Absolute Music

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ABSOLUTE MUSIC, is music that refers to nothing outside itself and makes no attempt to convey specific emotions, visual images, or ideas related to the objective world. It is contrasted with program music.

The meaning of absolute music lies in its structure alone. It does not imitate the sounds of nature, teli a story, or illustrate a text. It is almost exclusively instrumental, the exceptions being the rare cases in which the voice is used purely as a wordless instrument, as in Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras No. 5, for voice and eight cellos.

The concertos and suites of Bach, the symphonies of Beethoven (with the exceptions of the Pastoral Symphony and the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony), and the chamber music of Brahms fail into the category of absolute music, as do most of the instrumental works in the Standard concert repertory. In certain instances even music associated with the theater can stand independently as absolute music. For example, the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is a composition in sonata form and needs no operatic reference to complete its meaning.

Many works that cannot be defined strictly as “absolute” are nevertheless structurally complete without a “program.” The first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example, is among the most tightly knit and economical of classical compositions; if it were not for the fact that Beethoven himself supplied a “story,” the piece could justifiably be classified as absolute music.

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