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Absolute Music

Crosscurrents: Program Music And Modernism

From the beginning, there was much resistance to the idea that music is best understood as separate from what soon became known as the "extramusical." Opera and similar forms, of course, balanced musical logic with and against dramatic necessities (although Wagner argued that Italian opera was essentially "absolute" in its dependence on musical formula). Songs of various types were intimately tied to their texts. Most significantly opposed to the new concept was the idea of "program music"—instrumental music that relied on a programmatic explanation to orient an audience to its meanings—launched by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) in the years following Beethoven's death in 1827. The tradition of program music, to some extent also rooted in Beethoven (especially in his Sixth Symphony, known as the "Pastoral" Symphony, 1808), was continued by Franz Liszt (1811–1886) in his symphonic poems and programmatic symphonies, implicitly dis-avowed by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) and Anton Bruckner (1824–1896), but taken up again by both Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) in his first symphonies and Richard Strauss (1864–1949) in his tone poems and programmatic symphonies, beginning in the mid-1880s and continuing through the turn of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, although programmatic music is most readily identified, in musical terms, according to its departures from "musical logic," there is substantial overlap in the two categories as well, so that they should not simply be viewed as opposite types. Thus, even a programmatic work had to make musical sense and could depend on an underlying sense of music's absoluteness, while many "absolute" works conveyed implicit programmatic content through their engagement with familiar musical gestures and topics.

During the twentieth century, especially with the advent of high modernism, music's separateness from other discourses became in some cases more pronounced (by the insistence on sometimes arcane musical logic over what most audiences still perceive as "natural") and in others virtually eliminated (as when programmatic rationales demanded extreme expressive or descriptive modes at the expense of musical logic). While the latter possibility played a large part in the development of musical modernism, it also led at each turn to the development of new "systems," such as the concept of Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color melody) proposed by Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) in 1911 and the twelve-tone system that he created ten years after that (also known as serialism, which was later developed further by applying it to other elements besides pitch, such as rhythm, meter, and dynamics). In consequence, the former possibility, advancing the principle of music's absoluteness, was often seen as more fundamental. Thus, in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, the charge of "formalism" was used against composers such as Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975) when their music was perceived to be too modern. While this charge has been described as little more than a tool for exercising political control, its basis has much in common with Wagner's insistence on music's subordination to an exterior logic, and it is based in part on the premise that musical modernism extends the idea of "absolute" music.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: 1,2-dibromoethane to AdrenergicAbsolute Music - Beethoven And German Influence, Crosscurrents: Program Music And Modernism, Late Twentieth-and Early Twenty-first-century Perspectives