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    Programme music is a style of composition where the piece tells a story outside of just the musical narrative. Often these works tell new stories or existing tales in literature. Composers also wrote programme music allegorically, telling stories of their own lives through the music.

    In the Renaissance period, many works were considered programme music as composers used music to depict mythical stories. Sections of music were often adorned with long text descriptions explaining what the composer aimed to say through the music.

    Music in the Baroque era was also very artistically rich with a large amount of works being considered programmatic. The majority of music of that time was steeped in tradition being based on dance forms. Less traditional forms tended to be programmatic. One famous example of this is Vivaldi‘s The Four Seasons.

    Similarly to the Baroque era, classical music was often dictated by strict forms that were popular such as the symphony or sonata. Music had structural rules that were expected to be followed. Composers often wrote subtitles or added descriptive titles to their works in order to add a programmatic element. An example of this is Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 titled ’Jupiter’.  Unlike baroque music, narrative elements were less explicit than in classical music so the links to a story weren’t so clear to the audience.

    Programme music became very popular in the Romantic era as the concept of storytelling was a key feature across not only music but art and literature. Berlioz, Strauss and Wagner as well as many other  composers across Europe pioneered large-scale programme music. 

    Prominent examples of romantic programme music are Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ and Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’. Both are pieces written for large orchestras telling vivid stories which audiences would have been able to easily engage with.

    In the twentieth century, programme music was used to express new discoveries in the modern world as well as to depict the horrors of war. Works such as Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony showed the struggles of the Russian people against the communist government. 

    On a lighter note, Holst composed ‘The Planets’ which is a musical interpretation of the solar system written also for a full symphony orchestra. Holst himself described his work as “mood pictures” illustrating how programme music took music beyond just sonic material into a medium to tell stories and alter the moods of the audience.

    Oliver Clayton
    Oliver Clayton
    Oliver Clayton is currently reading an undergraduate degree in Music at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where he studies modern violin with Susanne Stanzeleit and baroque violin with Lucy Russell. Whilst at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Oliver often plays in the Birmingham New Music concert series where he premiers new compositions. Oliver also works as a creative, collaborating on various artistic projects in and around Birmingham. Oliver regularly performs with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus singing alongside the CBSO. When not playing the violin, Oliver is an avid reader of modern and contemporary fiction and writes commercially. Before attending higher education, he studied German and History alongside Music.
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