Program music

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Program music (from the Greek prógramma , public written announcement) is usually instrumental music that follows an extra-musical program that is intended to create a specific idea of ​​images or stories and is clarified, for example, by accompanying headings and titles. In this way it differs from absolute music , which does not represent any extra-musical content.

Examples of program music are the pictures at an exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky , where each sentence has a new heading, the title of a picture, or Die Moldau by Bedřich Smetana , a movement from the programmatic cycle My Fatherland , in which the Czech composer includes the Development of the source to the river implemented clay painting.


Music in which a title is used to clarify musical characteristics does not count as program music. An example of this is the Symphony No. 5 (1950) by Arthur Honegger , whose Italian subtitle Di tre re only refers to the soft bangs on the note re (= D ). with which each of the three sentences closes. Further examples are some symphonies by Joseph Haydn , such as Symphony No. 82 , which owes its nickname “L'Ours” (The Bear) only to the beginning of the final movement, which is reminiscent of the clumsy dance of a bear, or Symphony No. 83 , which owes its nickname "La Poule" (The Hen) to the "chuckling" second theme of the first movement. Both designations do not come from Haydn, but were given by the contemporary audience. These are pure epithets that should not be confused with a program planned by the composer.

The so-called tone painting creates flowing transitions from absolute music to program music , which imitates extra-musical noises and sounds with musical means. It already appears in Renaissance music and can be a stylistic device both in absolute music and in program music. Baroque example: Jean-Philippe Rameau Le rappel des oiseaux (The calling of the birds) for harpsichord. In it, a bird's call is imitated and reproduced in such a way that the association of a group of birds is stimulated. The processing of motifs and the piano setting are as artfully and strictly worked as a (small) sonata.

In addition to program music in the actual sense, there is also music with so-called poetic programs , which are characterized by a looser connection between program and music, for example in Beethoven's 3rd symphony ( Eroica ) or in his 6th symphony ( Pastorale ) .

A special case are secret programs such as those originally based on Gustav Mahler's symphonies . While Mahler had originally specified clear programs for his first three symphonies, in an attack of self-doubt and skepticism while working on his 4th symphony in October 1900, he made a public declaration against the program music and declined programmatic explanations of his previous and future symphonies from. This did not prevent him from using unspoken programs as a basis for his subsequent symphonies. Walter Panofsky's description of Mahler's symphonic composition Lied von der Erde refers to the programmatic texts that Mahler added to his music.

According to a more recent definition by Peter Petersen , the characteristic of program music is the non-simultaneous perception of sounding instrumental music and extra-musical text, image or action. The listeners are called upon to actively participate, in that they are supposed to remember a text while listening to the music, or by being able to imagine the music being heard while reading a program.

Film music , military music or national anthems , the genres of vocal music as well as all pop music are usually not counted as program music , although musical text interpretation is common here.

The term program music goes back to the term symphonie à program , which originated in Paris around 1800 .

Program music in individual epochs


Even in baroque music there were numerous compositions that converted external impressions into music:

  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644–1704) imitated animal voices in violin sonatas ( Sonata violino solo representativa , 1669) or described a complete battle from the constellation to the grief of the wounded ( Sonata la Battaglia , 1673).
  • Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722) presented in his six sonatas, written for harpsichord, organ or clavichord, musical presentations of some biblical histories, to be played in 6 sonatas on the piano (Leipzig 1700) in the manner of program music, various biblical scenes, e.g. B. the fight between David and Goliath.
  • Johann David Heinichen , Kapellmeister of the Dresdener Hof, in his Concerto in C major (Seibel 211) in the second movement under the title “ Pastorell ”, faithfully imitates a rural bagpipe music with strings and oboes. It is also an "instrument travesty ".

Also to be mentioned are:

  • Orchestral suite Les éléments by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666–1747),
  • The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi , in whose 1st concert in spring the second violins are supposed to reproduce the rustling of branches and leaves and the violas the barking of a dog
  • Francesco Geminiani's orchestral concert The Enchanted Forest (based on Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata )
  • François Couperin's harpsichord pieces, especially the bizarre description
    • Les Fastes de la grande et ancienne Mxnxstrxndxsx from the 2nd harpsichord book: structured
      like an opera, it consists of 5 acts and is a parody of the “brotherhood of the masters of dance and the players of high and low instruments and oboes” ( La Ménestrandise , a kind of musicians and actors'union). The fourth act, for example, bears the heading Les Invalides and musically depicts "the dislocated" or "the limping". In Act 5, which can be played very quickly, the whole bunch falls apart: “Désordre et déroute de toute la troupe, causé par les Yvrognes, les Singes et les Ours”.

Another, no less bizarre example is the detailed description of a medical operation in the 18th century


Although absolute music dominated in classical music and this music- aesthetic position took a back seat, there are still numerous significant examples of program music during this period.

  • Examples are Leopold Mozart's symphonies with titles such as Sinfonia di caccia , Sinfonia Burlesca and Die Bauernhochzeit , works by Abbé Vogler such as his hunting music Les Rendez-vous de chasse or Les Vendanges interrompues par les chasseurs . In terms of composition, Dittersdorf's six symphonies after Ovid's Metamorphoses or his Sinfonia in A minor Il delirio delli compositori, ossia Il gusto d'oggidi ' (Grave a2) are significant .
  • There are important programmatic works by Luigi Boccherini , such as his String Quintet No. 60 in C major La Musica Notturna delle strade di Madrid, Op. 30 No. 6 (G. 324), the program of which the composer himself explains in detail on the manuscript and which is here as Example of a detailed program is given:
“This quintettino describes the music you hear at night in the streets of Madrid, from the chiming of the Ave Maria to the raising of a night watch. All of this is not treated with the severity that counterpoint would require, but rather aims solely at reproducing the things that I want to describe as faithfully as possible. Ave Maria delle Parrochie - the chiming of the Ave Maria of the various parish churches in the city. Then the Minuetto dei ciechi , the minuet of the [blind] beggars. The cellists have to put their instrument across their knees and imitate the sound of a guitar with all their fingernails. After a short pause, the entire minuet is repeated and turns into the Rosario [Largo assai] , [the evening rosary prayer], which has to be played without a fixed meter. The Rosario is followed by a Passacaglia by the street singer Los Manolos [with the playing instruction con mala grazia = brusque, harsh], again with guitar-like pizzicato effects and finally the ritirata ( con variazioni ). One has to imagine that this drawing up of the night watch can first be heard from a distance and has to be played so piano that one hardly notices it; the following crescendo and marcando instructions must be strictly observed. "
  • Mozart's Sextet A Musical Fun KV 522 (Village Musician Sextet ) 1787 is often interpreted as a description of an unsuccessful performance by village musicians. The name “A musical fun” comes from Mozart himself, the name “Dorfmusikantensextett” only refers to the cover picture of the first edition. Mozart makes fun of bad everyday music by adding a lot of compositional errors and inconsistencies into it. The "icing on the cake" is that there are also errors in the execution, which are consciously taken as technical errors. Here Mozart takes a decisive stand against the would-be composers and musical greats of his time, who wrote bad everyday music and still had a lot of imagination. Boasting and not being able to excite him all his life so much that he evidently ventured into this composition in a humorous way. It was never in his mind to make fun of simple, rural musicians, as he knew very well that very few people were given the same level of talent and support as was the case with himself.
  • In his oratorio overture to La Passione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo, Antonio Salieri literally described Peter's tormented conscience. In the overture to his opera L'Europa riconosciuta , Salieri composed a “Tempesta di mare” (storm at sea).
  • Beethoven's 6th Symphony Pastorale is “more an expression of feeling than painting”, but with its detailed description of natural voices it can also be seen as program music.
  • A continuation of the pompous Baroque battle music is Beethoven's orchestral work Wellington's Victory , which describes the battle of Vitoria (Beethoven writes: Vittoria), which took place on June 21, 1813 , in great detail.


During the Romantic period, program music developed into an independent musical genre, which particularly emphasized the extra-musical elements for instrumental music. In the course of the 19th century, an aesthetic dispute arose between the supporters of program music and the representatives of absolute music, which only follows its own musical laws and - as with symphonies - is free of extra-musical ties. Most of the composers of the program music chose the symphonic poem as a one-movement orchestral form. They used the multi-movement program symphony less often.

Schumann's Carnaval op.9 , in which a poetic program with subtle literary and current references predominates, as well as his Children's Scenes op.15 and the Album for the Young Op.68 are to be addressed as a link between the genre of character pieces and the genre of program music .

Liszt also wrote program music for piano. After titles such as the Paganini etude La Campanella (little bells), the Feux follets (will-o'-the-wisps) and Paysage (from the Études d'exécution transcendante , studies of subsequent elaboration), a new aspect of program music now appears: programs such as Sonetto 104 [or 123] del Petrarca , La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell and Les Jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este from the Années de pèlerinage with their tourist and literary associations flatter the growing educated middle class .

In individual works such as the concert etudes Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen by Liszt, the titles already hint at programmatic trivialities, albeit on a high level. This is the beginning of the questioning of the program music by the salon music .


Numerous works of a programmatic nature were also created at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to Richard Strauss, examples from Central Europe are the symphonic poems by Siegfried Wagner , Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek or, from the British Isles, The Planets by Gustav Holst and Tintagel by Arnold Bax . While the composers mentioned are more likely to belong to the post-Romantic period, modernism has also produced some famous examples of program music. Works as diverse as Mossolow's iron foundry , Honegger's symphonic movements Pacific 231 and Rugby or Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus should be mentioned .

Later examples include a. Three Screaming Popes for orchestra by the British artist Mark-Anthony Turnage based on an artwork by Francis Bacon or the turbulent orchestral piece An Orkney Wedding ( An Orkney Wedding ) by Peter Maxwell Davies .

See also


Individual evidence

  1. Honegger. In: Riemann Musiklexikon. Schott Mainz 2012, Volume 2, ISBN 978-3-7957-0006-5 .
  2. Manfred Gräter: Concert Guide New Music. (= Books of knowledge. 94). Fischer Bücherei, Frankfurt / Hamburg 1955, p. 110.
  3. Symphony No. 5 “Di tre re” on, accessed on February 25, 2014.
  4. ^ Jean Philipp Rameau: Pièces de Clavecin. (1724, 1731). Bärenreiter 3800, Kassel u. a. 1972, p. 28.
  5. ^ Walter Panowsky: The Hundred Most Beautiful Concerts. (= Humboldt Taschenbuch. 128). Selection by Herbert von Karajan. Verlag Lebendiges Wissen Weiss, Berlin / Munich 1965, p. 30f. and 37f. (3rd and 6th symphonies).
  6. ^ Walter Panowsky: The Hundred Most Beautiful Concerts. 1965, pp. 87-90. (2nd Symphony in C minor, "Resurrection Symphony").
  7. Constantin Floros: "Gustav Mahler", 3 volumes. Breitkopf, Wiesbaden 1977–1985.
  8. ^ Walter Panowsky: The Hundred Most Beautiful Concerts. 1965, p. 173.
  9. "Program music. Studies on the concept and history of a controversial genre" (= HJbMw vol. 6). Edited by Peter Petersen et al. Laaber 1983.
  10. Brockhaus Riemann Music Lexicon. Volume 3, Mainz 1979, p. 329.
  11. Battaglia by I. Biber, 1st movement, in which, for example, gun shots can be heard A Far Cry on
  12. ^ CD Johann David Heinichen. Dresden Concerti. Musica Antiqua Cologne . Reinhard Goebel. Archive production .
  13. Analysis ( memento of January 18, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) of the four seasons on the Los Angeles Philharmonic website
  14. Supplement to the CD Luigi Boccherini Opera con titoli Capriccio No. 10 453.
  15. Program music : Score and critical report in the New Mozart Edition A musical fun : sheet music and audio files in the International Music Score Library Project
  16. Audio file / audio sample played ? / i by Romuald Greiss on a Budynowicz piano from 1850.
  17. ^ Walter Panofsky: The Hundred Most Beautiful Concerts. 1965, pp. 140/141.
  18. ^ Walter Panofsky: The Hundred Most Beautiful Concerts. 1965, p. 156/157.
  19. ^ Walter Panofsky: The Hundred Most Beautiful Concerts. 1965, pp. 147-149.