Some Notes on Program Notes

“The first movement is in sonata form, but lyric, not dramatic in any Beethovian sense.  Even the grand return to opening dotted theme in the major mode has no sense of theatricality about it.  The second movement is a wonderfully light Scherzo, filled with delicious rhythmic interplay between 2/4 and 6/8 time.  Its middle section, with muted strings, is only slightly more serious, but there the piano undercuts the solemnity.”

These are the words of musicologist/professional program note writer Steven Ledbetter, on Fauré‘s Piano Quartet No. 1 for the Eastern Music Festival 2012 season program book.  (I don’t mean to pick on Dr. Ledbetter; I was just looking through some old programs I have for an example to use in this post.)  This is only an excerpt from a passage of manageable length.  The paragraphs preceding the excerpt provide interesting biographical information on the composer and a brief discussion of late 19th-century French music… but all of a sudden he starts throwing out words like “sonata form” and “major mode” and anyone who hasn’t taken at least a semester of music theory (i.e., much of the audience) is lost.

There is a time and a place for musical jargon.  Program notes for, say, a master class, or a recital at a [IDRS/IVS/etc.] convention — performances where the audience is primarily made up of people who already have a fundamental knowledge of what exactly a “Beethovian sense” of drama might be or what constitutes “delicious rhythmic interplay between 2/4 and 6/8 time” — those program notes can be as jargon-y as you like.  But at a place like Eastern Music Festival (which I’ve attended), where the audience is about 80% made up of enthusiastic, arts-supporting community members who can’t tell the difference between an oboe and a bassoon, knowing that the first movement is in sonata form isn’t going to help anyone… unless you tell the audience what, exactly, sonata form is.  In fact, that would be great!  Providing a succinct explanation of sonata form would give the audience something interesting to listen for, as well as a new bit of knowledge to take home with them.  Program notes should educate; they should tell the reader what “sonata form” means — they just should not come across as lofty lectures, or dry lists of information, or prosy jargon-fests.  The whole point of program notes is to help the audience better understand the music; in order for that to happen, the program notes must be understood as well. 

Recently, many orchestras have been succeeding on the audience-friendly program notes front.  The St. Louis Symphony has a nifty method of writing about a theme that ties the program’s repertoire together — examples of recent themes include “Vienna in Two Centuries” and “Demonology” (more of their programs notes can be read here) — complete with a timeline of familiar historical context (Berg wrote Wozzeck as Germany faced defeat in WWI, for instance).  The New York Philharmonic‘s program notes (read them here), though a bit long, do a thorough job of covering the most fascinating aspects of a piece’s historical background.  The National Symphony Orchestra once played a concert with live-tweeted program notes coordinated with specific moments in the music (check out my post #symphony to learn more).  There are lots of groups whose program notes are informative and helpful and even entertaining.  But often the program notes I encounter just seem to fall short.

Program notes are a great thing because they make the music more accessible by immersing the audience in the context behind each piece.  That’s why it’s so important to get them right; poorly conceived program notes have the power to completely alienate a curious listener.  Even as a veteran of a famously rigorous music theory curriculum, I find myself bored and impatient with program notes that mention things like form and tonality.  Most likely, musically informed audience members will be able to identify sonata form just by listening, without reading about it.  It is the less-informed classical music newbie who should be targeted by slightly more interesting facets of the music than expositions and recapitulations, because it is the less-informed demographic whose participation in our art we need now more than ever.  This does not mean program notes should be condescending or dumbed down.  They should just be interesting.  

Of course, the best solution of all comes from Peter Schickele.  Best program notes ever:


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