Mozart, I learn, spent “the first 22 years of his life studying with Beethoven”. An extraordinary fact not least because, while we do not know precisely when Beethoven was born, the consensus of informed opinion is that he was born sometime towards the end of 1770, by which time Mozart was 14. Another apparently incontrovertible fact is that “Scarlatti invented Sonata Form”, which will have come as shock both to A B Marx, who first codified it almost a century after Scarlatti’s death, as well as to Scarlatti himself who described his keyboard works as Essercizii. Both statements have appeared in programme notes written by students to accompany their own recitals. Is this a frightening level of ignorance being displayed or a terrifying inability to master language? In the case of the first claim, I suspect it was the latter - this appears to be an attempt to say that Beethoven was 22 when he studied with Mozart - but I cannot begin to fathom what, if any, real facts might have been the subject of perverted syntax in the second.
It would be amusing to roll out a whole string of such solecisms presented in programme notes written by students and amateur musicologists. There’s the statement that Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto “for Jacqueline Du Pré” (regardless of the 11 years which elapsed between the death of one and the birth of the other) or that “Beethoven’s brother, Modest, suggested the title of the Pathetic Piano Sonata”. But it would be pointless and little unfair to highlight these gaffes; often the programme notes are written under extreme pressure by students whose own teachers never had to undertake such tasks and are singularly ill-equipped to teach them. The practice of requiring a student to write their own programme notes for recitals presented for diplomas or as graduation exercises is a very recent phenomenon, and perhaps we should excuse those who find it a task beyond their skill.
The thinking behind getting student performers to do this is admirable. Not only does it remove the awful pressure that was once put on them by the post-recital viva voce - how to concentrate on a performance when, at the back of the mind you are rehearsing what to say to the examiner? - but it encourages performers to look beyond the mere mechanics of playing the pieces and delve, albeit at a superficial level, into the background of the music they are playing. There is also the opportunity here for an alert performer to justify or at least explain the rationale of an interpretation. Some established performers do this magnificently – Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt, Benjamin Zander spring to mind – but I have yet to encounter the student who uses programme notes for this purpose. Far more usual is the regurgitation of notes from other sources offering not only no personal insight into the performance but often clearly addressing a performance by someone else; how tired I am of reading that the second movement of Haydn’s Sonata in E flat is “marked Adagio Cantabile”, only to hear it performed presto e stacatissimo.
In practice, though, student programme notes hardly ever provide anything of value, and as often as not imply a level of ignorance which positively undermines faith in the player’s interpretative instincts. The reason for this is that effective programme notes require a degree of perceptiveness which can only be accumulated through long experience in listening to music. Hence the long-standing convention of getting a world-weary hack (like myself) to pen them; while the performer is busily preparing the interpretations (so the argument goes), people like me can while away their dismal lives cloistered in libraries checking facts and unearthing insignificant anecdotes. The result: an audience primed to be receptive to the performer’s interpretation by carefully crafted programme notes, putting the music and the performance in some kind of coherent context. On top of that, those of us who have been in the programme-note writing game for years have built up a fund of peripheral and generally useless information about a whole range of musical works which can be used to keep concert-goers in thrall when they have a dull moment between the interval drinks and the musical presentations.
Given the lack of both listening and writing experience which is an inevitable consequence of being a performer at the very start of a musical career, is it little wonder that these programme notes offer such scant value? At the bottom of it all is the ready availability and easy accessibility of the kind of information previously only open to those who had both the time and the inclination to root it out. Students, with a performing technique to hone, were traditionally regarded as too busy to spend their time up to their necks in dusty tomes in secluded libraries; and the fact that to derive any benefit at all from a library you needed some training and a great deal of trial-and-error experience, made the task of preparing programme notes an impossibility for them. Now that anyone can find out anything with a couple of well-intentioned keystrokes, has suddenly made the acquisition of facts so much easier and so much quicker. So those who devise syllabuses for students, feel that writing their own notes is no longer the herculean task it once was. And, given that it’s inconceivable that any of us could work without the benefit of online resources today, that logic seems unquestionable.
The vast amount of information available to users of the internet is certainly a Godsend to programme note writers, but it is also the principal cause of the appalling gaffes we read. While books go through the many filters of editors, proof-readers and peer reviewers, any old Tom, Dick, Harry or Dr Marc can publish whatever they like on the internet. The fact that it is there does not make it true. I advise my students that if an internet site about music is free, it is unlikely to be a reliable source of correct information. But there again, even the legitimate, pay-for-access sites have to be handled with care; inexperienced surfers are just as likely to make fools of themselves by misreading the information given on these. Take the young clerk in the office of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra who, having been shown how to access Grove Online, decided she did not need to refer to an expert in the office before sending out the publicity she was charged with preparing. Thus we had the billing for “Beethoven’s Second Violin Concerto” and the promise of “Music by two great Hungarian composers, Liszt and Mahler”. True, Grove does refer to an earlier violin concerto by Beethoven and an association between Hungary and Mahler, but anyone with an iota of musical knowledge will know that these “facts” are not as clear-cut as they might seem to the uninformed reader.
This explains how so many false facts manage to find their way into student programme notes. But what causes that mangling of syntax which in turn leads to the words saying something totally different to the thoughts? This may be simply down to poor command of language, but there’s another, perhaps more sinister, reason: The Spectre of Plagiarism.
The very accessibility of internet resources led to the widespread practice of cutting huge swathes from one article and pasting them into another. Apparently, university students in the US had this off to a fine art; passing off the work of other, often anonymous, writers as their own. Pretty quickly the authorities stamped down on it and issued dire threats against those caught out. They even devised an ingenious computer program which compares a student’s work with a few million online articles to test for plagiarism. As with so much that originates in the US, pretty quickly the rest of the educational world began to fear plagiarism as if it was some kind of plague, and now few students can begin any work without a stern admonition that “Plagiarism is ILLEGAL” and threatening all manner of retribution on the perpetrators.
Nobody in their right minds looks to programme notes to provide original research. The best examples simply gather together other people’s ideas in order to provide a broader picture of the work in question. As a programme note writer I am much more of a cherry picker than I am a seed-sower; and I’m proud of being able to select and collate relevant material from a wide spectrum of sources. I cannot imagine anyone seriously reading programme notes and not imagining the writer has rifled through a whole host of other writings to arrive at the facts and comments printed in the programme books. But how can young students, terrified beyond measure of having the charge of plagiarism levelled against them, begin to take ideas from other sources without risking their whole academic futures? The obvious answer is that they are so careful to avoid the wording of their sources, that they change the words so dramatically that the whole meaning gets lost.
So we end up with amazing distortions of the truth such as, “Britten’s sham marriage ended in 1976” – which is clearly an attempt to rephrase this published comment; “Britten and Peter Pears lived as husband and wife until Britten’s death”. And I’m not at all sure that the recent trend amongst student programme note writers to list the works of Bach not with the letters BWV but with BMW is not an over-zealous attempt to avoid a charge of plagiarism. (Which raises the intriguing question; is a BMW 5 series a kind of car driven by successful drug dealers and unscrupulous businessmen or a non-chorale-based organ work by Bach?) There again, that may be down to the vagaries of a computer spell-check, which is quite often the only editing that the writers of these programme notes undertake.
There really is no need for those who write these to worry about plagiarism. Most of the facts that are ever needed are widely in the public domain, and if the writer comes across a particularly pithy phrase which they would dearly love to use or a published statement which seems to stretch the bounds of credulity, all they have to do is acknowledge it. Far better to write; “As Pauline Yore-Legge suggested in her book about the composer, ‘He wrote his first music when he was one year old and continued to de-compose long after his death’”, than to risk public ridicule or worse by pretending you are the instigator of such appalling rubbish.