Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel

Absolute music or programmatic music: do you have a preference? This week we are looking at two compositional approaches that formed during the 19th-century. Absolute music is one type defined as music for music’s sake. The other type, programmatic music, uses an outside source as its inspiration and is often times accompanied by a program to provide details to listeners on the composer’s intent and the music’s meaning. Today, let’s look at one musical example of programmatic music.

Richard Strauss was known as a programmatic composer. You can tell by the titles of many of his works that they have extra-musical sources (Don Juan, Macbeth, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote). Strauss used New German School-members Liszt and Berlioz as models of inspiration in creating transformed themes, programmatic topics, and orchestration.

One of his well-known tone poems, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, is based on the 16th-century story of a boy’s adventures and pranks. A tone poem is like a symphonic poem in that it is a one-movement programmatic work with various themes and contrasting sections that help convey a specific story or character.

Though Strauss hesitated in providing a program for his work, it is clearly programmatic in nature. Here’s what the composer had to say about his tone poem:

“It is impossible for me to furnish a program for Eulenspiegel; were I to put into words the thoughts that its several incidents suggested to me, they would seldom suffice, and might even give rise to offense. Let me leave it, therefore, to my hearers to crack the hard nut that the rogue has prepared for them. By way of helping them to a better understanding, it seems sufficient to point out the two Eulenspiegel motives, which, in the most manifold disguises, moods, and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe, when, after he has been condemned to death, Till is strung up to the gibbet. For the rest, let the merry citizens of Cologne guess at the musical joke that a rogue has offered them.”

The two themes that Stratuss refers to represent Till. One is presented by the violins in the opening and one is the famous horn solo. The themes appear throughout the work, varied as Till experiences various misadventures.

Listen to Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks here. Does knowing its connection to this old tale provide greater meaning, understanding, or enjoyment for you? Or do you think you would enjoy this work equally if not more if you had no outside source and were left to determine your own thoughts and connections?





Thursday, December 7, 2017

Brahms and Absolute Music

Last time we looked at the mid-19th century debate over absolute and programmatic music. Johannes Brahms advocated absolute music or, music for music’s sake. Known for introducing new elements to traditional forms, Brahms sought to put his own mark on the successes of his predecessors. Though it took him over 40 years to attempt to complete a symphony in fear of remaining in the shadow of Beethoven, he ended up completing four outstanding symphonies that are still known and loved today.

Today, let’s use the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony as our absolute music listening example. This movement is a chaconne, a Baroque form characterized by a slow, stately feel and featuring variations on a harmonic pattern or a constantly repeated bass line. The set of variations in this movement draws from Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. This use of a theme and variations movement as the finale of a symphony was not common but we do see it in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which may have also been a model for Brahms.

Listen here to the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Do you feel that if Brahms had provided a program explaining his intent and the music’s meaning it would help you to more fully enjoy this work? Or do you prefer to come up with your own images, moods, and meaning when listening to this beautiful music? Let me know your opinion!



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Absolute vs. Programmatic Music

During the mid to late 19th century, the revival of older music became quite popular. Publishers distributed editions of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, and audiences became acquainted with hearing their repertoire. This revival troubled many living composers who believed it difficult to compete with the “greats” of the past. While some composers of this time decided to approach this issue by expanding upon these great historical forms, others believed that in order to create a spark to catch the public’s eye, they must create something entirely new and innovative.

This week let’s look at a 19th-century dispute over “absolute” music and “programmatic” music. Absolute music is the idea of music for music’s sake and included people such as Johannes Brahms who believed that music is a complete and beautiful work in and of itself and does not need support from outside sources. Brahms often times used these past composers as models on which he expanded with his own ideas.

As an advocate of absolute music, music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote the following in his book, On the Musically Beautiful: “What kind of beauty is the beauty of a musical composition? It is a specifically musical kind of beauty. By this we understand a beauty that is self-contained and in no need of content from outside itself, that consists simply and solely of tones and their artistic combination…”

On the opposite side of the issue, supporters of programmatic music wanted something new in their music that pointed away from the past. These composers used outside sources such as poetry, stories, visuals, etc. to enhance the meaning in their music. Often times, the composition would be accompanied with an actual program that explained the story and meaning linked to this outside source. Composers such as Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz make up this group of programmatic composers that was coined the “New German School” by music critic Franz Brendel in 1859. Though Liszt and Berlioz were not actually German by birth, Brendel considered them German in spirit due to their use of Beethoven as a model. Other composers who used this programmatic technique include Bruckner, Wolf, R. Strauss, and Mahler.


Later this week we will look at an example of both absolute music and programmatic music. Do you prefer the idea of music for music’s sake or do you enjoy an accompanying program? Let me know your thoughts…there are no wrong answers!