You are here:   Blogs >Jessica Duchen > Notes on Programme Notes
Standpoint Blogs
Jessica Duchen
Tuesday 3rd November 2009
Notes on Programme Notes

The other day David Lister, arts editor at The Independent, had a good grumble about the content of programmes at the opera. You don't need just a degree to understand them, but a doctorate, he suggests. He'd been to see Tristan und Isolde at the ROH. The column is here.

Tristan is bound to be an extreme example, but he has a good point. In an age obsessed with outreach, why doesn't that extend to programme notes? On Saturday I went to see The Sleeping Beauty at the ROH and much enjoyed the programme, in which well-established ballet writers trace with lucidity, enthusiasm and even a smidgen of a sense of humour the story of the Royal Ballet's relationship with the work, the histories of Tchaikovsky and Petipa - blowing away the myth of their ultra-close collaboration - and much more. It was a good souvenir of, and complement to, a marvellous evening.

But can you imagine if the notes on the ballet set out a blow-by-blow account of the choreography, tracing every landmark grande piroutte, grand jete and port de bras with in-the-know terminology spread as thick as marmalade? Even an enthusiast with some basic knowledge could scarcely help but feel a tad left out.

It's a conundrum. You don't want to patronise your audience, but neither do you want to alienate newcomers. You don't want to 'dumb down', but how far is 'lightening up' acceptable? Even the most basic technical words in musical description meet with incomprehension the minute you pass outside the elite coterie of intellectual concert-goers who understand them. I remember using, thoughtlessly, the word 'recapitulation' while we were rehearsing a music-and-words show a few years ago, referring to the return of an idea we'd already encountered in a different context that cast new light on it. The actors were mystified at first - then took the mickey. They were terrific performers and well-educated people. But 'recapitulate'?!?

The main problem is, of course, nothing to do with programmes themselves but rather the marginalisation of western classical music in the education system.

I'm not sure that was ever especially good - memories of our school music teacher, when we were 12, explaining that semiquavers go "taffateffy" although those of us who played instruments had learned what they were years before, and nobody else gave a damn. And occasional visits from orchestral musicians or string quartets aren't the answer - they never were and never will be more than a politically correct token gesture and a bit of extra-curricular fun. As El Sistema has been proving, kids need regular and good and personal tuition (and as most of us knew that already before Thatcher, it seems amazing that it's taken Gustavo Dudamel to get the message across). Its application in this country is going to take a bit of effort

The programme note commissioners can't fix that single-handedly, but if musical organisations are serious about building audiences, they shouldn't necessarily feed them musicoliterary dry muesli, even if it is organically grown and full of vitamins. There should be nothing wrong with adding a little cream with a view to palatability.

What do you want from a programme when you go to a concert or opera? Ideas, please!

Like this article? Share, save or print using the icons below
Delicious   Digg   StumbleUpon   Propeller   Reddit   Magnoliacom   Newsvine   Furl   Facebook   Google   Yahoo   Technorati   Icerocket   Print   Mail   Twitter   
November 3rd, 2009
8:11 PM
Hi Jessica, Just to elaborate and clarify what I said on twitter: Indeed, a very interesting article which raises very important issues. I do agree with Matthew Hodge above that we need some sort of digital device or small screen placed in the back of every seat that shows images and words which runs in time with the music. Covent Garden have a similar thing in certain seats around the auditorium. Of course, like those at the ROH, if people find them a little intrusive then they can turn them off or turn the brightness down at their own wish. Understandably this is the expensive route but one which Classical music has to tread. A lack of technology in the arts is inexcusable; one only needs to look at the Berlin Philharmonie's digital concert hall or the LPO's new Stravinsky video installation in a disused warehouse. About the content of the programmes themselves (and here I'm talking mainly about the small books with highly academic articles that the ROH hand out); firstly, I was mistaking in saying completely get rid of them; I too like to buy them and read them later on. But, why not create an easy read one? Ok so they do give you the small pamphlet giving a bare outline of the plot and the cast, but there is nothing between this and the rather expensive version. Also, of course cut down on the technical jargon (give a glossary if you are to use one; which many programme notes already do). Leave that for the 'bumper' size programme notes. However, as Yvonne has rightly noted, a lot of good work has already gone into producing more accessible programme notes and we should be aware of that rather than giving it the Lebrechtian (Norman that is) cynical approach. Minus the copious amounts of adverts for public schools - certainly something that doesn't give off a good vibe for inclusivity - the programmes written for the Proms and Southbank centre all tend to be aware of the incongruous technical words sometimes used. Yet, they tend to be - as somebody has already mentioned - a little too similar to rather basic wikipedia information and lack in glossy articles/pictures. Indeed, as I mentioned the £6 ROH one becomes a souvenir to keep. Whilst I understand that the orchestras/concert halls aren't wishing to deter people due to high costs, people buy programme notes - and let's remember, at some shows/gigs/concerts these can cost up to £15/£20 - as something to keep. So as well as creating different programmes with varying academic content, also vary the amount of images/biographies/general info/price. I certainly would buy a more expensive programme if there was a lot more information/images on, for example, the LSO's recent tour to China in amongst the other pages that are dedicated to that evening's concert. A few bland pages that seem lifted from wikipedia is certainly not the way forward! Good of you to flag this up though Jessica. I wonder if any arts institutions ever take notice of such thought? Felix

November 3rd, 2009
12:11 PM
Matthew is a bit harsh about program notes in his native land. But this is something I’ve been observing generally: we’re too eager to ignore the good work that is being done. Sure, it’s fun to write about the truly dreadful specimens we encounter. But how does this help anyone? Surely we should be writing about what’s good and drawing attention to examples of program notes that are admirable, instead of painting a bleaker picture than is strictly warranted. Yes, there are some pretentious and unhelpful program notes out there (at the theatre and ballet as well as concerts and operas – no one has a monopoly on this). But there are also writers who do communicate a deep love of the art form, who write well, who structure their pieces imaginatively, and who are deft in the way they introduce technical terms. Most important, they know how to illuminate the aspect of the music that's most pertinent to really coming to understand the work, whether that’s structural, or to do with instrumental colour, or physical/visual, or historical/contextual, or to do with the composer’s goal, or… In other words, they recognise the essence of any given piece and draw your attention to that. (In much the same way, a good critic can “nail” what it is about a performance/work that defined its effect and quality and needs to be discussed, while a weak critic will run their way through the same old points of discussion every time.) So what do I want from a program? Well, the previous paragraph sets it out. I’d add: I want to read writing that is good in itself; I want to be made to feel smart (but not at the expense of others); I want to acquire something new, even if it’s just a fresh perspective on something familiar; I want the writing to be authoritative but also a little bit provocative. In a perfect world there might be notated musical examples to help me spot all the important themes/motifs and give me something to hum or play from afterwards, but that’s a world that won’t be coming back for a long time, if ever… I dislike reading notes that: pander to perceived audience prejudices; trade in irrelevant superannuated anecdotes (a relevant, fresh anecdote is another matter); are clumsily written or twee; talk down to the reader; fail to be illuminating; or make gratuitous and excessive use of technical language at the expense of vital, tangible expression.

Dan Holloway
November 3rd, 2009
11:11 AM
Jessica, this is a very important question. 'You hint at one very important point: in part this is about business as well as culture - it's about creating a brand for the hall or house or company in question so that the visitor, who may be a first-timer, will think 1. I love the experience of a concert, I want to do it again and 2. When I DO do it again, I want to do it with THIS company/at this venue. The programme is the perfect means for doing this. (I've just given my first reading/concert as a writer and the one thing I was conscious of aside from making the performance as good as I could, was to create a programme/souvenir that people would want to take away and keep, and look at again, rather than one they would throw in the bin on the way home) Ideas: boxes are great. But they aren't used enough/savvily enough in programmes for classical concerts. They tend to be used for bios of the performers, for example. What a box does if it does it well is signal a different style of material not different material in the same style. Boxes are the perfect place to put detailed notes (not the "accessible" content - there's a psychological reason for that - if you can only read & gel with the stuff in the boxes & you're feeling a little out of your depth anyway, it will make you feel like you've been singled out for special dumbed-down treatment. If you actively seek out the stuff in the boxes you feel pleased with yourself - both suggest the details go in boxes. Hmm will ponder further. This is a really meaty topic.

Jonathan Mayes
November 3rd, 2009
10:11 AM
Institutions in the US seem to be a generation or two ahead of us in this regard - if not across the board, then at least with the bigger orchestras and venues. I'm not entirely against the use of technical language per-se (it's not condescending to include a glossary of terms, after all), but what so often seems to be lacking in programme notes here in the UK is any passion for the music and the way it actually sounds. As you alluded in the article, Jessica, the intense focus on technical detail and structure we often get would seem horribly out of place in other art forms.... Can you imagine a note on Munch's Scream which talked all about relative brush strokes and colour pallete but failed to mention that someone in the painting is in a modicum of distress? Here's to programme notes being written by someone who loves music and is prepared to express that!

Peter Singleton
November 3rd, 2009
10:11 AM
Generally the Opera programmes are good value. They are around £6, with lots of original content. They are well presented, and look good on a bookshelf. They become a great souvenir of a wonderful evening. The Proms programmes are ideal. They offer original content. I like the suggestions for further reading and listening. The price is reasonable too. I just hate all the adverts. My gripe are the concert programmes that offer no original content. Its seems most of the information is lifted out of sites like wikipedia. I object to buying programmes from places like the Southbank for this reason alone. It would be better to offer a free sheet, with a voluntary donation. The Programmes are free at the Barbican, but again the content is limted, and full of adverts.

Matthew Hodge
November 3rd, 2009
10:11 AM
Loved this article, Jessica! And completely agree about programme notes, which can be utterly woeful down here in Australia as well. I've said this in other places, but I would like to see simply for programmes (at least for classical music concerts - not sure for opera and ballet): 1. All terms explained without assuming I know it. Maybe it's patronising to the existing audience, but I have lots of friends I want to introduce to classical music and I want them to be spoken to in their own language. By all means, say "recapitulation" - it's a great word - but explain what it means. 2. I want a guide to tell me what to listen out for. (Though I'm getting more convinced that it might be better to provide some sort of running commentary on a hand-held device or subtitles, so I could get small doses of commentary on-the-go, rather than having to quickly knock over an essay before the work starts.) 3. Above all else - I want the writer to sound like he LOVES the music, not as if he's just vaguely stimulated by the tonalities it uses. The book that changed my life was George Grove's "Beethoven And His Nine Symphonies" and he certainly fulfilled points 2 and 3 beautifully (though his chapters are a bit long to fit into a concert guide). I'm sure he would have done 1. as well, but in his day, audiences came with a pre-learned knowledge of tonalities, harmonies, sonata form, etc. But we can certainly get there. If a top-notch school wanted to enthuse its students, it'd get a good teacher in. Why can we not work out how to get people enthused about classical music at a concert?

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

Recent Blog Posts
Blog List
More Posts
Popular Standpoint topics