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Timeline: Does Music Always Have To Tell A Story?

U.S. Public Domain
We often create stories, images or outside references for musical pieces that don't have them.

Thanks to the 1940 film Fantasia the music of The Sorcerer's Apprentice will always be tied to the image of Mickey Mouse in that droopy wizard’s cap. However, that story doesn’t come from Disney. Paul Dukas’ music, written over 40 years before, tells the tale beat for beat of a young apprentice using magic to get out his chores. But it wasn’t even Dukas’ story to begin with; the music is based on a poem by Goethe written in 1797.


Pieces like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique are referred to as program music. This term comes from the 19th century as program notes became a staple in concert halls. It refers to a piece of music written to express a narrative or subject outside itself, to the point where you probably want to read the program to understand.

Does music always have to tell a story?

Wagner certainly believed so. He wrote a program note for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1846 stating that the finale, the "Ode to Joy," proved that music was far more powerful with text and story attached. It was Wagner that coined the term for music that doesn’t have a story or outside reference. He called it “Absolute Music.”

Absolute or non-representational music isn’t about anything. There isn’t any story or reference; as Eduard Hanslick observed, “It speaks nothing but sound.” In the 19th century, Romantic composers, philosophers and writers, like Goethe, became fascinated by the idea of “spiritual absolutism,” expressing something higher in their art; something that could “outlast” words. Instrumental music seemed to be the perfect vehicle for this ideal.

Even before the Romantics, composers like J.S. Bach were much more interested in compositional processes than in telling a story through their music. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor is an excellent example. The title describes the form and key, nothing else. The notes come together as purely musical ideas for their own sake, working themselves out according to the rules of counterpoint and the taste of the composer. So, what is this music about?

The funny thing is a lot of people I ask have an answer to that question. We often create stories or outside references for pieces that don’t have them. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote 104 purely instrumental symphonies. The vast majority weren’t based on stories or paintings or anything else. However, over the years publishers have applied nicknames to these symphonies like Philosopher, Echo, The Schoolmaster or The Clock. These titles helped sell more copies. They made the symphonies about something and it didn’t matter if that was Haydn’s intention or not.

Today we are still debating whether music could ever truly be absolute or even if that’s an ideal that we should be striving for at all. What do you think? How do you experience a truly instrumental piece of music? Comment below and let us know; we'd love to hear from you.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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