I’ve set my students what I hope will be an interesting and educational task for the forthcoming half-term break: they are going to write their own programme notes for the Summer Concert in July. I’m not expecting exhaustive analytical notes, nor extended composer biographies, but a few facts about the pieces they have chosen to play isn’t a lot to ask, surely?
Whenever I introduce a new piece to a student, whatever genre it is, we spend some time considering what the piece is about, the “story” it is telling, the pictures it paints. I get students to do very basic musical analysis – look for repeating motifs or patterns, identify articulation, dynamic and tempo markings, translate musical terms – and I try to give them some basic contextual information. For example, if learning a piece by Bach or even Mozart, it’s important to remember that neither composer was writing for anything like a modern piano. Or that Schubert was a composer of song. That Bartok was greatly influenced by the folk music of his native Hungary. I admit I was very surprised when the student who came to me for some extra exam tuition from another teacher had not been given any contextual or background information to the pieces she is learning. By asking my students to think a little more closely about the pieces they have chosen to play in the concert, I hope they may gain some new insights about them.
For me, setting the music in the context in which it was created is crucial to understanding the composer’s intentions and is a key to learning how to interpret all the composer’s markings and directions correctly to produce, eventually, a reading that is both musical and accurate. When I embark on a new piece, I do a great deal of background reading, and make extensive notes, both contextual and analytical.
At a professional concert, the best programme notes are often those which give one some historical background to the works, a brief composer biography and an overview of what is going on in the music (i.e. a list of movements or sections). Not everyone needs to know that a piece which opens in A minor may resolve itself in C, though an explanation of a Picardy Third can be enlightening. Facts about how the music came to be, such as the Quartet for the End of Time, which Messiaen composed while a prisoner of war, are interesting, but surmising on whether Chopin’s fondness for ‘miniatures’ suggests he may have been gay, are not. I think some writers of programme notes forget that many concert-goers are not expert musicologists or specialists, and all they require is a list of what they are going to hear with a brief description. At Charles Rosen’s Chopin recital last Sunday, one of my friends expressed a wish for a glossary of musical terms, a translation of all those curious Italian words. I told him that one of my students had recently interpreted Allegro ma non troppo as “fast but not trotting”, and that I always translate Allegro amabile as “smile as you quickly play”!
A number of musicians who I hear regularly like to introduce the music themselves. This serves several purposes: first, it breaks down that awful “them and us” barrier that can exist at concert venues; secondly, it allows the performer to explain the music as he or she sees it, and to offer some personal insights into what makes the music particularly interesting or special, both compositionally and in terms of what it is like, physically and emotionally, to play the work. At a lunchtime concert I attended last Friday, there were no programme notes, beyond a list of each work’s movements, and biographies of the performers. Instead, the musicians themselves introduced the music (Schubert’s Sonatina in A minor for Piano & Violin, Op. Posth. 137 and Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E Flat Op. 18). I knew very little about the Schubert Sonatina, and even less about the Strauss: both pieces were introduced engagingly, piquing my interest before a single note had been played. A couple of nuggets, such as the witty nod to Schubert’s Erlkönig and Beethoven’s Pathètique Sonata in the Strauss sonata, were flagged up in advance of the performance, though there were no prizes for spotting them (as I did)!
When my students come back after half-term with some facts about their pieces, and a brief biography, I will collate all the information into a main programme for the concert (including my own programme notes, of course!). This may be an amateur event, but I feel it is important to do it “properly” to create a sense of occasion for my students, who have, by and large, worked very hard this year. The concert is, as always, a celebration of that hard work, and a chance to share music with family and friends.
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