Absolute Music: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways to define types of music. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of absolute music, examine its history, and talk about a few notable examples.

Defining Absolute Music

You may listen to what is colloquially called Classical music and think: Is this music? The answer: absolutely! But is it absolute music? Not necessarily. When studying music, we can divide compositions into two basic categories. Programmatic music is that which has a subject. Absolute music, on the other hand, is music without subject. It is music purely for the sake of music, art for art's sake. Did absolute music really play a major role in our cultural history? Absolutely.

History of Absolute Music

Music has existed since before recorded history, and not all music was made with a concrete subject in mind. However, this distinction became very important in the early 19th century, when new debates emerged about the role of art. We call this time period the Romantic era, and artists of this time explored what it meant to experience art. They focused on capturing intangible emotions, not a specific or strictly defined subject. This was when the idea of art for art's sake was first developed. Without relying on physical context, the viewer could experience only the art itself and the emotions it produced. That's the basic idea.

While Romantic painters sought to distance themselves from tradition, they still were tied to the physical world they represented. Music was different. As an auditory art, music was not inherently connected to the visual world and was therefore a perfect medium for exploring abstraction in art. Romantic musicians stopped composing works based on a subject (like the plot of an opera) and started making music that was to be enjoyed on its own, without other distractions. That was the birth of absolute music as we know it.

Examples

There are countless examples of absolute music in the Western traditions alone, but we're going to focus on the three B's: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Not only did these three men contribute more to Western music than nearly anyone else, but they also helped solidify the Romantic concept of absolute music. Try to find recordings of these compositions as we discuss them. Not hearing these songs would be like trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa without ever seeing it.

Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

Let's start with a work by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach worked primarily in the 18th century, which means he predates the Romantic era. However, we can see the foundations of absolute music in his work.

Bach
Bach

Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor is one of Bach's masterpieces of early absolute music. Composed approximately between 1717 and 1723 for the harpsichord, it is based on the repetition of chords on a chromatic scale. In this piece, Bach used these chromatic chords to create a captivating composition, but let me ask you: what is the subject? The title gives us no clues as both chromatic fantasia and fugue are genres of music, not subjects. Although Bach technically predates the formal debate on absolute music, he was already anticipating that movement by composing songs that rejected the pretense of a subject so that the listener could focus only on the technical aspects of the composition.

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Ludwig van Beethoven

Now we get to the true Romantic composers. Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most famous composers of all time, but was instrumental (pun intended) in the elevation of absolute music. One of his masterpieces is his 1808 5th symphony, which like Bach's, has no subject in the title because the composition is without subject.

Beethoven
Beethoven

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