Music with extra-musical subtexts has existed for a long time, but it was the Romantics who first combined story and music in a close synthesis. Their pioneer was Hector Berlioz, who dove into the art of musical storytelling with a daring never before seen, yet with an artistic integrity rarely achieved since. Berlioz first saw how music could express the inner life and passions of the individual.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is celebrated for expanding the orchestra, revolutionizing musical form, and giving a new exalted role to program music—that is, instrumental music that tells a story or evokes extra-musical images. His earliest success, and his most popular work to this day, is his Symphonie fantastique of 1830 (subtitled “an episode in the life of an artist, in five parts”). One of the best-loved pieces of 19th-century music, the symphony depicts a series of opium-fueled dreams connected with a young artist’s obsessive and unrequited love affair—a story based in Berlioz’ own infatuation with a Shakespearean actress.

Berlioz was just one many early Romantic composers who began to draw inspiration from literature and painting and used the instruments of the orchestra to depict heightened emotions, often departing from classical form and phrase structure. These experiments often resulted in what was perceived at the time as a new genre, program music. The great source of inspiration was Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (Pastoral), which evokes the joys of the countryside and includes musical imitations of bird calls, flowing streams, and a storm. Yet descriptive or pictorial music existed for a long time before Romanticism, albeit as the exception rather than the rule.

Program music (although the term had not yet been coined) was common currency of the Baroque. In the 17th century alone, Heinrich Biber wrote violin sonatas inspired by the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, while Johann Kuhnau produced Biblical sonatas for the harpsichord describing Old Testament scenes. Battles and storms were perennially favorite subjects. One of the earliest compositions of the young Bach was an affecting Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos need no introduction. (It’s only worth noting that Vivaldi anticipated Romantic literary “programs” by pairing his concertos with a set of poems.)

Baroque composers such as Bach and Handel often illustrated images in the texts of their vocal works by using simple musical motifs describing falling, rising, shaking, etc. Haydn employed fragmented musical phrases and disjointed harmonies to portray “Chaos” in the introduction to The Creation. Both this and The Seasons are rife with animal sounds and other naively charming imitations of nature.

When compared with these earlier examples, the Romantic ones are unique for the extremely detailed nature of the program, which often amounts to an outright plot line. Berlioz in fact distributed a printed synopsis to the audience at the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, a practice followed by many subsequent composers. Berlioz considered his symphony as an “instrumental drama” and the synopsis as the equivalent of the words to an opera—a necessary accompaniment to explain what is going on in the music.

The opposite of program music, music with no stated descriptive intent, is traditionally called “pure” or “absolute” music. Such compositions are known by their genre name, key, or position in the composer’s catalog: Symphony in D major, Piano Sonata No. 3, and so on. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have no obvious story or extra-musical meaning. Most jazz instrumentals also fit this mold. In theory, such music is not “about” anything beyond itself and is supposed to appeal to the listener solely through the language of music.

Yet dividing all music into “absolute” and “program”—with the implication that absolute music is not “about” anything beyond musical patterns—is deceptive. Music critic Virgil Thomson wrote that the purpose of all music is to evoke moods, feelings, gestures, and attitudes. Nobody listens to a piece of music solely for the sake its form, however beautiful and satisfying it may be. Rather, we listen for its expressive content.

What, precisely, music expresses has been debated by aesthetes for ages. The more vague it is, the harder to put into words, the better, so goes the theory, since this is truer to the elusive nature of the art. Even so, one may very well form images from listening to a piece of absolute music. One need not be embarrassed if a slow movement of Mozart personally evokes, say, a calm summer evening by a lake. Music has the power to evoke many impressions, and there are any number of “story lines” that we may invent, even unconsciously, to fit a work. Yet the fact remains that most compositions in the classical canon were intended to evoke general feelings rather than specific images and story lines. And so the abstract classical forms have proved to be the durable frameworks for musical creation.

Critics have pointed out that, despite its unprecedented program, the Symphonie fantastique is in many respects an orthodox symphony in the classic mold. The first movement, “Reveries,” starts with a slow introduction, leading to a main fast movement in sonata-allegro form—perfectly Haydnesque. There follow a dance-based movement, a long adagio, a scherzo, and a busy, highly active finale. This strong sense of form helps the work cohere and prevents it from becoming a series of rambling episodes. Although not fully intelligible without its program, the symphony arguably makes sense purely as a musical structure.

Although “Berlioz” and “program music” are inextricably linked, he returned to the genre only twice after the Symphonie fantastique: in Harold and Italy (inspired by an epic poem of Byron) and his “dramatic symphony” Romeo and Juliet. The former is much in the mold of the Symphonie, with its scenario about a restless young traveler acting more or less as a pretext for musical invention. Romeo and Juliet contains so much music for voices that it is an open question whether it qualifies as program music at all.

After Berlioz, the program genre passed on to Franz Liszt, who pioneered the tone poem—a free-form one-movement orchestral piece with a narrative—although most critics agree that his contributions do not equal Berlioz in inspiration. Other tone poems from late Romanticism, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, have become perennial favorites. Impressionism also gave us plenty of pictures in tones: Debussy’s La mer is a wash of sound unlike anything else in music; but here there is no literary “plot,” rather a series of sense impressions of the sea translated into musical gestures.

The genre reached a decadent apotheosis with Richard Strauss, the composer of extravagant tone poems such as as Death and Transfiguration and Don Quixote. After Strauss—who once claimed that music should be able to depict a teaspoon—there followed a neoclassical reaction in the direction of abstract and self-sufficient musical forms. Program music became deeply unfashionable to modernists, although Honegger’s Pacific 231 (an adroit depiction of a steam locomotive) and Gershwin’s An American in Paris stand out as shining exceptions.

Indeed, composers and music professionals tend to be slightly embarrassed at the idea of program music. The major objection is that it submits music to narratives and visual images—things which are by nature extrinsic to music. The idea that music is a pure and autonomous art has a strong pedigree.

Everyday listeners, on the other hand, delight in music that conveys pictures, sounds, or phenomena of the everyday.

Everyone can agree that the best program music does not merely depict a story, but marries this to convincing emotional content and cogent musical form. Berlioz certainly achieved this. The formal continuity of the Symphonie fantastique has gained it the respect of music experts not generally friendly to program music. In fact, Berlioz’ early masterpiece is still the model of how to do program music well. The music also connects us emotionally with the story of the Artist and his obsessive love. The story line does not overwhelm the music, but gives it shape and meaning. The love obsession is expressed musically in an ecstatic idée fixe that recurs throughout the symphony in various guises—as the Artist goes to a fancy ball, to the countryside, and finally is led to the guillotine in his dream, always haunted by the vision of his beloved.

Berlioz’ Romanticism is a fresh, early Romanticism, without excess. Composed in 1830, the Symphonie really continues where Beethoven left off, with the slow-movement “Scene in the Fields” strongly indebted to Beethoven’s Pastoral. It’s interesting to discover that, for all its fevered and seemingly spontaneous Romanticism, Berlioz recycled some of his earlier music for the symphony, including material from a Mass. Thus, formal workmanship seems to have been as important to him as poetic inspiration. 

The most fantastical portion of the symphony, the “March to the Scaffold” and the concluding “Witches’ Sabbath,” demonstrate well the art of program music and Berlioz’ inspired use of it. The Artist is marching to his imagined execution for having jealously murdered his Beloved. Before the blade of the guillotine falls, the idee fixe returns briefly in the clarinet, like the last thought of the condemned man. We “hear” the thud of the guillotine blade (a crashing G-minor chord from the full orchestra) and the cheer of the crowd  (loud brass chords and a snare drum roll). At the “Witches’ Sabbath” the Artist seems to be watching his own funeral, a “diabolical orgy” at which a coven of witches and sorcerers have gathered together; the Beloved’s idee fixe returns in a garish, mocking form.

What makes Berlioz’ youthful masterpiece so successful is that it is a compelling journey in both story and music; the music is not there merely to illustrate the story but exists on its own terms. Berlioz conjures up, not “sound effects,” but rich associations from the real world of experience—as in the “Witches’ Sabbath” where the tolling of church bells and the Dies irae chant from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead create the demonic atmosphere. We could say that the story has been transmuted into music.

The entry on program music from an old edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music is relevant here:

In the last analysis, there are two types of program music: music that is good regardless of the program, and music that is mediocre or poor although it is a skillful rendition of the program.

Can a piece of program music work as pure music? Would one still want to listen to it, even if one had no idea of the program? This may be the relevant question to ask of any piece in the genre. Program pieces seldom have classical form, following instead to a more poetic or episodic succession of ideas. As a result, the listener has the impression that something is being depicted, even if he is not sure precisely what. And oftentimes the music may not make complete sense until the program is applied.

Given that music can so easily suggest things from the real world, it’s surprising that images and poetic descriptions are not more common in classical music, certainly outside of the Romantics. True, many classical compositions have evocative titles. Some of these were added after the music was composed, sometimes by a savvy publisher, based on a shred of association in the music, or simply as a distinguishing tag. In this category belong many of Haydn’s symphonies (such as the Morning, Noon, and Evening series), Tartini’s The Devil’s Trill, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. In such cases, there is a poetic idea or image attached to the music, but no explicit or detailed “program.”

Such music with extra-musical subtexts has existed for a long time, but it was the Romantics who first combined story and music in a close synthesis. Their pioneer was Berlioz, who dove into the art of musical storytelling with a daring never before seen, yet with an artistic integrity rarely achieved since. Berlioz first saw how music could express the inner life and passions of the individual. Yet despite everything of himself he put into his Symphonie fantastique, it is still and merely a musical statement—a fusion of head and heart still as exciting today as when he created it.

This is part of a series of essays commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz.

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The featured image of Hector Berlioz is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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