Love is the enchanted dawn of all existence; but what fate is there whose first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, whose fine illusions are not dissipated by some mortal blast, consuming its altar as though by a stroke of lightning?
And what cruelly wounded soul, issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavor to solace its memories in the calm serenity of rural life?
Nevertheless, man does not resign himself for long to the enjoyment of that beneficent warmth which he first enjoyed in Nature’s bosom. And when the ‘trumpet sounds the alarm’ he takes up his perilous post, no matter what struggle calls him to its ranks, that he may recover in combat the full consciousness of himself and the entire possession of his powers.
Franz Liszt: Les Préludes Symphonic Poem No. 3 Christian Thielemann, conductor | Berliner Philharmoniker