Some thoughts on the “programme” vis-à-vis “absolute” music debate.

By Suddhaseel Sen

In the Spring 2024 Season, the Symphony Orchestra of India will be performing a wide array of orchestral works, mostly from the 19th century, some with evocative titles and others with none. Some of these pieces were initially meant for the concert hall, while others were meant for the opera house, from where they came—as did a lot of great orchestral music from operas—into the concert hall.

Is there a fundamental difference between these two kinds of music? As is the case with modern film music, incidental music (i.e., music for theatrical performances) and music for operas and ballets need to connect to the drama onstage. They need to convey the emotions of the characters; evoke musically the locale in which the action is set, or various aspects of nature (rain or a thunderstorm, or various times of the day, for example); or combine all of these musical functions within the course of the same piece. Perhaps the greatest challenge of writing such music lies in creating formal structures that unfold in time in such a way as to correlate with the action onstage and, at the same time, be satisfying in its own right, if the piece has to make musical sense outside of the theatrical or cinematic contexts for which they are initially created.

Musical forms can generate dramatic contrast on their own, a point best illustrated by the great sonata form movements in symphonies from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Dmitri Shostakovich and later composers. But such music usually does not transfer readily to the opera house or the theatre. While there are numerous examples of composers adapting or extracting music from operas, ballets and film scores for the concert hall, there are very few examples that I know of, in which symphonic music is re-used for operatic, dramatic or cinematic purposes.

From our historical vantage point, we can see how purely instrumental music came to be used gradually to “refer” to (if indeed it can be so termed) non-musical elements. Instrumental music with extramusical connotations first appeared in the late 17th century, such as the “Bible” or “Mystery” Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (c. 1676) and Johann Kuhnau (1700). The most well-known example from the Baroque period is undoubtedly Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (c. 1720). Many now-obscure examples followed till Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Sixth Symphony, subtitled the “Pastoral” (1808), with extra-musical titles provided by the composer himself. Beethoven’s observation that the symphony is more about “the expression of feeling than of painting” is pointed out repeatedly in this context. How, then, does one account for the fact that the score contains frankly onomatopoeic bird calls or a hair-raising instrumental account of a storm? And how does one account for the fact that Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony reproduces, virtually movement for movement, an arc of development with a cheerful beginning, a central storm section and finally a hymn of thanksgiving that one also finds in Le portrait musical de la nature, also subtitled the Pastoralsymphonie (c. 1785) by the nowforgotten composer Justus Heinrich Knecht? Both Knecht and Beethoven incorporated musical tropes— or “topics” to use the now-standard term coined by the musicologist Leonard Ratner—that carried extramusical connotations in the context of theatrical music, into music meant for the concert hall.

Similar disavowals regarding musical tone-painting came from Beethoven’s younger contemporary Carl Maria von Weber, who told musical “stories” in formally innovative instrumental works containing secret programmes like the Invitation to the Dance for piano (1819), the Konzertstück for piano and orchestra and, most notably, the overture to his opera Der Freischütz (both of the latter2 from 1821). The first major symphonist born in the 19th century, Hector Berlioz, who took Beethoven and Weber as his points of departure, had no qualms about announcing the programmatic (i.e., extra-musical) content of his purely instrumental symphonies such as the Symphonie fantastique (1830) or Harold en Italie (1834). It was Berlioz’s close friend Franz Liszt who came up with the term “programme music” and coined the term “symphonic poem” to refer to his orchestral compositions based on extra musical ideas. A rich body of “programmatic” music was composed in the course of the century, of which the tone poems of Richard Strauss blended innovative forms with tone-painting with astonishing success.

A third kind of orchestral music with extra-musical connotations is represented by the “Italian” (1833) and “Scottish” (1842) symphonies of Felix Mendelssohn. In such cases, the titles of the pieces evoked specific locales through the incorporation of either musical elements specific to those locales (thereby contributing to 19th-century musical exoticism), or by evoking the natural landscape of these places by orchestral means: a combination of both these elements can be found in Claude Debussy’s La mer (1905), its indebtedness to Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ acknowledged musically through its subtle use of pentatonic elements. Unlike the programmatic pieces by Liszt and Strauss, they do not use non-musical programmes to help audiences make sense of formal innovations; yet, like operatic music of the period, the use of musical “topics” is common to both genres.

Much ink has been spilled over the inability of music to “refer” to specific things or generate narratives—of course, it cannot in the ways in which words do—and “programme” music has been criticised as such by influential critics and philosophers. But no music that reaches out to us can be exclusively about formal structure, or, at the other extreme, about evocations of non-musical elements without any formal or structural rigour whatsoever. Much of the debate, thus, becomes irrelevant when we consider “programme” and “abstract” music not as mutually exclusive aesthetic orientations but as forming a continuum. Do the opening of the First Piano Concerto (1859) or the evocative second movement of the Second Symphony (1877) by Johannes Brahms, a leading representative of “abstract” music, not evoke extramusical associations in our minds? Do listen to the SOI concerts where these pieces will be performed— along with masterpieces of “programme” music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wagner and others—and judge for yourselves.


  1. One example of the latter is that of the brilliant adaptation of music from Shostakovich’s symphonies (especially No. 5) as “background” music for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.
  2. A tradition of critical suspicion of pictorial and onomatopoeic elements in instrumental music was well-established in German music criticism by the first two decades of the 19th century, when Beethoven and Weber composed their aforementioned works. See Nicholas Cook, “The Other Beethoven: Heroism, the Canon, and the Works of 1813–14,” in 19th-Century Music vol. 27 no. 1 (2003): 3–24.


This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of the On Stage.