Friday, June 6, 2014

Extra-musical Sources and Programmatic Music

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?






  1. Programmatic music is great as long as it is not manipulative like so much pop music. Strauss is a master at allowing the stories to suggest without distracting from your own thoughts.

  2. A program is nice but fortunately not necessary. To exclusively choose the composer's idea of the program is confining to the enjoyment of the music, I think. Leonard Bernstein did a wonderful program on this subject in one of his earliest televised "Young Person's Concerts" with the NY Phil. He described a story (that he made up) to go with Strauss's Don Juan, I think it was... I highly recommend this program. It's on YouTube and I'm pretty sure it's called "What is Music". Please correct me Jessica, if I got the titles wrong. I also must admit, however that programs can be useful to me. After all, the symphony that made me a classical music convert back when I was 15 was none other than Beethoven's 6th!

    1. Sorry wrong "Don"...Strauss's Don Quixote... not Don Juan. :) -Mark

    2. Thank you for bringing up Bernstein's wonderful Young People's Concerts! It has been quite some time since I watched these so I just went on to YouTube to check it out. For those interested, the show begins at the following link: I think Bernstein says it best when he explains that some music does come with a story attached however this is "extra" and we must not forget that!