Notes beyond notes

We’ve just reached the time of year in New Zealand when arts organisations reveal their programmes for 2017. In the last few weeks, the Royal New Zealand BalletChamber Music New Zealand, and Orchestra Wellington have launched new seasons. The programmes are ambitious and stimulating, an embarrassment of riches that will bring to audiences a mixture of outstanding local musicians, and others from overseas.

I was involved, in a small way, in the preparations for the CMNZ 2017 ‘Kaleidoscopes’ series, receiving a commission to write promotional material (90 and 250 words for each programme) for the season brochure. This work requires a different mode of thinking from the one I use when writing programme notes or essays; it was easy to be distracted by the academic side of things instead of thinking about what would make the programmes and ensembles attractive to a potential audience. The school of promotion which says ‘the world’s best violinist today’ or ‘Mozart’s most fabulous symphony’ is an anathema to me, as value judgements of that sort can alienate as many people as they attract.  After much agonising, and the mass slaughter of my darlings, I dispatched the copy. It was approved and is now published.

The exercise made me think about my other work on programme notes and essays. Just 13 days ago (not that I’m keeping count) I nearly had a stroke when somebody asked if I was still writing programme notes, and wondered whether I was wasting my time on ‘journalistic rah-rah fluff’. Apart from the fact that it brings in some money – which is nice – it seems to me that notion of programme notes as ‘rah-rah fluff’ is one that affronts the audience as much as it does the writer. A successful set of programme notes requires a particular mode of thinking, a particular approach to gathering and assimilating research material, and a particular approach to its presentation. This skill-set, incidentally, is one which some English-speaking countries are arguably devaluing, particularly if one considers the fees which respected programme-annotators are being offered. Nobody who is involved on a practical level with the performing arts – in this case, symphonic or chamber music and opera – is ignorant of the fact that budgets are tight, but if commissioning well-regarded writers to provide programme material is part of an organisation’s mission, then they have to budget for it. Currently, rates of pay for notes and essays in Britain are decreasing, writers being offered in the region of £100 for c. 1500 words. Bear in mind, a 1500 word programme note may cover between three and five pieces of music (more if it’s early music, or a Lieder recital), and occasion at least 10 hours of work, not including trips to the library to look at relevant texts or scores, and time spent listening to different interpretations of the piece.

So, you may say, why bother? Why do we need 1200-1500 words of dense, sometimes technical, somewhat academic text in a programme? What does it achieve? Does anybody read it? Does anybody need it? What does this material add to the audience’s enjoyment of a concert? Could not a hard-up orchestra, chamber music promoter, or opera company save itself £100/$250 per concert by scrapping the programme note? Without a lengthy programme note, programme booklets would be shorter, and probably less expensive! Then more people could buy a programme…

I know for a fact that some people abhor programme notes. A few years ago I was managing a concert at an important venue in Oxford. Incidentally, I’d written the notes for the concert myself, and, because of a staffing problem (resulting from a late snow storm) I was selling the programmes too. A pair of patrician North Oxford ladies tottered into the hall, brushing snow from their coiffures. ‘Shall I buy a programme, Marjorie?’ said the first. ‘Don’t waste your money,’ said the other, ‘I can’t be bothered with all that intellectual rubbish they put in them.’ I maintained an impassive exterior. However, some people do read programme notes, and apparently they enjoy doing so. It was a great surprise to receive a really positive email, through my website, from somebody who had attended concerts in Norfolk and London for which I wrote the notes. Likewise, I have received good (and unsolicited) responses to notes I’ve written for Steven Isserlis’s recitals at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building. If somebody from the audience comments favourably on a specific element or even sentence from the note, it is extremely gratifying.

Nevertheless, I digress from my aim here, which is to state why I enjoy writing notes, and what I want to achieve from doing so. The aim, in my view, of the programme for a concert is three-fold: as a sensory experience, a concert should stimulate, entertain, and educate an audience. Each of these elements is of equal importance, but individual members of the audience may prioritise them at different levels, depending on their reason for choosing to attend the performance. It would be imprudent, not to say an intolerable liberty, to programme a concert primarily for didactic reasons: to privilege the intellectually educative over every other constituent element of a musical performance, would be to compromise especially the ineffable, elusive quality of jouissance that strikes every listener in a unique way. However, the dual criteria of providing a concert which stimulates and challenges the audience in a sensory way, while also educating them need not necessarily be a drily didactic one. It’s more a case of opening doors and windows, of showing a musical world in a new or different way, of making unusual connections, of linking composers and their music to a wider realm of creativity, artistic practice, or even philosophy. To bring the story back to Wellington, I think this extract from a recent post on Marc Taddei’s website – about Orchestra Wellington’s 2017 season – sums up the challenge ideally, taking into account what makes music wonderful and the enlightenment – intellectual and sensory – which a particular programming idea can generate

‘This passion to educate certainly informs my programming. At its most basic level, programming is a chance to share works with an audience that the conductor particularly enjoys. When fashioned into a balanced programme, this is a great way of presenting concerts. However, this need to share enjoyable works is not what drives me. I want to my programmes to have point of view – to tell a story – to educate. To me it makes complete sense, because as a musician, education and the need to understand are at the very core of how I experience the art form. Presenting a series of concerts allows me the opportunity to illuminate not only what I like or think is important, but to give an argument for why I hold this view.’

This is an example of a coherent scheme for an entire season’s programmes, a scheme which provides an organic narrative arc over several concerts, and involves bold but brilliant musical choices.

But what happens, on a small scale, when the deadline-harassed writer is confronted by a programme that rejoices in splendid isolation from any sort of thematic plan (I think that this a phenomenon that is happening less and less, as artists and promoters are driven towards more overt means of engagement with audiences, and overall, this is a tendency I applaud)? In many cases, it is up to the writer to find the connections between the repertoire, and write about the links in a way that beguiles the audience. The connections are usually there, but the challenge is presenting them in a way that won’t alienate anybody. It is likely that an audience will be a broad church: some know a great deal about a particular piece and have heard many different interpretations, others are hearing a work for the first time. Some may be attending a concert for the very first time.

My approach is to look into the music, but also to look around it. A recent example of such a programme is one by the Bach Players, a London-based early music ensemble, directed by Nicolette Moonen. Their programming is disparate, as within broad themes, they perform concerts of fascinating music. Some of it is well-known, and some of it is obscure, but the individual parts fit together rationally, and the sensory experience is fulfilling and beautiful, as this example shows:

Nicolas Chédeville (1705–82): ‘Le printemps’ from Les saisons amusantes (1739)
Allegro – Largo e pianissimo sempre – Allegro pastorale

Nicolas Chédeville: ‘Les plaisirs de l’été’ from Les saisons amusantes
Allegro – Largo – La Caccia

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): ‘Summer’ (L’estate) from Le quattro stagioni
Allegro non molto – Adagio e piano; Presto e forte – Presto

Giovanni Antonio Guido (c. 1680 – c. 1730): ‘Spring’ from Scherzi armonici sopra le quattro staggioni dell’anno (c. 1725)

H.I.F.Biber (1644–1704), ‘Sonata representativa’ for violin & continuo in A major (1669?)

Carlo Farina (c. 1600–1639): Capriccio stravagante (1627)

Gregor Joseph Werner (1693–1766): ‘July’ (‘Il lùglio’) from Musicalischer Instrumental-Calender (1748)

Pietro Nardini (1722–93): Duetto no. 3 for two violins

Antonio Vivaldi: ‘Summer’ from Le quattro stagioni (c. 1720)

This music spans the distance between the early years of the Baroque and the early years of the Classical era, to use some crude periodisation. The task? How to reconcile Farina, Werner, and Chédeville, without resorting to a general discussion of how these composers invoked the sensations of spring and summer with their birdsong and thunderstorms. Two thoughts occurred: first was the aesthetic of the stylus fantasticus which shapes the Biber Sonata and Farina’s Capriccio. Then, listening to Chédeville – who made arrangements of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to incorporate the very French sounds of flute and musette, I was reminded of Waldemar Januszczak’s series for BBC 4 on the Rococo. Exploring the ‘underbelly’ of clichéd Rococo candyfloss, Janusczak really opened my eyes at the ideas of darkness in Rococo art, the combination of fantasy, salaciousness and threat that inhabit the art of Watteau, Fragonard and their contemporaries. Chédeville’s music hit my ears as the obvious accompaniment to Watteau, a musical evocation of the fêtes champêtres.

Watteau, ‘Fête champêtre’ (Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection)

Parallels between music and visual arts or architecture seem stronger to me, often, than between music and literature (until – to make a generalisation – the Romantic era):  Corelli’s sonatas and concerti grossi have their counterpart in sculpture by Bernini, for the initial gasp of wonder they inspire, and as they reward close examination. Think, for example, of Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina, and how it is only when you get close to the work, moving on from the initial impression, that you see fascinating details, like Pluto’s fingers digging into Proserpina’s thigh.

Bernini ‘The Rape of Persephone’ (Galleria Borghese)
0775_ 029

Corelli inspires and rewards similar attention. Vivaldi brings in the Venetian element, with its allusions to the Carnevale di Venezia, and its carnival archetypes, who have counterparts in Watteau’s Harlequin and Columbine.

Watteau ‘Harlequin and Columbine’ (Wallace Collection)
Watteau ‘Pierrot’ (Musée du Louvre MI 1121)

Meanwhile, I could connect the qualities of drama, unexpectedness, invention, and virtuosity that characterise the stylus fantasticus of Farina and Biber, with the differently evolving manifestations of similar qualities in the Rococo. The extra-musical nuances are too many to discuss in individual detail; by sowing the seeds in my note, I hoped that I could inspire some readers to explore more geographical connects between the aesthetic worlds of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The example of the Bach Players’ programme shows that a note-writer has more to do than explain the who-what-where of individual pieces. The writer needs a wide frame of reference, which extends beyond the pages of Grove Music Online, and which takes account of the extra-musical factors – aesthetic, political, social, historical – which can provide coherence to programmes that are simultaneously thematic but disparate. There is the chance to bring in other authors, to paintings, sculptures, novels, historians, and share a collective, collaborative excitement. Music, you can argue, is an absolute form, whether in its written or performed texts, but, it does not exist in a vacuum.

‘Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.’

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