Since I carped long and hard about Berlioz and man-splaining, let us go to the root of the issue — program music. Program music is a composition that attempts to portray a specific mood or story.
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is a great example of program music. His String Serenade, composed at the same time as the overture, is not program music. The String Serenade could be considered “absolute music,” which means music that is about itself.
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings Op. 48
Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin — Mateusz Molęda
Program music includes famous pieces such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6: The pastoral, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. None of these pieces are similar in their composition, but they all have an extra-musical agenda.
Absolute music includes pieces such as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Any piece of music without a programmatic title is absolute music — kind of.
We must be careful here because program music was popular enough during the 19th Century that musicologists started giving previous pieces of music, which had no program, a program. The most prestigious example is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Beethoven called it Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2. The “quasi una fantasia” means “similar to a fantasy,” but he’s not talking about “Fantasy Land.” In music, a fantasy or “fantasia” means a musical form or idea that is outside existing structures.
The point being that Moonlight Sonata isn’t program music. If we are aware that the moonlight part is the reaction and subsequent naming by music critic Ludwig Rellstab then it allows us to feel something besides the idea of moonlight reflecting off the waters of Lake Lucerne.
Rellstab’s poetic nickname for Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor has stuck but has it enhanced Beethoven? No, of course not.
This is an area where we must tread with care. The attempt to explain what music means is an exercise in futility.
A Zen aphorism expresses it best. “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.”
Words written, spoken, or read about music is not music. That composers have felt the urge to write words about their music is neither here nor there. We need not fault them for it, but we need not bow to their words as the definitive “pointing at the moon” — even if they made the moon.
The finger of God pointing at the moon still is not the moon.