At a recent Wigmore Hall concert, given by the wonderful young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, I eschewed the printed programme and went into the hall empty-handed. It hardly mattered – I knew what was on the programme (and I could peek at my concert companions’ programme if I needed to) and it was rather liberating not to be clutching a large-ish booklet for the entire evening.

The printed programme is a traditional accoutrement of the classical concert format. When I went to concerts with my parents as a child, I found the printed programme a curious, esoteric document, full of complex, often foreign words and concepts. As I recall, I liked looking at the pictures of the soloist or conductor, many of whom had artistically wild hair (conductor Louis Fremaux, for example, who worked with the CBSO in the 1970s), 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.

Usually I don’t like audiences reading their programmes as one plays

– Steven Isserlis, cellist

I understand where Steven Isserlis is coming from with this comment from a recent tweet. If your head is buried in the programme, you’re obviously not going to give the music and the performer/s your full attention. Without a programme to read during Pavel’s performance, I found myself listening even more attentively than usual (and, by my own admission, I am generally an attentive concert-goer). My ears were alert to every dynamic nuance and expressive shift, and I found myself making interesting aural connections between the different composers in the programme (C P E Bach, Schubert and Schumann). In short, I was fully engaged and absorbed by the music. This is, of course, largely due to the performer’s skill in drawing the audience into his personal soundworld and communicating the composer’s intentions, but programme notes can be distracting, and without them, one tends to listen more carefully.

Programme notes have changed a great deal since my earliest concert going days in the 1970s. The esoteric, musicological or high-falutin language has largely disappeared, replaced with text which is accessible, readable, informative and informed, though some still remain nothing more than a sterile playlist. The best programme notes offer the audience a way in to the music (this is especially useful when hearing new or lesser-known music). Good programme notes will give an overview of the context in which the works being performed were created, some biographical details about the composer, and information about the structure of the music, but will also include text which can stimulate our anticipation of what we are about to hear or highlight the emotional content of the music, which often makes its more relateable to an audience of non-specialists. Sometimes there are anecdotes about how the work was received when it was first performed, or a quote from a contemporary observer or critic, or how the work is related to another piece or pieces in the programme. For song or choral recitals, programme notes usually contain the song texts in the original language and in translation. In general, today’s programme notes are well-written documents which I often return to after the concert has been and gone.

Sometimes performers writer their own programme notes, which adds a more personal take on the music, and the practice of the performer introducing the programme via a short pre-concert talk is becoming more common. I really enjoy such talks, especially when the performer offers more personal insights about the music or explains the music as he or she sees it. Most audiences are very interested in a performer’s reasons for choosing certain repertoire or why it is special to them, both compositionally and in terms of what it is like, physically and emotionally, to play it. Talking to the audience also breaks down that awful “them and us” barrier that can exist at concert venues, thus giving the audience a greater connection to the performer and a sense that a concert is very much a shared experience.

Modern technology has also changed the traditional programme note. Many concert venues now post videos or podcast interviews with performers or commentators ahead of a performance, which “adds value” to the printed programme. And some venues offer audiences the option to download a copy of the programme in advance. This is a very good innovation, in my opinion. One thing that does irk me about concert programmes is the cost of them: some are as much as £5 and contain page after page of advertising (the Proms programmes being a particular case in point – a veritable bumper edition of advertising and just 5 pages of actual programme notes……). Interestingly, when I attended a Sunday morning concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus, the programme contained only 5 adverts, of which 4 were directly related to the venue and its resident orchestra.

The lighting – or lack thereof – at some venues (Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Coliseum, for example) renders reading the programme during a performance almost impossible, which is probably a good thing. Programmes can be read and enjoyed before the performance, or during the interval, or indeed on the train on the way home. For many of us, the programme becomes a cherished souvenir of a memorable event – especially if it is signed by the performer!

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.

www.katyhamilton.co.uk

Twitter: @klhamilton

du2bpre2bwigmore2bhall Another concert programme, another artist biography comprising a dry list of eminent teachers and mentors, concert halls performed in, orchestras and conductors worked with, recordings made and “forthcoming engagements include”. All standard information: exchange the names and the impersonal text could be used for any international virtuoso.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing, once in a while, to read an artist’s biography which was less a list of achievements and name-dropping, and more about the personality behind the dry words and the professional photograph? To discover more about that person’s musical influences, their likes and dislikes, what music excites them and why, and what makes them tick as a musician? Details that may not be found on the artist’s website and which might bring the musicians closer to their audiences. In reality, most artist biographies tell us very little about the musician or musicians we are about to hear in concert and seem only to serve the requirements of their agents and managers.

Some artists and the writers of their biographies have attempted to go beyond the dull list of activities, resulting in some interesting vocabulary and very purple or simply incomprehensible prose, especially when taken out of context:

“a re-balancing of the artistic equation”

“she breathes the oxygen of imagination and finds balance in musing”

The second quote is from a young female pianist’s biography, penned for her by a French journalist. The complete biography is an interesting read: breathless, adoring, gushing, almost embarrassing in its attempt to sound poetic, and very far removed from the standard artist biography. On one level, it is quite wonderful.

But the more cynical or ungenerous reader or fellow musician might read such hyperbole and suspect that the artist in question is trying to cover up for mediocrity (in fact not an issue for the above-mentioned artist). And then there are those people who describe playing at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall or the Leipzig Gewandhaus without mentioning that both venues have smaller recital rooms, or that you have “participated” in a masterclass with this or that renowned international artist when in fact you were sitting in the back row at the Royal College of Music. Unfortunately, in the uber-competitive sphere of classical music, mentioning that you played a coffee concert in the Weill Recital Room to a handful of pensioners is not going to have promoters rushing to your door and therefore such economy of truth is essential in our image-driven world: most of us are guilty of these little white lies in our biographies.

The popularity of the Meet the Artist interview series, which has been running on this blog for 4 years now, confirms that concert goers and readers have a great curiosity about what goes on behind the public persona of a musician or composer. There is, I find, a continual interest in the working lives of creative people – by which I mean what motivates and inspires them to do what they do – and I’m sure that most concert goers would enjoy reading something more like a Meet the Artist interview than a tedious list of international concert venues and renowned conductors.

Of course, it is important to have a comprehensive biography or CV on one’s own or one’s agent’s website for the benefit of prospective promoters and concert managers, but surely it is possible to deliver this information in a style and manner which is both engaging and informative? And at a time when “audience engagement” is at the forefront of the minds of concert organisers, venue managers and musicians themselves, it seems sensible to offer a biography that audiences might actually want to read (and don’t forget that in major venues one can expect to pay upwards of £4 for a programme which often seems more about advertising than the music we are about to hear).

9 classical musician bios that aren’t terrible

Artist Biography Generator

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.

Schubert: Sonata (Sonatina) – For Piano And Violin No. 2 In A Minor, Op. Posth. 137, D. 385: I. Allegro Moderato

Strauss, Richard : Violin Sonata in E flat major Op.18 : I Allegro, ma non troppo

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