Duly Noted

A guest post by Dr Katy Hamilton

About ten years ago, when I first started my PhD, a fellow student explained to me the concept of self-efficacy. It’s a simple, logical premise: you are more likely to do well at something if you believe that you really can do it well – and visualising yourself doing whatever it is to the best of your abilities is a key tool. Whether it’s running the 100m faster than Usain Bolt, or playing the Elgar Cello Concerto to a packed concert hall and live TV cameras, you should imagine it happening, in as much detail as possible, to prepare for the actual event.

Rather less glamorously, I have a simple scenario that I like to play in my head from time to time. It goes like this. Audience members arrive at an evening concert. They say hello to old friends, buy a programme, wave their ticket at the usher, and sit down. They read the programme and chat amongst themselves. They might even chat about some of the things they’re reading about. Then, comfortable and hopefully a little edified or enlightened, they listen to the performance. On a really good night, they might glance again at the notes in the interval and even after the concert. When they get home, they’ll either throw the programme into the recycling, or keep it, if they are the collecting sort, or if it was a very special occasion.

It’s not smashing a world record, I grant you, but whether or not you enjoy your programme notes matters to me. That’s because I write quite a lot of them, and I do so not because it’s a good way of paying the bills, or an excuse to show off, or an outlet for academic material I couldn’t fit into an article, or any of the other negative reasons the cynics might imagine. I write them because I love finding out more about music, and learning new repertoire; and I love communicating – or at least trying to communicate – some of that sense of discovery and excitement to audience members just before they get the chance to hear the music live.

The process of writing a programme note is different for everyone, and obviously since I’m not the performer, there’s a great deal of information I can’t give you. I can’t tell you how they feel about the work in question. I can’t talk you through the experience of playing it (or at least, I can if it’s a piano work, since I’m a pianist, but it’s not my experience you’re interested in, and rightly so). I can’t tell you why the programme consists of that sequence of pieces in that order, unless the performer has thought to tell me, or I can work it out as I read (which is one of my favourite games).

But I can tell you a lot of other stuff. When something was written, where and perhaps why; what the composer, first performer or early reviewers thought of it; if there are diaries or letters from the composer about it; what the highs and lows of its reception have been; and how it’s put together, what it is exactly that you’re listening to. And no, that doesn’t mean ‘dry’ analysis. Anyway, if I gave you a blow-by-blow account, it would be a complete waste of words when you’re sitting in a dark concert hall with no chance of making out the tiny print as the sounds whizz past. But I can mention the structure, and a few things worth listening out for.

I won’t have many words to do this in, probably. The average programme note is 250 words long, for a chamber concert. That’s about a quarter of this post. And it often remains 250 words whether you’re writing about the Diabelli Variations or a single Chopin waltz. If you want a sense of how much work that takes, how much reading, research, listening and score examination, I can tell you that a set of notes I’m working on at the moment, destined to be 1,000 words when I’m finished, will be hewn from a lump of around 3,000 words of notes – and I haven’t quite finished the reading yet.

I was delighted that Fran (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) asked me to write this post, because there are a few things I’d like to say on behalf of those of us who write programme notes. The first is, quite simply, that the programme note is not dead. It is not a waste of paper, not a patronising attempt at educating ‘you little people’ in the audience. It is not a job that is ever ‘done’, and it evolves over time – when I write a concert’s worth of notes, even if I’ve written on half the pieces before, I always tailor my writing to create a unified whole. We have not said everything there is to say about Bach’s Italian Concerto, and even if we had, we would only have said it to one or two very particular audiences’ worth. Every concert is a new experience, a new musical construction, and a new opportunity for different listeners in a space they might never have visited, with a player they might never have heard.

The second is that whatever you might think about the label ‘musicologist’, we are not attempting to create something removed from the live music you are there to hear. I wish I could talk to more performers about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Or interview them. Or get them on stage to talk to them. But time, planning and logistics often conspire against this. I’ve given plenty of pre-concert talks where I’ve never met the performer. I wish it weren’t the case, but there it is. So we are trying, sometimes against rather unhelpful odds, to draw that connection between words and performance.

Last but not least, we are the creators of the thing that will most likely serve as your enduring physical reminder of the evening: the programme. I still have (and from time to time, re-read) programmes for every concert I’ve been to since the late 1990s. So we writers make something which can be as ephemeral as the concert itself – straight in the bin on the way out – or as enduring as your memory of it. It’s a privilege to produce such things, and we do so with you, the audience, at the forefront of our minds. So spare a thought for us, now and then. We are thinking of you with every word we write.

Katy Hamilton is a freelance researcher, writer and presenter on music.


Twitter: @klhamilton