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.

Guest post by Joanna Wyld

I recently enjoyed a concert in the rejuvenated Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank Centre; ‘An Evening with Danielle de Niese’ in which the soprano was joined by a host of other stars: Menahem Pressler, Sir James Galway, Mark Simpson, and the Navarra Quartet. The concert was memorable for reasons too numerous to detail here, but, alongside the purely musical elements of the occasion, I was struck by the fact that the programmes sold out.

Before the concert, the QEH kiosk queue (try saying that after an interval drink) was considerable and, alarmed by the increasing urgency of the announcements that the concert would start at any moment, I went into the hall, expecting to pick up a programme in the interval (it just so happens I’d written the programme notes, so I knew the works and running order already). At the interval I duly tried again to obtain the elusive programme, but was told by the QEH staff that they’d run out. They took my name and address, along with those of several other audience members hoping for a copy to be sent to them afterwards. Then, after the concert was over, I noticed that people were still giving their names to staff, wanting a programme even after any immediate necessity for one had passed.

So what? You might ask. Things sell out all the time. Gig tickets snapped up by touts. Almond croissants in cafes. Those leisure trousers you’d hoped to snaffle in the sale. But the significance here, especially for someone who writes programme notes, is that it demonstrates the real value of concert programmes to audiences. For some, it will have been a tangible souvenir of a combination of artists not likely to be seen together again. But concert tickets alone are a souvenir, so there must be more to it than that.

Programmes have a tactile appeal; they have gloss and weight, a sensual pleasure akin to a well-bound book. They tell us about the artists – yes, you can look up biographies on the internet, but it’s so much better to have all the information in one place, to browse during the concert or on the train home. And they contain the programme notes, those insights into the music and the composers, the song texts and translations. For many, a programme is essential during a concert, but it’s also a joy to happen upon at a later date, an aide memoir discovered whilst tidying a bookshelf. By that time, perhaps years later, one might well have forgotten the details of the concert, but finding the programme again brings to life the whole experience, reminding us of the artists and music we heard, animating faded, ghostly memories with fresh colour and life.

The need for programmes has been called into question in recent years. There are those who suggest that artists should speak about the music beforehand, as a replacement for programme notes. I’m not against this idea for those artists who wish to; it can be a pleasure to hear from musicians if they feel like engaging with the audience verbally as well as musically. But not all artists wish to do this, and there are language barriers to be considered, too. I heard James Rhodes perform a couple of years ago and he began with his own spoken programme notes. Rhodes is a great example of how this approach can work: personal, humorous, engaging. But, whilst I remember enjoying what he had to say, I remember his playing much more vividly. His words are harder to recollect now, not because they weren’t well communicated – they were – but, perhaps, because memory (my memory, at least) responds differently to visual and aural experiences. The nature of memory is far too complex to delve into here and is hardly my area of expertise, so I recognise that and it would be unfair to extrapolate a general principle from one experience. But perhaps the convention of hearing music and reading words has evolved because this is the way our brains best assimilate each facet of the concert. If one reads the score and listens to someone talking about it, it’s a lecture, not a concert; the visual and aural aspects of music are not straightforwardly interchangeable.

I overheard a woman at a conference recently dismissing programme notes as “boring”. Now, I took this with a pinch of salt, as people at conferences very often want to sell things to each other, and I imagine that whatever she wanted to sell was an alternative to the “boring” notes she mentioned. But it’s a nonsensical statement, too easily articulated in an age of poor attention spans; like saying that newspapers are boring on the basis of one article that didn’t immediately grip you, or that all food is boring because of one dish of overboiled Brussels sprouts. I cannot imagine someone talking of theatre programmes with the same dismissive attitude. For plays or musicals, programmes are a must, and to imply that classical concerts are fusty by including them is part of a wider trend in how classical music is sometimes discussed: self-flagellating, hand-wringing, terribly worried we’re not accessible enough, not fun enough. Whilst I agree that the accessibility of classical music to as wide an audience as possible is of real importance, there is a risk of creating a vicious cycle: the more we repeat those fears, without anything constructive offered as an answer, the more they risk being absorbed as insurmountable fact. Whereas if we believe in music as its own reward and act on that belief, many will discover it for themselves without needing to be apologised to or persuaded. Music writers are amongst the most devoted and enthusiastic out there; usually, if you take the trouble to read our efforts, you’ll be rewarded.

Programme notes can be fascinating because music, and musicians, are fascinating. I still love writing about music after 15 years of this kind of work, not only because of my own love of the music, but because it’s a real joy imagining that my writing might increase the pleasure of a listener; that it might entertain, move, amuse, or even, on a good day, induce goosebumps. Composers themselves are wonderfully helpful in providing these moments: flawed, eccentric, passionate, their words can be almost as delightful as their music. One of my favourites was a letter found in a library book (shout out to Bromley Library, to whom I owe a huge debt) when I was writing for a concert of music by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Shostakovich had written to Prokofiev, who was reaching the end of his life, with remarkable tenderness:

“I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to [your] works… makes it much easier and more joyful to live.

​I warmly clasp your hand.”


Then there’s the bawdiness of Mozart (much of it unprintable), the searing melancholy of Beethoven, the love-triangle of Brahms and the Schumanns (enough to titillate a tabloid), the pitch-black, meandering thoughts of Mussorgksy, the dry wit of Stravinsky (exhorting us to listen – “a duck hears also”) …

I could go on, but far better if, at the next concert you attend, you buy a programme and read the contents which, hopefully, will add to the joy of the music itself. I wish you charmed evenings of thrilling music, exceptional performances, absorbing programmes, and goosebumps. I warmly clasp your hand.

© Joanna Wyld, 2018

Joanna Wyld was born and educated in London before reading Music at New College, Oxford, where she was an Instrumental Scholar. She was listed as one of the Women of Distinction in 25 Years of Women at New College.

Joanna established Notes upon Notes in 2004 and has been writing liner notes, programme notes and other copy for a wide range of artists and record labels ever since. She also worked on Stop The Traffik for Steve Chalke and Cherie Blair, a book used as a resource by the UN.

Joanna won the 2014 OUP spoof Grove Dictionary article competition, as well as both second and third runner-up slots.

She curates playlists for classical streaming service IDAGIO, and recently appeared in a Southbank Centre video introducing a concert at the new Queen Elizabeth Hall. Joanna is Editor at Odradek Records, and is working on her first libretto for an opera by Robert Hugill.

Notes upon Notes

There is a growing trend amongst concert hosts and performers to introduce the music to be performed ahead of the concert, and on radio for presenters to describe the music in some detail immediately before it is broadcast. Such presentations can offer the audience a different perspective on what they are about to hear from the programme notes and may reveal special or personal insights into the music. I think audiences have a great fascination for the “behind the scenes” work of musicians, especially soloists such as concert pianists, and a performer’s own introduction to his or her programme provides a more personal view on the music, allowing the performer to discuss why they chose this repertoire, what makes it special for them and, particularly in the case of modern or new music, give the audience some “listening notes” to help them find their way through the music.

Such introductions may also create a more intimate link between performer and audience, breaking down the “us and them” atmosphere which can sometimes pervade the concert hall (especially in venues such as the Wigmore Hall where the musicians are separated from the audience by a rail across the front of the stage). A good introduction will encourage engaged and empathetic listening from audience and a sense of mutual communication and cooperation between performer and listeners.

It can be frustrating, therefore, when presenter or performer tries to tell the audience “how to listen”. There is a certain Radio Three presenter (usually on the weekend Breakfast show slot) who prefaces a work with gushing purple prose, telling us that this music is “beautiful”, “absolutely gorgeous”, “fiery”, “dramatic” etc. Listening to music, whether in a live concert, on disc or on the radio is a highly personal and subjective experience, one which taps into one’s emotions to create an individual response. My version of “beautiful” or “dramatic” music will not be the same as yours, and to influence the listener by describing music in this way or telling us how to listen may deprive us of the uniqueness of the listening experience. Equally, audiences and listeners are not daft and do not need to be ‘helped’ through the music or given obvious musical ‘signposts’ to listen out for before we’ve even heard a note. And a long verbal introduction to a piece can make one impatient to hear the actual music.

Sometimes in pre-concert presentations, extracts from the music in the programme are played to introduce the music or illustrate a point or to ‘help’ the audience. Such extracts can be enlightening and informative, but equally they can feel strangely disconnected when taken out of the context of the entire work or the programme as a whole.

I actually enjoying hearing a piece of music “cold”, so to speak, without any introduction, allowing the sounds to seep into my aural landscape and my consciousness. Sometimes we need to surprised, delighted, shocked or enraptured, and at other times it can be satisfying to “work” at listening (and I have never regarded listening as an entirely passive activity: some engagement is required, whatever the genre of music). We can take pleasure in our personal discoveries, our unique responses to what we’re hearing, the thrill of the unknown or the unfamiliar.

The excitement of hearing a new piece for the first time is that it is new and one doesn’t know where it will go– Mariko Brown, pianist

Music comes out of silence and through it we can escape from the noise of everyday life, the unending onslaught of images, messages, videos, memes…..


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.


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