PROGRAM MUSIC AND SNOBS 

The attitude of most professional musicians, musicologists, and music critics toward program music is like the attitude of the prophets of the one invisible and indivisible God toward polytheistic idol-worship. Or, to put it another way, it is like the attitude of respectable married women toward kept mistresses. Program music is beneath their contempt, a childish attempt to drag the sublime down to the level of the vulgar. They feel that there is something degrading about its popularity, and they suspect that its popularity and congeniality threaten to subvert the purity of their own pursuits.

A perfect example of this professional snobbery is the entry "Program Music" in the Harvard Dictionary of Music, written by the eminent musicologist Willi Apel. 

               Too great reliance on outside program is likely to weaken rather than to 
               enhance the artistic merit of a composition. As a matter of fact, one cannot 
               help feeling that a good deal of the interest which composers have taken in 
               program music is but the avowal of a lack of truly musical imagination and 
               constructive ideas, a lack for which they hope to make up by an interesting 
               program. In the final analysis, there are two types of program music: that 
               which is good music regardless of the program; and that which is poor music
               even with a "good" program.

In other words, absolute music is highbrow and program music is lowbrow. Music debased by a text, or a subject, or even a descriptive title, is not really the real thing. The elite rejoice in fugues and sonatas, but the masses wallow in tone poems.

Another example, less blatant but no less deplorable, occurs in the book Schoenberg's Error by William Thomson. Speaking of the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss: 

               Zarathustra
in its entirety is compelling proof of the continuing solvency of 
               tonality... Strauss pits the transcending power of nature (represented by the 
               key of C major/minor) against the aspiring mind of humanity (represented by 
               the key of B major/minor)... The C-ness of Nature overcomes humaniity's 
               B-ness in the end:...

But then, in the middle of the sentence, his professional snobbery gets the better of him, and he apologizes for his lapse into plebeian philistinism: 

               ...it is hard to escape the language of a music appreciation text when 
               describing these clearly histrionic actions.

The key word here is "music appreciation," which is explanation of music for the lay music lover and a red flag for the snob. It is true that this may lend itself to amateurish abuse, like Queen Carmen Sylva of Romania who affixed a descriptive title to each prelude and fugue in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. But on the other hand, the professionals often refuse to say that anything in a piece of music actually means something specific, like Tovey who wrote:

               In the whole [Pastoral] symphony there is not a note of which the musical   
               value would be altered if cuckoos and nightingales, and country folk, and 
               thunder and lightning, and the howling and the whistling of the wind, were 
               things that had never been named by man.

Beethoven was also afflicted with this snobbery, even as he himself initiated the fashion for program music in the 19th century. Having composed the Pastoral Symphony, wonderfully graphic in its descriptiveness without being any less great music, he then dissociated himself from his own originality by saying that it was "Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei" [More expression of feelings than depiction]. The snobs were, and still are, so overjoyed by this life belt thrown to them, that they never seem to notice that only two of Beethoven's titles for the several movements conform to his manifesto: "Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arriving in the Country" and "Joyful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm." All the rest refer to actual things, not feelings about them: "Scene at the Brook," "Merry Gathering of the Peasants," "Cloudburst; Thunderstorm," and "Shepherd's Song."

In Tovey's commentary on the Pastoral Symphony (in his Essays in Musical Analysis) the two things that most offended his anti-program purism were the three bird calls at the end of the second movement and the thunderstorm in the fourth movement. Speaking of the bird calls, he wrote: 

               That passage is a master-stroke of pure musical form... Much nonsense might 
               have been spared if the superior persons who regard it as violation of the 
               absoluteness of music had taken the trouble to notice that the three birds   
               make with this motto [the phrase that first appears in m13] a perfectly normal 
               four-bar phrase.

In other words, this passage is absolute music even though Beethoven wrote the names of the three birds in the score. Speaking of the thunderstorm, he wrote: 

               What he [Beethoven] achieves is something much higher; it is a physical shock 
               of terror, which is far more thrilling when all that is at stake is the prospect of 
               getting one's clothes wet than when there is any real human danger.

In other words, Beethoven did not stoop to so mundane a thing as imitating the sounds of a thunderstorm, but expressed in music "something much higher." At the end of his sentence, Tovey jumbled his clauses. I suppose he meant that a "real human danger" is more thrilling than "getting one's clothes wet" and not the other way around.

I was once the hapless victim of this snobbish prejudice. I presented a paper at a conference devoted to links between music and other arts. My paper was about changes in the depiction of a thunderstorm in poetry and music following changes in the scientific model. (The paper appears on this website under the title "Thunderstorm Imagery.") But I never got past my first example, which was the storm in the Pastoral Symphony. A professor of musicology from an ivy-league university interrupted me to remind me that Beethoven said that the symphony was "more expression of feelings than depiction." My response was: "Is it your contention that the fourth movement does not imitate the sounds of a thunderstorm?" But he was adamant, and the audience sided with him, and the whole thing was a debacle.

In conclusion, I offer my own view. The several fine arts vary in their ability to be abstract. Architecture is always abstract. It is itself, and cannot be representative of something else (except novelty architechture which is usually advertising or just plain kitsch). Literature and the theater cannot be abstract, because they consist of words. (Gertrude Stein's futile attempt to write abstract poetry resulted in one inane platitude about a rose, and reams of gibberish.) Between these two extremes, music and dance and the graphic arts can be abstract or representative in varying degrees.

If purely abstract (= absolute) music is defined as music without a text and without any connection with a verbal description, the amount of it is considerable but smaller than what the snobs imagine. It is pointless to inflict a non-musical meaning on truly absolute music; but it is equally pointless, in the case of music that was intended to have an extra-musical meaning, to scornfully reject that meaning. The words attached to a piece of music are as much part of the work as the notes. Absolute music is not "higher" than program music. They are the two sides of the same coin.

Consider, for example, the Alto Rhapsody by Brahms. The orchestral introduction, heard separately for the first time, would surely be construed as purely abstract music. But it is immediately followed by the alto solo singing the first stanza, accompanied by the orchestra playing exactly the same music, note for note. Nor is this case unique. Another obvious example is the Andante introduction in the overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni, which returns at the end of the opera as the accompaniment to the dialogue between the Don and the statue that came to dinner. For that matter, almost every Bach aria begins thus, with the instruments playing the ritornello, followed immediately by the entrance of the voice accompanied by a repetition of the ritornello. Has the abstract introductory instrumental music suddenly come to mean what the text says, like Alice (in Chapter 3 of Through the Looking Glass) emerging from the wood where things have no names? Or is this simply a case of dogmatic but unrealistic definitions?

I do not believe that music is a universal language. In my opinion, that is a naive, implausible delusion. Chinese music, Arab music, Amerindian music, do not speak to me in the way that Western music does. I learned something about these musics of other cultures, but I was not acculturated to them. Indeed, the majority of Westerners today are not even acculturated to Western classical music. The word "music" means to them "rock and roll" and all its misbegotten derivatives. To such people the words "classical music" denote the creepy stuff that can be played when real music is not suitable (like at funerals). A few examples from my own experience:

The first movie newsreel produced in Israel, in 1949, showed the Israeli army parading through the streets of Tel Aviv on the first anniversary of the establishment of the state. The accompanying sound track played Onward Christian Soldiers, the marching song of the Salvation Army. 
     At a ceremony commemorating the Holocaust, the intention was to enhance the atmosphere with a flute solo. But the piece the flautist chose to play was the Dance of the Blessed Spirits in Elysium from Gluck's opera Orpheus and Euridice
     After the prime minister of Israel Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, in 1995, national television broadcast continuous programs about him. Every program began with the same title clip, showing a portrait of Rabin while the sound track played the Agnus Dei [Lamb of God, the appellation of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb that atones for the sins of mankind] from Bach's Mass in B Minor. 
     The television ad for Doritos tortilla chips during the 2011 Super Bowl showed the jolt that people supposedly get when they crunch a Dorito between their teeth. The background music was the Dies Irae [Day of Wrath, the lurid poem describing the terrors of judgement day] from Verdi's Requiem.
     In the television series The Onedin Line in the 1970's, the title sequence showed a ship under full sail, but it was accompanied by the music of the love scene from the ballet Spartacus by Khachaturian. 
     In a television documentary about Hitler's private life, scenes of Hitler with his paramour Eva Braun and with his beloved dogs were accompanied by bits from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. 
     Horrific scenes from the movie Rashomon were accompanied by a mutilated version of bits from Ravel's Bolero
     On Israel television, advertisements for chocolate milk are accompanied by a mutilated version of bits from Ravel's Bolero
     (And I am told on good authority that:) At the Treuenbrietzen sewage treatment plant in northern Germany, they pipe music by Mozart to the tanks. The director claims that Mozart's music motivates the bacteria that break down the waste.

If and when I spoke to people about the above, maintaining that the music employed was inappropriate, the reaction was usually: "So what? What does it matter?" together with a look that meant: "You are even more freakish than I thought, and I'll have to beware of you in the future."

For those of us who are indeed acculturated to the art music of Western civilization, I opine that our emotional and intellectual reactions to the music are not innate, but learned. Part of what we have learned (or should have learned) is that not only are absolute and program music the two sides of the same coin: they could not exist without each other. Therefore, we could not have learned to understand and love absolute music without the context of its coexisting vocal and program music. I suspect that the same is true of abstract painting and sculpture, but I feel sure that it is true of music.