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

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