03 December 2013

Why Write Programme Notes

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I ever learnt as a performer came, perversely, when I was not directly involved and when the student in question did not actually perform anything. The organist Gillian Weir had been invited to give a masterclass to a number of student organists, myself included.  With a professorial admonition to us  not to let the university down by presenting “Miss Weir” (as she then was) with poor playing, we all worked assiduously over our selected pieces in the days leading up to the masterclass.  One student, a highly capable pianist called Charles Spanner who had only recently turned to the organ (I last encountered him in Sussex where he ran a very fine music school), was determined to show he was as good, if not better, than the rest of us.  Every moment of every day you could hear Charles practising Franck’s Pièce Heroïque until he had it absolutely note-perfect.  When the masterclass started, he was brim full of confidence happy in the knowledge that, when it came to the delivery of his piece, Miss Weir could have no complaints.  He was called, sat down at the organ, pulled out his stops, raised his hands and was then stopped, before he played a single note.  “Why are you using that registration?” asked Miss Weir.  No response.  An extended discussion ensued during which it was apparent that Charles’s registration was not the only thing she queried.  “Why are you starting with those fingers?  Why use that foot? Why choose that speed?”, and so it went on, with barely a note of the Franck played.  At the end as a mortified Charles shuffled off the stool, Miss Weir turned to us all and with her captivating smile suggested that we should “never do anything in music without first asking ‘why?’”  And I have taken this advice very much to heart, never doing anything in a performance without first asking myself “why?”.

It goes beyond performing.  When a teacher came to me the other day and asked for advice about writing programme notes and how she could teach her diploma students to best approach the task, I recalled the Gillian Weir mantra; “Your students must first ask themselves why they are writing the programme notes”.  
The immediate answer is because the syllabus requires it.  As with anything to do with a music exam, if the answer to the question “why?” is “because it’s in the syllabus”, then the answer is wrong.  An exam syllabus asks for certain things which, it is assumed, have already been learnt; after all an exam is merely a checkpoint along the road of musical development, not an end in itself.  Correctly interpreted by an intelligent teacher, a syllabus lists those skills which should already have been taught before the exam is prepared, and part of that teaching should be to get pupils to understand why these are important skills.  If the pupil understands why they are being asked to do something, they will not only do it with real understanding (in other words, better) but will deliver it in the exam with greater conviction and authority.

So, why do we need programme notes? To put it in a nutshell, programme notes increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance. 
We are naturally intimidated by the unknown and that which we do not understand, and a clear, friendly guide to something we do not really know or understand breaks down that barrier.  Almost all Western Classical Music originates from a society and from an age of which we are not part and  which, almost by definition, is moving increasingly out of our range of experience; even the music of our own time is often written by those inhabiting a society, either physical or emotional, from which we feel excluded.  As music is, essentially, a product of the society which produces it, to understand that society immediately helps us understand the music.  By introducing the composers, placing them and their music in historical context and providing some background to the society in which they lived, programme notes open up the audience receptors so that they can more fully appreciate what message or ideas are being communicated through the music.  We can enjoy music on its own terms, but our enjoyment of it is vastly increased by understanding its historical and social context.

That, though, is only part of the answer.  As well as helping the listener appreciate the circumstances of, and the reasons for, the music’s creation, programme notes guide the listener through the particular journey the music is taking.  All musical works can be thought of as a journey, but, as with any good journey, it is more about enjoying what lies along the route than reaching the final destination. 
For many listeners, an unfamiliar piece of music can seem like an endless and incoherent sequence of sounds.  These may be pleasurable sounds, and quite acceptable as they are, but how much better to have some idea where those sounds are heading.  What’s more, in the wash of sound, so much gets missed which the listener would have enjoyed if only someone had pointed it out along the way.  So programme notes also serve as a kind of road map, showing where the journey is headed and pointing out some of the more important and significant elements along the way.  The directions “at 10 degrees north, 79 degrees east, turn in a north-north-westerly direction” may get us to the destination, but they tell us nothing about the terrain we cover.  How much more enticing is this set of directions; “After the Shell station you will see a small wooden house on stilts next to which is a tiny lane, little more than a dusty track heading into the trees.  Turn up there and keep going through the oil palm estate for about 10 minutes.  It’s a long, slow climb, but at the top you will suddenly come across a small clearing with spectacular views.  If you look to your right you can see over to the Indian Ocean and, perhaps on a clear day, see the coast of Sumatra”.  In programme note terms, the former equates to ; “The development starts at bar 56 and modulates to the enharmonic minor of the dominant major, returning to the tonic at bar 76”, while the latter equates to “it opens with a happy little theme, rather like small birds chirping away at the top of the keyboard, but which takes on a more serious character when the music moves down into its lower register and heavy, thick chords introduce seem to appear like the menacing tread of some giant prehistoric cat”.  

Deciding which level of information is appropriate is key to writing good programme notes, and for them to be truly effective they do have to be tailored to the particular audience.  How desperately sad it is when orchestras and performers download their programme notes from some anonymous source on the internet or steal them from other performers’ websites, careless of how appropriate they are to their own audiences.  I, myself, have sat in concerts reading cut and paste notes which mean nothing, offer not a hint of help in guiding through the music, and quite often alienate me to the extent that I switch off totally and regret paying the money to attend the concert.  Understanding the audience is essential, as the notes need to be focused on their particular environment.  A note on Elgar, for example, would be quite different when intended for an English audience (the English regard Elgar as part of their heritage and resent any hint that the programme notes might not realise this) rather than a Chinese one (for whom England is associated primarily with David Beckham, Margaret Thatcher and, possibly, Chris Patten; none of them major cultural icons, for all their qualities in other fields).
In the situation of a diploma, the audience is well known beforehand; it is going to comprise one or two professional examiners.  At this point the candidate has to revert to that question, “Why?”.  The examiners do not need to be told anything about the music, they know it all already.  So the inclusion of programme notes in the diploma is not to tell them anything, but to show them that the candidate knows how to explain and describe the music to a wider audience.  To do this, it is vital to remember why we have programme notes in the first place – “to increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance”.  Writing programme notes in this context requires the ability to stand aside from the actual performance and appreciate it from a different vantage point (the “listener’s-eye-view”).  Showing that you understand the historical context of the music and can step far enough away from your intimate knowledge of the detail of the music to describe its journey coherently is the reason why programme notes are included in diploma recital examinations.

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