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Programmatic & Absolute Music: What’s the Difference?

A. Kori Hill

A lot of the music covered so far tells a specific story, like Harry T. Burleigh’s “Deep River”; Wynton Marsalis’ A Fiddler’s Tale; and Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. But did you know that there developed a decades-long discourse (aka discussion, argument) on the question of whether music that didn’t tell a clear story vs music that did tell a clear story was better? There was, and that’s where we get the concepts of “programmatic” vs “absolute” music.

In the late 18th century, writers and theorists got heated about the “best” type of music. Music that took you to the next level, that gave the listener a transcendent experience. As is typical with explorations like this, some folks like E.T.A. Hoffmann leaned towards instrumental music. He saw Ludwig van Beethoven’s fifth symphony as the Romantic ideal because of its expressive power despite the lack of words. But some folks didn’t see music as complete without words. Several decades later, Richard Wagner saw Beethoven’s ninth symphony as the expressive ideal due to the presence of vocalists and choir in the work. Ironically, this is where we first get the term “absolute music,” from the dude who was less than a big fan.

While programmatic music was being created in the Baroque and Classical era, it wasn’t until the Romantic period that composers, critics, and theorists started to treat it as a specific tradition, leading to the genre known as “tone poem” that continued into the 20th century. No matter the composer’s style or location, what roots these tone poems is the engagement with extra musical sources: locations; semi-autobiographical experiences; and artwork. Hector Berlioz’s Symphonic Fantastique (1830) tells the story of a dude having some eerie, creepy dreams (including a “March to the Scaffold”!). Florence Price’s Mississippi River Suite (1934) channels the history, character, and geography of the longest and largest river in the United States. And  Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead (1909) is inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name, of a lone boatman heading to an imposing, morbid hunk of rock. A more recent example is Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (2013, 2021), evoking a solar system of moving planets and stars. Like programmatic music, absolute music is still being composed. Check out Eleanor Alberga’s String Quartet No. 2 (1994), Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 1 (2014), and Unsuk Chin’s Sheng Concerto (2009).

It’s important to understand where these terms and concepts come from. Sometimes folks’ educated preferences are taken as truth, which can lead us to narrow our listening habits. Composers don’t set out to write “absolute” or “programmatic” music alone; they set out to tell a story; to create a mood; to articulate something in their head that only music can effectively articulate. There is no one right way to do that; thankfully, we have a ton of “right” ways to check out.

Jessie Montgomery by Jiyang Chen
Missy Mazzoli by Caroline Tompkins
Missy Mazzoli by Caroline Tompkins


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Programmatic & Absolute Music: What’s the Difference?