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    The Tyranny of Program Music

    "Works of music without titles,"  thundered an editorial in the official organ of  Chinese Communist Party in January 1974, "do not reflect the class spirit". The article went on to specifically condemn the Piano Sonata No. 17 by "the German capitalist musician, Beethoven" and the Symphony in B minor by the "Romantic Austrian capitalist musician, Schubert".

    "Works of music without titles,"  thundered an editorial in the official organ of  Chinese Communist Party in January 1974, "do not reflect the class spirit". The article went on to specifically condemn the Piano Sonata No. 17 by "the German capitalist musician, Beethoven" and the Symphony in B minor by the "Romantic Austrian capitalist musician, Schubert".Program music is usually defined as music in which sound is used to depict a story, emotion or an image. And, as the above quotation makes clear, for Chinese communists in the early 1970s, there just wasn't any other kind.

    China has changed a lot since then, of course. But I sometimes wonder whether the attitude expressed in the editorial has won out. Almost all the well-regarded compositions specifically written for concert or wind bands these days claim to be some form of program music. The idea that music can be enjoyed for its own sake seems to have been lost.

    Take Jan Van Der Roost's Spartacus. Audiences are particularly attracted to the martial themes in the third movement which, we are told, refer to the revolt of the slaves against their Roman oppressors. Johan de Meji's Lord of the Rings consists of five separate movements, each one attempting to illustrate the personage or an important episode in the trilogy of the same title by J.R.R. Tolkien. Then there is A Movement for Rosa, honoring civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. Composer Mark Camphouse describes the three movement work in a program note as depicting Ms Rosa's life, asserting that "the quiet strength and serenity" of the final bars in the last movement "serve as an ominous reminder of racism's lingering presence in modern American society."

    The idea that music must mean something - ie be connected in some way to a more weighty purpose - seems to pervade even the most blandly titled works. Alfred Reed's Fifth Suite for Band is essentially a collection of national dances associated with different countries. But the accompanying program note cannot resist claiming that the work is also a "tribute to the cross cultural influences facing the globe today, as the world becomes an ever smaller habitat, and people of all societies come to know and interact with one another as never before".

    To find high brow, yet popular, absolute music specifically written for wind bands it almost seems that you have to go back to the beginning of the last century. Gustav Holst's  First Suite in E-flat (1909) is a good example.

    How seriously should we take the imaginative titles and evocative program notes handed out to concert goers these days?

    The current tendency of composers to attach a title to their music probably has a lot to do with marketing. Indeed, publishers pandered to the popular infatuation with the idea that music must mean something recognisable to the listener long before composers did. Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words, for example, includes works with titles that do not appear in the composer's manuscript. Haydn's symphonies and string quartets have also acquired popular nicknames (such as Razor) that have very little to do with the music itself. Ditto for Mozart's Jupiter symphony.

    Such nicknames remain even when the composer expressly denies that the work has any programmic intent. Chopin's so-called Raindrop prelude, is a good example.

    In other cases, composers have given their music imaginative titles, only to delete them later. Initially, Stravinsky claimed that his Scherzo fantastique was inspired by Maeterlinck's book The Life of Bees. The Russian composer even added specific subtitles corresponding to different sections of the book. Later, however, he denied the derivation.

    It is really up to concert goers to decide whether or not to believe what they are told about the works being performed. Sometimes, it may be better to discard the pompous programme notes and just enjoy the music as it is. As a character in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn noted: "You pays yer money, and you takes yer choice".

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    Many people believe that musicians are more moody and prone to suicide than other professionals, and that - as a result - a greater percentage of them end their lives in mental institutions or are fated to live emotionally tempestuous lives. Musicians are also commonly suspected of being over sensitive to criticism, having delusions of grandeur and other neurotic traits.

    The statistics fail to bear this out, although it is possible to find enough examples to make the case in front of those unfamiliar with Western musical history. Like actors, politicians and others obliged to face the public on a regular basis, musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. However, such problems do not constitute evidence of neuroticism.

     Musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. 

    Beethoven was known for his moodiness, but this was probably closely related to his growing frustration as he began to go deaf. Among the famous composers, only Schumann and MacDowell ended  up in mental institutions. Musicians probably have no more suicidal impulses than the rest of the population. But should a prominent musician decide to take his life, it is likely to get a good deal of publicity.

    Perhaps the most morbid suicide was planned by the pianist Alexander Kelberine, who arranged his last concert programme to consist only of works dealing with death. He then went home and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Schumann jumped into the Rhine, only to be rescued by a fisherman. Rezso Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, a work that was once banned in Europe because it triggered a wave of suicides by young people on Sundays. Seress himself committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The vast majority of musicians, however, die of causes that reflect the state of medical knowledge in the particular historical period in which they live.

    Some musicians certainly had sad lives. Mozart, perhaps the greatest of the composers in the Classical Period of music, died a pauper. The pianist Chopin, a Polish nationalist and tormented lover, was terrified of large audiences. He died of tuberculosis when he was 39. Bizet, a French composer who died when he was 36, was beset by crises of self-confidence and emotional upheaval. Unlike Chopin, his works only achieved widespread recognition after his death.

     Wagner had the emotional maturity of a spoilt child. 

    George Gershwin only had a short life, but it was a good one. He died of a brain tumor when he was 39 after a rags to riches story that made him one of the most well known composers of popular music in  the United States.

    Others lived long and had much success, despite treating others abominably, including many of their friends. Wagner considered himself a genius as a playwright, poet, stage director, and philosopher as well as a composer, and was not shy about letting others know it! Although not particularly handsome, his personal magnetism was such that he had numerous affairs, usually with married women, despite the fact that he was married himself. His biographers describe him as having the emotional maturity of a spoilt child, complete with tantrums if he could not get his way. He died at the age of 70, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of his time.

    The pianist Franz Liszt's dashing good looks enabled him to have numerous affairs with many woman. He died of pneumonia at the age of 75. Contrast this with the fate of Schubert, who was short, fat, bespectacled and naturally shy. He died of syphilis at the age of 31 after his friends encouraged him to visit a brothel. Those who knew him well described him as having a warm and friendly nature. Somehow, it doesn't sound fair.

     The life of J.S. Bach must have been very boring. 

    The majority of musicians now and in the past lead fairly quiet lives. Edward Elgar, a largely self-taught musician, rose from humble origins to become the first English composer in 200 years to gain international acclaim. He had a stable marriage, and was regarded by many as a typical English gentleman. He died at the age of 77. Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, also had a good life despite being out of step with his country's politics and music. He died at the age of 70.

    The life of J.S. Bach must have been the most boring of all. He spent almost his entire life in the same small region of Germany where he was born. And nobody took much notice of him either. It was not until about 80 years after his death that his works attracted the attention they deserved.

     

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