Musical memories are made of these….

While clearing out my piano room ahead of a house move last year, I came upon a box of old concert programmes. Some were dog-eared and scuffed, or covered in scribbled notes from when I was a regular concert reviewer; others were pristine, as if unopened. One bore the signature in thick black felt-tipped pen of the tenor Ian Bostridge. I didn’t even have to open the programme to recall that concert – Bostridge singing Schubert’s heartbreaking song cycle Winterreise, accompanied by Mitsuko Uchida, in an emotionally profound performance which is memorable and moving to this day.

Printed programmes hold memories within them – of concerts, music, artists…. While the prime purpose of the programme is to give the audience details of the music being played, translations of song texts, and information about the performers, a programme is also a significant souvenir of an event.

My parents used to keep nearly all the programmes of concerts they attended and this represented quite a significant record of their regular concert and opera-going. They were kept in a special trunk in the box room and I used to love leafing through them. They had a distinct smell, like the musty reminiscence of a second-hand bookshop. Here amongst those age-speckled pages were the “greats” from an earlier era – Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman, Ida Haendel, John Ogdon, Gervase de Peyer, James Galway and many others, some of whom are fortunately still with us and still making music.

As a child I found the printed programme a curious, esoteric document, full of complex, often foreign words and concepts. I liked to have my own copy at a concert (along with an ice cream in the interval or a box of Maltesers) and I enjoyed looking at the pictures of the soloists or conductors, many of whom had artistically wild hair (conductor Louis Frémaux, for example, who worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s in the era before another, younger wild-haired man took over), but the programme notes were largely incomprehensible to me. When my musical studies were more advanced, I was better able to decipher programme notes: I understood terms like Ternary Form, Rondo or Coda, but still the notes seemed to inhabit a rarefied world of musicology which only a select few could enter. Fortunately today’s programme notes are generally more accessible and written to engage the reader/listener.

Modern technology has allowed for some innovations in concert programmes. Some organisations and venues offer the printed programme as a free download, in a reduced form, in advance of the concert, but a fistful of A4 sheets printed off at home does not have the same tactile quality of a shiny programme. And that is another pleasurable aspect of the printed programme – how it feels in the hands. Some, like the BBC Proms programmes appear satisfyingly weighty (until one discovers they are mostly stuffed with adverts!), others may be a slim piece of folded card, but no less an important document of the event. Many offer tantalising enticements to future concerts. Revisiting a programme from a long-past concert can elicit a Proustian rush of memory, of another time and place, and a record of music enjoyed and shared.


  1. I too have a box of programmes. Mine are mostly Halle concerts from the 70s and one from my first visit to the opera to see La Boheme. They bring back so many memories. I also found programmes that my mother had kept including one from 1951 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: Billy Budd amongst many other exiting gems. No matter how much I need to declutter, I would find these difficult to part with.

  2. Oh yes, re-visiting programmes of past concerts is a pleasure! Mention of the Winterreise you heard with Bostridge and Uchida brought back memories of ‘my’ most unforgettable Winterreise. It was in the early 80s, from memory. The pianist was Alfred Brendel and the singer…Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It was at the ROH of all places, and I was thrilled to have snaffled a standing room ticket at the last minute. Thanks for reminding me of that amazing evening!

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