I have recently become obsessed with HECTOR BERLIOZ. His Symphonie Fantastique is tremendous. This made me research him further when I was disturbed to find out the following:

Only 'absolute music' is the most profound music. Programme music, narrative music is of lesser quality

Now, the question I am asking is I fear, too broad, but I cannot think of people better to share it with, than you.

What do we mean by this? The Gentleman in the clip says, "we often hear statements...", perhaps I have not looked into Musical Form very much but I certainly haven't heard this. More to the point, didn't the whole Romantic era consist of motifs and themes that often attempted to describe the feelings and thoughts of the composer? This could easily be described as their narrative? BERLIOZ aside, composers, like literary writers, wrote about what they knew. Didn't Pathétique Symphony No.6 by Tchaikovsky teach us this? If you think of the whole Romantic era, it was huge, many composers often attempted to try and convey their very thoughts. Isn't this what the Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is saying. How bizarre it is that people feel Programme music is not 'complete'?

I am about to ridicule myself terribly but music is music, no? If it's great, it is great. Why should we let musical form get in the way of this? There is no way we should - is there? So how does he have a point here?

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    The guy in the video seems to agree with you - he says he finds the distinction "idiotic". Do you have a link to someone coherently defending the position that narrative music is of lesser quality? Jul 1, 2020 at 21:48
  • @topoReinstateMonica I’m afraid I don’t, I do take your point, however, but why would he have said it? That’s what I’m asking, like my last sentence. How does he have a point?
    – cmp
    Jul 1, 2020 at 21:49

6 Answers 6


Esa-Pekka Salonen is setting up a 'straw man' argument, so that he can defeat it.

When Berlioz was new kid on the block, doubtless his innovations were criticised simply because they WERE innovations. Innovations generally are! And there may be people even today who feel the Symphony reached its height with Beethoven, and subsequent use of the term for less firmly structured music was sacrilege. (Though they might have to admit the first cracks appeared with the programmatic elements in Beethoven's own 6th Symphony.)

But it's not a widely-enough held opinion to be worth worrying about, other than as a rhetorical device - and that's all that Salonen really uses it as.

  • Don’t you think Renaissance madrigals and Monteverdi’s Operas have been programmatic too? Jul 2, 2020 at 5:33
  • Certainly. But they didn't claim 'Symphony' status.
    – Laurence
    Jul 2, 2020 at 14:31
  • Sorry to come back to this @LaurencePayne but you say “it is not a widely enough held opinion to worry about”. In his video, however, he does say “you often hear people say..” What kind of people would say this?
    – cmp
    Jul 13, 2020 at 18:00
  • Ignorant people? Musical snobs?
    – Laurence
    Dec 28, 2020 at 21:57

What do we mean by this?

We don’t mean anything by this, because this is just an opinion of certain idealistic authorities. It is rather a philosophical claim which nobody can proof.

You could extend this thesis that music is not absolute if you can see the musicians or the conductor.

I could claim that absolute music is only the idea, the invention of motifs and themes, only the notation. As soon that it is performed music is narrative, as the performers and the conductor always will tell us more than the written text.

And also the audience, every listener has his own associations and imaginations!

So, shortly, the assumption that program music has less value than absolute music - in my opinion - is nonsense.

  • Is Beethovens Pastorale less precious than his Symphony No. 5?

  • Many people have a better approach to music by the help of a story of a play: Die Zauberflöte, Peter and the Wulf, Pictures of an Exhibition, even Handel’s Messiah, Bachs Passions of St. Mathew and St. John have a plot. But the music with or without text remains the same.

  • The perception is different: If someone listens to narrative music without knowing the background story this music is absolute. But if you have the lyrics of a song, the libretto of an Opera, or a great performance, a perfect transmission ... the music will be complete!

Mind that music is always performed in a social context and all these variables like audience, artists, conductor, room, (concert hall, church, open air) are changing and influencing the perception of music.


For further research the standard terms may be useful: Program music vs Absolute music. Program music, which is probably what you mean by "narrative music" is music that tries to describe something besides the music, and absolute music is just the opposite in that it is music that it doesn't aim to portray any story.

Given that all songs, oratorios and operas belong to the former, this can be hardly considered as niche repertoire.

I see there's no difference of quality, but your mileage may vary.


Children are always told to do a painting of something. If, as adults, they then come across an abstract painting they may ask, 'But what is it a painting of?'

When children are first introduced to classical music (if they ever are nowadays) they are often played recordings of Rameau's La Poule, Berlioz's March to the Scaffold or Smetana's Vltava: music which is ABOUT something. You can picture the hen, the guillotine or the river. And for most people, even as adults, that's what they want: a picture or a story. They buy The Four Seasons and picture the snow. Vaughan-Williams's tedious Lark Ascending was recently voted the UK's favourite classical piece. (I've re-worked it for violin, orchestra and shotgun, but sadly it has yet to be performed.)

But as well as pictures and stories, composers have always been interested in form and in the development of the material. Bach's music is often technically mind-blowing. It is profound in the sense that if you look into it deeply you can see how wonderfully it is made. There are poems that are 'profound' in exactly the same way. "Do not go gentle into that good night", for example.

No-one needs to look into it deeply. Most people don't.

Form alone can't make a piece of music attractive. I've never liked Bruckner's symphonies. Although there's a great deal of formal innovation going on it doesn't make up for the tedious melodies and orchestration.

Most composers and painters enjoy playing with colours as much as children do, and the twentieth century was full of wild, colourful music. A programme was never a prerequisite.

Btw(1), I was a bit obsessed with Berlioz too for a while. He writes great letters. I'd like to have known him.

Btw(2), I think describing the music of Romantic era composers as their narratives may be a misapplication of a modern concept.

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    I was only first introduced to "March to the Scaffold" and "Vltava" in music history class when I was in my teens. I have no memory of bring introduced to "La Poule" at all, and I wouldn't recognize that piece if I listened to it. I was exposed to the absolute-music "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and Bach's inventions first, as a child. I don't believe your statement that "When children are first introduced to classical music...they are often played recordings of...La Poule...March to the Scaffold or...Vltava"--those sound like pieces first exposed to children by chance on radio stations at best.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 3, 2020 at 11:43

Why is 'Narrative Music' not considered 'complete/absolute'?

To answer your title question, program music, which is probably what you mean by narrative music, is not considered absolute music because that is essentially how the terms are defined. Program music is music that tries to describe something and absolute music doesn't.

Regarding the term "complete", that seems to be entirely a value judgement and not an specific musical term. In that case, I can't say, other than that it's some people's opinion, and I am not those people.

  • Complete and absolute are very closely related. Check it. I’m afraid your answer has hot helped comprehend his tough and difficult proposition.
    – cmp
    Jul 4, 2020 at 18:20
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    Searching for the term "complete music" in my search engine just gives the name of an album. So I was trying to say that "complete music" is not a specific musical term unlike absolute music.
    – awe lotta
    Jul 4, 2020 at 18:32
  • Complete and absolute, those words are very closely related. Nonetheless, thanks for your contribution.
    – cmp
    Jul 4, 2020 at 18:41
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    @cmp - Like awe lotta, I'd like a source for the term "complete music" being similar to the term "absolute music". Even entering '"complete music" -album definition' into Google returned no results displaying the definition of "complete music" on its first page for me.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 5, 2020 at 12:53
  • @Dekkadeci I’m saying music aside (ironic I know) the two words Absolute and Complete are very closely related.
    – cmp
    Jul 5, 2020 at 12:55

This is a very old and rather huge debate, so let me try to hit on some important historical context.

Aesthetics, as the modern philosophical discipline we now understand, was developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly among a group of German philosophers. At that time, vocal music -- which had specific meaning ascribed through words -- was generally perceived of as the best music. Instrumental music (like symphonies and concertos) was often deemed inferior, as it lacked meaning. See, for example, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (an important early philosophical treatise on aesthetics), where Kant classifies various types of art into categories about how beautiful they can be, whether they can express "sublime" elements, etc. Kant places instrumental music on par with wallpaper in his classification, which is insightful given the time he was writing: a classical symphony was often something to almost be enjoyed as background music at a palace function, with the orchestra playing while nobles chatted. It wasn't the sort of "high art" where everyone always sat down quietly and in rapt attention to listen as we do at classical concerts today.

Another useful bit of background information is Kant's distinction between two words of ideas -- the phenomenal (accessible to our senses) and the noumenal (the realm of pure ideas, from the Greek word nous which means mind/spirit). The ideal version of knowledge -- and by extension aesthetic appreciation -- was to understand the noumenal world, as philosophers seek to do, to not see the particular physical manifestations of "beauty," but rather to understand "beauty itself" as a higher abstraction.

This is relevant because the view of instrumental music began to shift around the time of Beethoven, when several philosophers began to argue that the very lack of words or specific verbal ideas in Beethoven's instrumental music meant they could tap into an even more sublime and more profound meaning. Today, the most well-known article in that regard is E.T.A. Hoffman's review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. As Hoffman writes:

Thus [Beethoven] is a purely romantic composer, and if he has had less success with vocal music, is this because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words?

In other words, Beethoven's symphony is "pure" Romanticism, able to portray depths of ideas that tap into the "realm of the infinite" (sort of like Kant's noumenal realm of pure ideas). When Beethoven tries to write vocal music, he doesn't have as much success, as the "definite aspects of words" are just a simple particular manifestation of ideas, not the eternal, "infinite" pure world of aesthetic appreciation created by absolute instrumental music.

Many philosophers and music critics of the early 1800s, particularly in Germanic lands, came to view music in this fashion. One very notable figure in the debate was music critic Eduard Hanslick who wrote a prominent philosophical pamphlet called On the Musically Beautiful in 1854. Hanslick took earlier ideas to a more extreme degree, arguing for what is usually called formalism in music aesthetics -- that is, that the power of music comes purely from the form of the sounds and their interactions, not from any verbal meaning (in vocal music) or any supposed "narrative" (whether in actual vocal text or implied in representation, as in the question's Berlioz example). Famously, Hanslick and Wagner were enemies, because Wagner believed in the power of Leitmotifs to represent specific people, things, places, and ideas in his operas, even when performed only by instruments without text. Hanslick thought that perspective was absurd and that pure "absolute" music, like those Beethoven symphonies, achieved the highest form of musical art by being divorced from text and a narrative meaning.

This argument has gone on ever since, with many composers taking firm stances on one side or the other. For example, Stravinsky notoriously changed his perspective on Rite of Spring -- a work originally composed to go with a specific narrative and accompanied by a rather novel ballet with very rustic choreography (to put it mildly). But later in life, Stravinsky distanced himself from programs and argued that the beauty of Rite of Spring should be best understood in a pure concert form, only instrumental, without the ballet and really not even meant to be a specific representation of the narrative.

The question is right to note that another part of Romanticist aesthetics was about the power of narrative expression. And people like Wagner embraced that to an extreme degree. The formalists, on the other hand, thought that the greatest aesthetic power in music could only be achieved through abstraction.

There are relatively few adherents of the formalist school these days, who would strongly argue that only pure instrumental music without any text or narrative is the highest form of art. But the idea of absolute music has a very long and important place in the history of aesthetics, which is what is being alluded to in the video in the question.

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