20 November 2015

Shameful Programme Notes

Some weeks ago I was invited to a concert by a major orchestra as part of a programme arranged by a local education ministry aimed at secondary school children and their teachers.  Earlier this week I attended another private concert, also by a leading musical ensemble, this one intended as a celebratory gift to bankers.  Both were outstanding musically and I felt immensely privileged to have attended.  The one for schoolchildren was also a lot of fun, with children allowed on to the stage to peer into the instruments and try out playing the tuba (why is it they always head for the tuba?) and a conductor who was a wonderful communicator explaining what to look out for in the music.  The bankers’ one was a lavish affair with boundless hospitality in the guise of liveried flunkeys floating around with trays of champagne and an amazing buffet spread provided by a leading hotel.  But in both concerts, the lasting effect was badly let down by a silly, stupid and totally pointless act of cost-cutting which reflected badly on both the government ministry and the bank.  Both concerts had provided the audience with a lasting souvenir of the event in the shape of a concert programme booklet, but both had completely negated its beneficial effects by using off-the-peg, cut-and-paste programme notes which were as uneven and carelessly put together as the playing had been polished and immaculately prepared.

Why is it that those whose responsibility it is to provide audiences with programme booklets seem so incapable of understanding what it is they are doing?  A concert lasts a couple of hours at most and leaves an impression on its hearers which quickly fades.  The only tangible reminder of it (unless you keep your ticket stub) is the programme booklet, and this can last a lifetime and bring back vivid recollections of a particular concert. (I kept mine from the very first concerts I attended in the early 1960s until they were all lost in my disastrous house move of 2012.)

British programme books are renowned for costing the earth, filling themselves up with glossy ads for things no self-respecting music-lover would ever want, and squeezing in a couple of hundred words by some academic as interested in the sound of the music as he or she is in who came fourth in the 1978 tiddlywinks championship in Sierra Leone.  American programme books, on the other hand, often have such vast reams of tightly-packed text by some critic or other who expounds at his leisure on the music, the composer and the psychological state of musicians in general, that it is impossible to absorb in one sitting. 

Programme notes veer from the indecipherably analytical (how would any audience feel helped by the comment that “the modulation to the remote sub-mediant enharmonic minor represents a dramatic re-alignment of conventional Sonata Form”?) to the blandly pointless (“the nice tune at the end makes your hair stand up”) by way of the embarrassingly na├»ve (“I used to play a simplified version of this as a child”) and the awkwardly populist (“it’s Bach’s version of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’”).  Too often any available music enthusiast, academic or orchestral member is called in to write the notes, with little regard for the function they fulfil.  That function is as much publicity and souvenir as it is illumination and education; and how many programme notes manage to combine all that?

What was fundamentally at fault with the ones from the two concerts I attended was that, rather than call in a professional (or even an amateur) writer, they simply took isolated notes from a variety of sources (mostly freely available on the internet) and re-printed them without regard for context.  Thus, in one concert we had, apparently, two different composers - Rachmaninov and Rachmaninoff - while in the other we had a lengthy description of six brief folk dances by Bartok against a terse, brief paragraph on Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Asian schoolchildren were told that the “big tune” in Rachmaninov’s famous 2nd Piano Concerto is “well known to us all from David Lean’s Brief Encounter”, while Chinese bankers read of “lush Romanticism enveloping the skeletal traces of Classical style”.  Both statements are quite true, but do they really resonate with the target audiences?
The answer is no simply because there were no target audiences.  In both cases the notes came from (I assume) sources which had no connection with the event.  Huge amounts of money had been lavished on bringing the orchestras across the Pacific, on hiring halls, on arranging hospitality and visits to schools; yet a shoestring budget was devoted to providing the audience with a worthwhile lasting souvenir of the occasion and a valuable educational support to help these non-specialist audiences comprehend this most mysterious of art forms.

The art of programme note writing is just that; an art. It requires an understanding of the music, the audience and the context of the concert.  The best programme notes draw links and connections between the works being performed and even, where relevant, between the music and the environment familiar to the audience.  It requires an immense knowledge of what the music sounds like – not what it reads like – as well as a huge wealth of facts and figures which can be used to illustrate and illuminate the music to an audience who may or may not have a common interest, but certainly has a geographical and temporal commonality.  It has to be both a guide and a reference source, accessible and literate, it has to be informative yet comprehensible to even the most musically illiterate readers, and it has to reflect the length, the style and the mood of the music; programme notes are usually read before the performance, and the best ones set the mood of the audience to one which is most receptive for the music which follows; and if, by reading the nets, the memory of the music and its moods comes flooding back, then they have achieved their purpose.  All programme note writers worth their salt try to describe the music in such a way that their words instantly bring to mind the sound of the particular piece they are writing about.

With an archive of several thousand programme notes to my name, I often thought about making them available on the internet (at a charge, I hasten to add – my words of flawed wisdom only come free in this blog where they have to be taken with a big pinch of salt), but then I realised how wrong this would be.  If someone wanted to use my notes, I could not let them for fear that they would be used inappropriately.  Frequently I am commissioned to write notes on a work I have written about many times before.  Sometimes I can lift whole chunks from my previous notes to use in the commissioned note, but it never quite works out that I can simply re-present the original note in its entirety.  The note is affected by who plays the music, when they play it, to whom they play it and what else they are playing in the same concert and in the concerts before and after.  I’m not the best, by a long chalk, but I’m infinitely better than the cheapskate cut-and-paste jobs with which so many audiences are obliged to accept. 


I enjoyed both these concerts, but my lasting memory of them is in the form of rather nasty little booklets; and that’s a shame.

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