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.

I was moved to write this post after reading this article on the wonderful Brain Pickings site, in which Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of Black Swan) talks about the writer Umberto Eco’s “anti-library” of some 30,000 books, many of which he has not yet read. This article struck a chord with me, as a few years ago I read a fascinating book by French psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, in which the author makes a very good case for freeing ourselves from the conventions and obligations of being “well read”. Professor Bayard explains that reading is a way of engaging with literature in various ways – books we’ve read, books we’ve skimmed through, books we’ve heard about, books we’ve forgotten, books we’ve never opened. As both Bayard and Taleb both state, the books we haven’t read are the most interesting for they offer new possibilities in broadening our knowledge and widening our cultural horizons. In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of  perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. In fact, all those books which haven’t been read yet represent a wondrous research tool, for they are all waiting to be explored.

The same can be said of music. Today, with a huge variety of recordings, films and live concerts and opera available to enjoy every hour of every day, we can feel under tremendous pressure to be seen to have covered all the “classics” (the big warhorses of the classical repertoire by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler et al – not to mention 20th century and contemporary classics……) and to know them. I admit to some hefty gaps in my musical and listening knowledge, gaps at which certain friends and colleagues are apt to pull their eyes and wring their hands: “What? You don’t listen to Wagner???!!!”. But for me, those gaps stand for something rather special and exciting.

Just as the large pile of books by my bed attests, so the huge library of music waiting to be explored – via CDs, streaming services, concerts, sheet music and more –  represents a wondrous journey of discovery, and one about which I am very excited. In fact, this journey began at a young age, when I first became aware of classical music through my parents’ own listening and concert-going. By the time I reached my teens, I had developed fairly trenchant ideas about the kind of music I liked, and would touch at the piano. Growing musical maturity and an irrepressible inquisitiveness have led me to discover a wealth of music, but still I have hardly scratched the surface. The great thing is that I know there is plenty more out there, just waiting to be heard and explored.

It is for this reason that I grow increasingly frustrated with concert programmes at London’s mainstream venues (where I spend a lot of time, in my role as a concert reviewer and ardent live music fan). The same diet of largely the same “classics” by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Mahler, Brahms comes round year after year. There are too many “safe” programmes, not enough brand new music, nor even 20th-century repertoire being performed. Sometimes it feels like one is picking up the same dog-eared favourite copy of Austen or Dickens. There’s nothing wrong with the programmes, nor indeed those authors, per se, but our listening horizons would benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore more unusual or lesser-known repertoire.

When selecting concerts, either as a reviewer or simply for pleasure, I tend towards those programmes which include unusual juxtapositions (for example, a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall by the Rubenstein Competition winner, which paired Scarlatti with Ligeti and Chopin with Messiaen), or music which I haven’t heard before. I may not like all I hear (and by the way, it really is ok to admit that you don’t like Schoenberg or Birtwistle: it doesn’t make you a lesser person!) but I intend to remain open-minded and open-eared at every concert I go to.

As an active musician, the voyage of discovery is even more potent: so much repertoire out there just waiting to be explored! The prospect is hugely exciting.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – article on Brain Pickings

Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary

(image credit: http://www.goodwp.com)