Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes
This is the second installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first installment here.
After finding my seat (which is sometimes easier said than done), one of the very first things I do when attending a classical concert is sit down, open the program book, and read through the program notes. Whether or not I am familiar with the pieces on the program, these short essays often provide useful information and prepare me for the music I am about to hear. Program notes can include any or all of the following: historical, cultural, and biographical information; stories about the work’s composition and premiere; details on instrumentation and length; musical features to listen for; texts and translations (if a vocal work); and other interesting facts relating to the piece.
However, there exists a fine line between good program notes and bad program notes. Some performing organizations do a fantastic job with their notes, providing the information in an informative, yet engaging fashion. Others, not so much. Some program notes are too “jargony.” Some don’t provide enough information. Some provide too much. Some are flat out boring.
So, what makes a good program note? As someone who has experience reading, writing, and editing program notes, I have seen a wide variety of formats over the years, and am slowly gaining insight into what works well and what doesn’t. While I don’t profess to be an expert on this subject quite yet (maybe someday!), here are my thoughts on what makes an ideal program note and how performance organizations could both revitalize and maximize the potential of this tool. Additionally, interspersed throughout are some examples of excellent program notes or organizations who are doing intriguing things with the concept itself.
1. Program notes should tell a story
Everyone loves stories. Whether they be human interest stories in the news or that story about the time you got in trouble in Kindergarten for throwing a piece of plastic baloney because you thought it was a Frisbee (I admit to that one!), stories can enrich our lives and create a lasting impression.
Classical music contains no shortage of fascinating stories. Like how Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time while detained in a German prisoner of war camp in 1941, during the height of World War II. Or how Berlioz plotted a ridiculously elaborate murder scheme (which may or may not have involved cross-dressing) after learning his wife-to-be had become engaged to another man. Or how Jean-Baptiste Lully died from a gangrene infection after stabbing himself in the foot with his conducting staff. These stories are incredibly entertaining and can help enrich the reading and listening experience. (It never hurts to be reminded that these composers were human and had problems like everyone else!)
Program notes shouldn’t tell the whole story though. There should be a natural progression of information—a “hook,” background about the composer/piece, information on the piece itself—but sometimes less is more. Audiences don’t need an entire biography of Mahler or an exhaustive play-by-play of the musical events in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. A taut note, with a healthy balance of historical background and specifics about the music, will help keep the reader’s interest. If an audience member wants to learn more about the composer or the piece, they can look it up themselves (there are literally tons of ways to do that these days!)
Example: New World Symphony
The program notes for the Miami-based New World Symphony are engagingly-written (mostly by the composer and guitarist Aaron Grad), but perhaps more importantly, they’re short! These notes do a great job of providing audiences with historical background and musical specifics in a short amount of space. Plus, the online version of the notes is interspersed with sound clips, a nice auditory aid to accompany the written material.
2. Program notes should read well
Program notes should not only tell a compelling story, but they should also read well, like a novel. Too many program notes are written poorly, using language that is about as bland as unbuttered wheat toast. Few people want to read a doctoral thesis about the harmonic intricacies of the sonata form in Beethoven’s piano concertos. (I sure don’t, even as a musicologist!)
Some program annotators forget that there are many different kinds of people present at concerts. Some attendees can name all the character relationships in Wagner’s Ring cycle (which is quite a feat!), while others can’t tell the difference between a violin and a viola. While we shouldn’t need to “dumb down” program notes, their language and writing style should be engaging and accessible to a swath of audience members, not just a select few.
3. Program notes should provide basic information
Whatever their format or layout, all program notes should provide basic information about each piece on the program. For this, I turn to an extract from Leonard Slatkin’s most recent book, Leading Tones:
Here is what I think should be included for every piece on a program:
- The birth, and if applicable, death dates of the composer
- The year the piece was written
- Who gave the world premiere and where it took place
- Whether the current performances are national or regional premieres
- The orchestra’s first and most recent performances of the work
- A full instrumentation list
- How long the piece lasts—a helpful gauge for listeners
-Leonard Slatkin, Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry, 2017 (p. 105)
I agree entirely with Mr. Slatkin. These basics can be indispensable to understanding a particular piece, and different audience members might find specific pieces of information useful. One person might be interested to know that Schubert was only thirty-one when he died while another might want to know what that strange-sounding keyboard instrument in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony is called (it’s called an ondes martenot, and it’s freakin’ cool).
Some orchestras set aside a block of space in the program book to lay out these basics before each note (usually called “At a Glance” or something like that). This gives the program pages a clean, organized look and can clear up room in the actual notes for other information. (Some orchestras, like the LA Phil, also provide a short list of additional resources for listening and/or reading, which I like.)
Regardless, this basic information needs to be present somewhere within the program notes and, even better, made prominent.
Example: Los Angeles Philharmonic (see below)
4. Program notes should be accessible
There are two levels to this: program notes need to be easy to find and easy to access from anywhere.
First off, one thing that bugs me about most concert program books is the deluge of advertisements and “fluff” that fill its pages. Glossy pictures of sports cars, designer jewelry, retirement homes, and other things that I don’t want or will never be able to afford, overflow within the program books of orchestras across the world and bury the actual concert information deep within. The program is sometimes so difficult to find that it becomes a small chore to flip through the pages in search of the evening’s concert. Now, I realize that orchestras are businesses and need to make money at the end of the day, but surely there must be alternatives. Concert information, which includes the program notes, should be highlighted, not hidden amongst the mountain of hoity-toity advertisements. (A lot of this subtly contributes to the so-called “elitist” attitude of classical music, a subject I might address in a later installment of this series.)
Secondly, in our age of technology, program notes should always be posted online, ahead of the concert dates. Many orchestras do this already, which allows for concertgoers to read at a more leisurely pace. (I admit, I’m a nerd and do this when I can.) For those orchestras who don’t, I often feel extremely rushed when I sit down in the concert hall and only have fifteen minutes or so to read about the pieces on the program.
5. Program notes should be visually striking
Along with sometimes being boring to read, program notes are sometimes boring to look at! Let’s be real, long blocks of text can make anyone’s eyes glaze over. The engaging, narrative-driven notes should be enriched by striking graphic design and unique images—paintings, photographs, and archival scans, to name a few. This can not only visually enhance the reading experience (and make it more pleasant in general), but also supplement the information presented in the program notes and make it come alive for concertgoers.
More practically though, not everyone is going to read the program notes. It’s just a fact of life. Some people aren’t going to arrive at the concert hall in time to read them, while others just won’t be interested in them period. So, program books should contain something that grabs everyone’s attention visually, regardless of whether or not they actually read the program notes.
Examples: Cleveland Orchestra and Aspen Music Festival
Many orchestras do include images and pictures to supplement their program notes, but two organizations that especially stand out are the Cleveland Orchestra and Aspen Music Festival. Both organizations’ program books are beautifully produced—filled with color images, sidebars, pull-quotes, supplementary essays, and more. As a whole, their notes are not only intriguing to read but intriguing to look at! (Shown below: two pages from the Aspen Music Festival’s 2018 program book. Throughout the book, visually-striking images accompany the written notes on the program.)
6. Program notes should be presented in unconventional formats
All this being said, the whole concept of the program note can seem somewhat archaic. Indeed, it is an old concept, one that actually stretches back to the nineteenth century.
During this time, many concert organizations (especially those in Victorian London) began to pass out booklets to audience members that were filled with notes about the music on the program. But these notes were very different than the ones we have today. Many contained actual musical analysis as well as printed score examples from the pieces! The goal in this was to educate the audience—by revealing the minute, inner-workings of the music, the concertgoers would be enlightened and made better people because of it. Plus, concertgoers could continue their “education” by taking their booklets home and playing through the printed examples at their piano. (Back then, many people in the middle- and upper-classes had at least some basic skill at the piano.)
So, it turns out that the original intent of the program note helped feed the fallacy that classical music naturally makes you a better, smarter, and well-educated person. What do we make of this in an age where organizations are worried about concert attendance, accessibility, and the future of the art form? How can we eliminate the barriers of this tool and bring it into the twenty-first century? (Let’s face it, the physical form of the program note itself—printed pages in a book—are somewhat outdated too.)
I end this post with two examples of orchestras who are looking to the future and rethinking the whole concept of the program note.
Examples: Philadelphia Orchestra and Toronto Symphony Orchestra
In 2014, the Philadelphia Orchestra launched a program called LiveNote. During select concerts in the orchestra’s season, concertgoers can download an app on their phones, and while the performance is in progress, notes about the music are sent to their device in real-time while the orchestra is playing! This is truly an innovate (and eco-friendly concept) that hopefully more orchestras will explore in the coming years. And for those worried about hundreds of tiny screens in a darkened concert hall, the color palette of the app is specifically designed to minimize light and distraction.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, added a unique visual element to their printed programs in 2016. Called “Listening Guides,” these colorful graphs were designed by a musicologist and present the significant musical happenings in the piece (central themes, form, instrumentation, key, tempo, etc.). Along with being fun to look at, these guides are easy to follow, both for those who are musically trained and for those who aren’t.
Although it can be argued that they are archaic and unnecessary, I still believe in the power of program notes. When written and designed well, these essays can be deeply engaging and enrich one’s understanding of the music. (They certainly have for me on many occasions.) Across the board, orchestras need to make sure that their program notes are understandable and engaging for all concertgoers, not just the connoisseurs and musically-trained.
This tool clearly holds so much potential; let’s make it a point of access rather than a barrier.