Absolute music is a term that is used to describe music that’s not really *about* anything. It is music for music’s sake, as opposed to “Love Me Do” or the background music to Looney Tunes episodes. The term is mainly used in describing the works of classical composers, such as Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, and Liszt.
For example, when you hear the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, do you hear a storyline developing and a series of images and concepts floating through you head? Probably not. That’s because the music was written as an end unto itself.
So what of Gustav Mahler?
Mahler was a late-Romantic composer whose symphonies blurred the line between absolute music and program music. He would break the traditional symphonic form, and composed pieces that seemed to paint a picture in the listener’s head. He played with textures, tonalities, and timbres to create “an entire world.”
BUT, Mahler eventually came to resent the “storyline” that people read into his works. During the intial run of concerts in Vienna for Symphony No. 1, the program had a description, written by Mahler himself, of what, to him, the piece was essentially “about.” He later retracted his description in an effort to force people to hear the piece as absolute music. He felt that requiring a “program” to appreciate the symphony degraded and lessened its impact, especially in comparison to his hero and symphonic titan, Beethoven. He wanted people to invent their own worlds upon hearing the symphony, and not judge the music’s effectiveness against an artificial description.
But it’s an interesting line to tread on. Can music truly exist as sound without ideas behind it? Is program music (or “soundtrack music” as it may be known today) inherently inferior to masterworks described as absolute music? Take a listen to the first movement of Mahler’s First Symphony and see what you think.