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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter P

Letter P
Programme music

Programme music is instrumental music supplied with a literary "programme" by the composer, or, more loosely, with an allusive title. After a period in which abstract generic titles like "sonata" or "symphony" were preferred, the new preference for programme music was an aspect of the Romantic movement in music. Allusive titles such as Evening (Schumann), The Lark's Song (Tchaikovsky) became common, or more ambitiously a musical work could be linked to a literary work, such as Petrarch's Sonnet No. 104 (Liszt). Berlioz famously supplied his Symphonie fantastique with a lengthy verbal synopsis that served as guide to the dramatic events portrayed in the piece. As composers sought to raise the status of music above mere entertainment, they invested it with literary plots and philosophical ideas, as in Liszt's Faust Symphony or Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra.

Liszt probably gave programme music its greatest boost in prestige through his series of "symphonic poems", orchestral works usually in a single movement such as Prometheus, Hamlet, or Battle of the Huns (based on a painting). The implied programme justified dramatic effects and some formal freedoms, although in practice Liszt often attached the title after the composition was finished. In a symphonic poem, themes could behave like characters in a novel or play - they could interact almost theatrically and be transformed out of all recognition, appearing, for example, in the guises of a waltz, a scherzo, and a funeral march. One of his most striking programmatic effects occurs in the last movement of the Faust Symphony, in which Mephistopheles, incapable of creating anything himself, indulges in demonic distortions of Faust's noble themes from the first movement; only Gretchen's themes remain, symbolically, out of his reach. Our imagination, stimulated by a programme or even a mere title, is spurred on by these dramatic peripeteia and thematic transformations: musical themes seem to live, fight, die, ascend to heaven or come back as ghosts.

Tchaikovsky engaged with programme music early in his career, entitling his first symphony Winter Daydreams, and he soon embarked on his own series of symphonic poems, of which Romeo and Juliet (1870/80) and Francesca da Rimini (1876, from Dante) are the best-known. In his writings as a music critic he also displays the Romantic penchant for attaching narratives even to avowedly non-programmatic music. Reviewing a performance of Schumann's Quintet, for instance, Tchaikovsky describes its slow movement as the emotional journey of "a passionate soul, shaken and outraged by the death of its beloved", from the "shrieking of the broken heart" through to its "quiet submission in the face of destiny, faith and a quiet readiness to tolerate steadfastly the blows of an invincible Fate". As it happens, this is bears some resemblance to the programme for Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which the composer provided, somewhat reluctantly, at the request of his patron, Madame von Meck - this programme similarly plots the development of the music step-by-step as a contest between "the soul" and "Fate".

Indeed, Tchaikovsky's three last symphonies occupy a grey area between programme and absolute music: their scores do not explicitly refer to a programme, but there is any number of indications in Tchaikovsky's diaries and letters that it would be appropriate to hear them as dramas of life and death, Fate and the human soul.

© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

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