On Absolute Music


According to Wikipedia, 'absolute music is non-representational' - it doesn't try to describe anything. It isn't made for a specific purpose either, for dancing, a church service, or something like that. It just is. The term has been used since the mid-19th century, but the idea was already there a hundred years earlier. Absolute music was connected to philosophical ideas of sprirituality and the superiority of mind over body.

For me music can indeed be its own kind of spiritual experience - playing Brahms after a couple of glasses of wine can really lift me to some stranger plane. That being said, music does remain a fundamentally human endeavour. A string quartet doesn't present itself to an unsuspecting composer in a dream like holy scripture. The composer has to learn certain things to compose, and the things they learn determine what kind of music they create. Composing happens within a culture, so claiming that absolute music somehow transcends that culture is a strong ideological statement. Asserting that some music is only 'of itself', aka. absolute, suggests that other kinds of music is somehow impure and less worthy. The intellectual and philosophical elite of yore used it to lift absolute music above every other kind. I do wonder how these golden boys saw Bach cantatas.

Let's take a closer look at the sonata, the little black dress every composer had to have in the 18th and 19th centuries. The sonata was supposed to be composed without a purpose - music for music's sake - but in real life composers did try to pay their rent with sonatas as well as any other music they came up with. Beethoven composed some of his Ultimate Absolute Masterpieces for bored aristocratic amateur pianist women, who were his benefactresses or students, or both. Composers rarely had the luxury to compose without pleasing Herr This or Frau That those days. So much for the lonely genius composing for themselves only. Or if there was one, we probably haven't heard of them precisely because of that... So...

Back to the sonata now. The sonata form - the recipe of the piece - can easily be seen as a story. You can claim that it's a musical story and therefore still 'absolute', but humor me here. This sonata form as narrative -idea isn't mine, either - at least Sally Macarthur has used it some 30 years ago, and there probably are many others. Here's my version.

In the sonata exposition (the beginning) we meet two musical themes that are the story's protagonists. The themes can be described pretty much like people - they can be cheerful, passionate, furious, sad, yearning, determined, etc. Composers also use descriptive words in their sonata movements that point us to a direction. These two themes are usually of a contrasting character, and in different tonalities. The tension between the two is something that the whole sonata form is built on - creating, developing, and resolving it. Very often the first theme is the more active one, even heroic, and the second is more gentle and singing. Some theorists have put gender labels on them as well - you'd never guess which is which.

Anyway. In the exposition we meet them, and we're introduced to the conflict. Then comes the elaboration (the weird bit). The themes, or parts of them, start changing and developing to unexpected directions, and the tension rises - what will happen to them? The tonalities get weird and 'lost'. Finally we get to the recapitulation (the end), where both themes return. To solve the conflict, someone has to give in, and usually it's the second theme. It takes on the tonality of the first and is thus conquered and tamed and everyone's happy. The end.

Does this mean that the sonata is in fact not absolute music? Probably not.

But sometimes we forget that musical works are created by human beings. These human beings live in a culture that deeply affects them in so many ways. The music they create is a product of that culture, too - not something that floats alone in the sky, beyond our worldly troubles. And yet, whenever I return to that certain Brahms and that certain wine, for a moment there I believe...