The Ideals Of Instrumental Music

At one point in the study of the Romantic period of music, we come upon
the first of several apparently opposing conditions that plague all attempts
to grasp
the meaning of Romantic as applied to the music of the 19th century. This
opposition involved the relation between music and words. If instrumental
music
is the perfect Romantic art, why is it acknowledged that the great masters of
the
symphony, the highest form of instrumental music, were not Romantic
composers,
but were the Classical composers, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven? Moreover,
one
of the most characteristic 19th century genres was the Lied, a vocal piece in
which
Shubert, Schumann, Brahams, and Wolf attained a new union between music and
poetry. Furthermore, a large number of leading composers in the 19th century

were extremely interested and articulate in literary expression, and leading
Romantic novelists and poets wrote about music with deep love and insight.
The conflict between the ideal of pure instrumental music (absolute music)
as the ultimate Romantic mode of expression, and the strong literary
orientation of
the 19th century, was resolved in the conception of program music. Program
music, as Liszt and others in the 19th century used the term, is music
associated
with poetic, descriptive, and even narrative subject matter. This is done
not by
means of musical figures imitating natural sounds and movements, but by
imaginative suggestion. Program music aimed to absorb and transmit the
imagined
subject matter in such a way that the resulting work, although "programmed",
does
not sound forced, and transcends the subject matter it seeks to represent.
Instrumental music thus became a vehicle for the utterance of thoughts which,

although first hinted in words, may ultimately be beyond the power of words
to
fully express.
Practically every composer of the era was, to some degree, writing program
music, weather or not this was publicly acknowledged. One reason it was so
easy
for listeners to connect a scene or a story or a poem with a piece of
Romantic
music is that often the composer himself, perhaps unconsciously, was working
from some such ideas. Writers on music projected their own conceptions of
the
expressive functions of music into the past, and read Romantic programs into
the
instrumental works not only of Beethoven, but also the likes of Mozart,
Haydn,
and Bach!
The diffused scenic effects in the music of such composers as Mendelssohn
and Schumann seem pale when compared to the feverish, and detailed drama that

constitutes the story of Berlioz\'s Symphonie fantastique (1830). Because his

imagination always seemed to run in parallel literary and musical channels,
Berlioz once subtitled his work "Episode in the life of an artist", and
provided a
program for it which was in effect a piece of Romantic autobiography. In
later
years, he conceded that if necessary, when the symphony was performed by
itself
in concert, the program would need not be given out for the music would "of
itself,
and irrespective of any dramatic aim, offer an interest in the musical sense
alone."
The principle formal departure in the symphony is the recurrence of the
opening
theme of the first Allegro, the idee fixe. This, according to the program, is
the
obsessive image of the hero\'s beloved, that recurs in the other movements.
To
mention another example: in the coda of the Adagio there is a passage for
solo
English horn and four Tympani intended to suggest "distant thunder".
The foremost composer of program music after Beriloz was Franz Liszt,
twelve of whose symphonic poems were written between 1848 and 1858. The
name symphonic poem is significant: these pieces are symphonic, but Liszt
did not
call them symphonies, presumably because or their short length, and the fact
that
they are not divided up into movements. Instead, each is a continuos form
with
various sections, more or less varied in tempo and character, and a few
themes that
are varied, developed, or repeated within the design of the work. Les
Preludes, the
only one that is still played much today, is well designed, melodious, and
efficiently scored. However, its idiom causes it to be rhetorical in a
sense. It
forces today\'s listeners to here lavishly excessive emotion on ideas that do
not
seem sufficiently important for such a display of feeling.
Liszt\'s two symphonies were as programmatic as his symphonic poems.
His masterpiece, the Faust Symphony, was dedicated to Berlioz. It consists
of
three movements entitled respectively Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles,
with a
finale (added later) which