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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".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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