Thoughts about composing “programme music”

September 29, 2006

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Programme music is music that supposedly tells a story with music. This is not to be confused with the Hollywood film music technique where the music apes the action in the film precisely (think the music for Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry), this technique is known as “Mickey-Mousing” after the famous cartoon character. A piece of programme music will be called something like “the Sea” [La Mer] where the audience agrees that the music reminds them of the ocean. But we wonder when Coplands “Appalachian Spring” was originally called “Ballet for Martha” and Mr Copland had only musical ideas for his score. It was Martha Graham who added the programme. And now we Americans get all warm and fuzzy listening to it saying, ah to be an American in the old simple days. Copland didn’t have that in mind at all. But now we do, so that music MEANS nostalgic, warm and fuzzy, Americana, orchestral mountain music, oh yeah that’s also a ballet. This illustrates, if nothing else, the power of suggestion.

Over the years, I have loved to offer up my musical impressions of paintings. I scan them from left to right for a time and registral representation, or the intense juxtapositions of color or object might suggest counterpoint, or, any number of things can be “inspiring” to a composer. Similarly, words generate satisfying melodies and the two become fused into a new entity. But what about Chas. T. Griffes’s “The White Peacock?” Can music describe whiteness? And how does one musically emulate a peacock? Ferde Grofe did a nifty job of emulating flies on an donkey’s back with a violin solo in “Grand Canyon Suite.” Stravinsky [allegedly] said that music is unable to express anything––like a tree, or a hammer, or a headache. Speaking of “express,” how is that Arnold Schoenberg’s music is called “expressionist music?” Schoenberg’s palette of “expression” seems limited to this dumb listener. I hope history changes his stylistic tag to Neo-Sturm-und-Drang instead of expressionist or atonal. And if that’s too retro, how ’bout just Angst, y’know, like Punk or Rap or Country or Rock. Angst. Yeah, I like that.

In 1980, ALEA III commissioned me to compose SWEET ALCHEMY for chamber orchestra. I provided detailed program notes which Richard Dyer dinged me for in the Boston Globe, saying “…the details of which the composer should have kept to himself.” I began to wonder how much the composer really needs to tell their audience about the “inspiration” for a piece. Composer Paul Reale told me that one of piano sonatas had a very naughty programme, too naughty to confess as the “real” inspiration never made it into his program notes.

One runs a risk by building a listener’s attention with a snappy and descriptive title, but sometimes the audience is disappointed, not following the composer’s programme. More vague titles like “Ecstatic Orange” can give a little more programmatic wiggle room. We expect the piece will be high energy and colorful. Our society has never agreed on any musical interpretation of the color orange, so no one will be too disappointed with that color.

The name of my blog RED BLACK WINDOW does not literally mean anything, but each word is an image and doesn’t set up any expectations for the reader.

My grandfather played for silent films with a small combo called “Slim Bourland and the Jazz Hounds.” Maybe this means I am genetically predisposed towards having music accompany a story or an image. Whether it’s true or not, I love having a programme in mind when I write music. I am not always convinced that sharing it with the audience is a good idea. The less explicit, the better.

[Illustration for sale at Chris Beetles Gallery, by Ronald Searle; “Gertrude Stein Meets Spectre de la Rose Rose Rose.” The amusing title fuses Gautier’s poem “Spectre de la Rose” and perhaps Berlioz’s setting of it, and Gertude Stein’s famous quote “A rose is a rose is a rose” entreating us to cut the symbolism and take the rose to be a rose and nothing else. ]

Le spectre de la rose (the specter of the rose)

Open your closed eyelid
Which is gently brushed by a virginal dream!
I am the ghost of the rose
That you wore last night at the ball.
You took me when I was still sprinkled with pearls
Of silvery tears from the watering-can,
And, among the sparkling festivities,
You carried me the entire night.

O you, who caused my death:
Without the power to chase it away,
You will be visited every night by my ghost,
Which will dance at your bedside.
But fear nothing; I demand
Neither Mass nor De Profundis;
This mild perfume is my soul,
And I’ve come from Paradise.

My destiny is worthy of envy;
And to have a fate so fine,
More than one would give his life
For on your breast I have my tomb,
And on the alabaster where I rest,
A poet with a kiss
Wrote: “Here lies a rose,
Of which all kings may be jealous.”

by Théophile Gautier (1811-1872)

Translation and copyright by Emily Ezust

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