19 October 2017

The Death of Programme Notes

Of the many roles I’ve played in the musical world, without a doubt my favourite is, and has always been, writing programme notes for concerts, liner notes for CDs and – yes, I’m THAT old – sleeve notes for LPs.  The joy of researching around music both familiar and unfamiliar in order to entice listeners to listen to it in a new way and to introduce it to those who have not heard it before, coupled with my insatiable love of language, never ceases to stimulate me.  Writing for a readership which embraces the complete span of prior knowledge, understanding and interest is an irresistible challenge, while the urge to share with others the complete joy I get out of music drives me every day of my life. 

Call me selfish, but I think the loss of the sleeve note, the demise of the liner note and the widespread abandonment of the programme note is nothing short of catastrophic.  Yes, the playing is the thing which matters most, but what is the use of playing a piece of music when, for the audience, it is an empty meaningless sound, devoid of any social, political or historical context.  A great performance should have even greater impact when the background to the music is explained; a mediocre performance should accrue some purpose when the music is put in context and given a human face.  These are the jobs of the writer; and it is a skill which not everyone possesses.

Technology killed the sleeve and liner notes.  The blind rush to embrace the new without regard to what remained of value in the old, has seen most people develop a relationship with music as a free digital experience unencumbered by literary or intellectual baggage.  The result; a generation of musical ignoramuses who know what things sound like but do not know what they mean, and happily impose bland adjectives like “beautiful” and “nice” on music which was intended to be neither.  A performer who prefaced a performance of the E minor Partita at a recital I attended recently by telling us that before Bach wrote the work “he had personally buried 12 of his children” was being as grotesquely simplistic as he was being factually wrong.  Yet nobody in the audience seemed to bat an eyelid at this blatant piece of monumental ignorance.

What is killing the concert programme note is a combination of indifference, financial constraints, political correctness and diminishing attention spans.

Indifference:  If you go to a concert where a programme booklet is available, study its contents. Beyond the adverts – many of which have seen more imagination and thought gone into the copy than the notes about the music itself – what do you find?  Lists of names of course (and that is essential – I think you do need to know who is on stage and who has worked behind the scenes), and biographies of the artists. 

And this is where we find our first problem.  Increasingly, these artist biographies are unedited reprints of marketing materials sent by agents invariably with the instruction “Not to be Edited or Altered in any way without prior consent”.  This provides enough of a threat to send any junior marketing person in an orchestra office into “leave-me-out-of-it” mode, plonk the entire ridiculous blurb into the book, and fill a handful of pages with no mental effort.  In this way, interns have been responsible for killing off much of the value and quality of programme books.  And if any space is left for notes about the music, it will usually be a small chunk of text, as often as not written by someone with a smattering of half-baked understanding about music history. 

Now look around at the concert audience; how many of them are reading the notes in the booklet?  The chances are none.  Why read something so superficial and uninteresting? Best simply to look at the pictures and study the ads.

When I was a diploma examiner for Trinity College London, we began to ask candidates to submit their own programme notes.  While I read them assiduously, often checked references and double-checked facts, most of my colleagues did not.  They simply looked at the word count and issued a mark accordingly.  Most handed the notes back to the candidate at the end of the exam (I think this practice has now been banned – I hope so) insensitive to the hours of effort that had been expended on their composition.  If I mentioned to a fellow examiner that some fact or other was wrong, the response invariably was, “we can’t be expected to check all the facts”.  Such indifference completely undermined (perhaps still does) the value of programme notes.  Many candidates simply cut and paste from Wikipedia the night before the exam, with no consequence on their final result.  But there were (and, thankfully, still are) the few who really cared, whose teachers recognised that, if nothing else, the practice of writing programme notes helped foster a deeper understanding of the music beyond the mere technical challenges it presented.  If you see a diploma as a means of education rather than as a piece of paper, the programme notes are truly invaluable - and I urge all teachers and students to think about this.  If, on the other hand, a diploma is just an acquisition, by all means treat the programme notes with indifference - chances are, you'll get away with it! (I offer my personalised guidance on this to all who ask - but precious few do!) 


Financial constraints.  A couple of years back when a major festival was being planned for Singapore, an eminent violinist approached me and asked if I would write the notes “as we want to have interesting, informative and knowledgeable programme notes to reflect the quality of the playing”.  I eagerly agreed and named a fee.  “Oh!” came the horrified response, “We were not budgeting for that”.  I wonder if she would be willing to present a recital for me free of charge.  Of course not, and I would be neither rude enough nor thoughtless enough to ask.  My knowledge and skill has been honed over years and at great personal cost – just as hers has been.  Why is my contribution, therefore, so contemptuously dismissed?  All my professional life I have been battling against those who feel that anybody can write about music, so why bother to pay somebody to do it well? 


Political Correctness.  Putting music in its societal and historic context often involves reminding us about the morals and ethics of the past.  These can be both uncomfortable and difficult.  When I was programme annotator for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, I was forever having to tread delicately over Islamic sensitives when discussing the music of those composers who, through no fault of their own, had lived in times which did not share the ethics of late 20th century Malaysian Muslims. 

And it’s not just religious; a recent note submitted to a US concert agency about a Haydn work which had been commissioned with money from the slave trade was rejected on the grounds that this was an unacceptably contentious issue, while I had to fight long and hard with one Asian orchestra to convince them that Leroy Anderson was not black, so did not belong in a programme highlighting music from “forgotten minorities”.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Political Correctness killing the concert programme note is the current fad for “green”.  In Singapore, the programme booklet is a dying thing.  Go to most concerts and you are told to download the programme by scanning a QR code.  Since I never take my phone to concerts, I am denied access to programmes, so have no idea who the performers are or what they are playing.  Others find that, once they have set eyes on their mobile screens, they cannot tear themselves away, and sit happily studying the phones in blissful ignorance of the music going on around them.  But the most ridiculous thing about this is that it is not “green” at all.  Ask the children mining for precious rare metals in Africa, the villagers seeing multi-national corporations come in to rape and plunder their ancestral lands, how “Green” our obsession with smartphones is.  Compare that with the managed forests and plantations which supply the paper industry.  And give me trees cut down to make paper anytime over the iniquitous desecration of natural habitats in order to fill the ground with environmentally devastating palm oil plantations.  At least a forest cut down to make paper can be replanted.  Precious metals cannot be replaced, nor can land given over to palm oil be re-fertilised.


Diminishing Attention Spans:  The idea of sitting down reading a block of text is anathema to even the most earnest students today, it seems.  Who can devote five minutes of their life to reading about the sacrifices and tribulations a composer went through to create a great work of art, when the allure of Twitter puts pointless rubbish (aka Trumpisms) in easy reach, taking less than a minute to read, absorb and dismiss?  Increasingly the few remaining commissioners of programme notes impose ever diminishing word counts, to the extent that nothing of value can be provided; their argument?  “People do not like to be faced with large chunks of text”.  A bit of imaginative designing and clever use of photographs and illustrations would help, but there again, that costs money, requires thought and is unnecessary if your programmes are available as downloads for miniscule smartphone screens.

We must recognise that programme notes have only been a common element of the listening experience for a century or so, and perhaps are not seen by many as an essential part of the concert-going, music-hearing environment.  But as the origins of so much of the music we hear slips beyond collective memory and into a world of forgotten and misunderstood societies, somebody needs to remind audiences (and performers) what those societies stood for and what they expected of their musicians.  You could read lengthy and scholarly tomes, you could take a chance and hope that a Wikipedia contributor has done his homework, but best for the audience is to have someone who cares present what you need to know to appreciate the music better in neat, readable and suitably focused language.  That is my skill (and that of a handful of other like-minded souls) and I regret that it has become completely devalued by our society’s elevation of ignorance.


  1. I totally agree that the apparent demise of programme notes is very regrettable, but on occasion the author of the notes is his/her own worst enemy. Too often notes seem mainly designed to impress readers with deep technical knowledge of the construction of the piece using language that flies over the heads of most of the audience. A good programme note should provide context and colour. It should illuminate the piece and not analyse it to death. A test of a good note is whether the audience member can recall details from the note during the performance itself. Sparing your blushes, Dr Marc, your own notes are exemplary in this respect.

    I would add that the idea of downloading notes to be read on smartphones runs completely against the principle that phones should be switched off during concerts as the shining screen is an infernal distraction to people sitting nearby.

    1. I would wish that you did not hide under the cloak of anonymity as your comments are very pertinent. Might I urge you to pass these thoughts (preferably under your real name and location) to which ever organisation you feel appropriate? I am told by the SSO that audiences prefer technical notes and that they much prefer downloads - your opinion seems to run counter to that - but I have no idea whether you are referring to Singapore or somewhere else. Kind regards. Dr Marc

  2. Fair point regarding anonymity of my earlier comment on this post. I might not have written the compliment under my real name, but since you ask...

    Most of my concert-going is in Singapore or Europe, especially the UK. I can safely say that programme notes in the UK and Europe generally are more intelligible to lay members of the audience, and invariably in paper form. Perhaps the Singapore experience reflects the fact that there are more students in the audience?

    Best wishes
    Ian Rickword

  3. Thanks for the clarification and the praise! In Singapore the fact that there are more students in our concert audiences should encourage better programme notes. That the reverse is the case is down to the extraordinary amateurishness of those who commission them; who are themselves bereft of musical knowledge and perhaps are uncomfortable with being challenged to improve it.

  4. London's taking the lead in electronic programmes! Hooray!


  5. I very much enjoyed your programme notes for the YST concert celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Johann Strauss Jr. Blue Danube Waltz. It was a geography lesson as well as a musical history one, which I had the pleasure of reading from the beginning to the end.

    Unfortunately, someone had inadvertently "sneaked" in a paragraph of some Ligeti brass work in between the Dvorak and Enesco notes, which I'm sure was an editing error! It nevertheless provided me with a few laughs. Wonder how many people actually picked that up!

  6. I very much enjoyed your programme notes for the YST concert celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Johann Strauss Jr. Blue Danube Waltz. It was a geography lesson as well as a musical history one, which I had the pleasure of reading from the beginning to the end.

    Unfortunately, someone had inadvertently "sneaked" in a paragraph of some Ligeti brass work in between the Dvorak and Enesco notes, which I'm sure was an editing error! It nevertheless provided me with a few laughs. Wonder how many people actually picked that up!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments. I was in Europe on the day of the concert so missed reading the programme notes - however, going back over what I submitted, the name Ligeti does not feature once, so I am intrigued as to how he got there!