Jetlagged Manifesto

I woke at 3:32 and stumbled over my open suitcase towards the kitchen, neither awake nor asleep, floating in time-purgatory. ss_8CabotMontereyJackCheeseA slice of slightly crusty Monterey Jack from the back of the refrigerator did not bring comfort. All sorts of anxieties bubbled out of my last hour of sleep: even they were groggy, dazed … maybe a bit crabby.

In other words, a classic jetlag situation where you confront the weird empty hour thinking what the hell am I going to do with you? I stared out the window at nothing, and my mind helped itself to a ridiculous and comically dark train of thought, which (for some reason) I can’t help sharing:

Sometimes performances bring pieces to life, but sometimes they (I, we) kill them instead. Performers (and this seems obvious, inevitable, we’re human, we’re all culpable) are sometimes complicit in the Death of Classical Music.

Ouch! But fasten your seatbelts, it gets darker yet:

If the concert is sometimes a “murder” of what should be a living work, program notes are the chloroform rag we use to numb the victim, before dragging it to the scene of the crime.

Ha! Yes, I realize it’s unfair to carp about program notes at 4 am just because you’re grumpy about being awake and stressed about practicing Ligeti Etudes! But this program note thing had been on my mind for a while.

It seems regrettable that a writing style called Program Note Style ever came into existence. It’s hard to define, I suppose; you know it when you read it, by a slight heartburn of the soul. When I start to compose program notes, I feel the Siren of this Style, calling me. The words clump into clichéd paragraphs, habits learned from hundreds of programs, perused in waiting moments … You begin with a few dates, then you slip in the curious historical tidbit: “while he composed X in 18xx, curiously he didn’t publish it until 18xx …” The tidbit that makes it seem authoritative, knowledgeable, yawn yawn … Agh! Select All. Delete. Contemplate blank screen with relief.

I would like to enumerate the Deadly Sins of program notes.

The first one is HISTORICIZATION:

I’ve never been a big fan of the “imagine how revolutionary this piece was when it was written” school of inspiration. For my money, it should be revolutionary now. (And it is.) Whatever else the composer might have intended, he or she didn’t want you to think “boy that must have been cool back then.” The most basic compositional intent, the absolute ur-intent, is that you play it NOW, you make it happen NOW.

If you’ve ever been pestered by a composer to play their music, you know what I mean.

Now, history and understanding are delicious, essential! At the same time, I don’t think program notes should rub your face too much in the NOT NOW. It certainly doesn’t help classical music’s “age problem.” I’ll confess: historical context is good for me (context me good, baby!) mainly to the extent that it creates a kind of suspended now in which the work can exist again–present, perpetually different. There’s generally not room for that sort of context in a program note; instead, a thicket of dates and boring circumstances tends to evoke an officious wall between us and the living work, reminding us for no good reason that the composer is dead, conjuring his coffin, a notched timeline. Consider this opening to a program note:

The world was changing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The authority of monarchies, no matter how enlightened they might be, was challenged: the American colonies against England, Hungarian peasants against Austria under Joseph II, the people of France and Louis XVI. Economic power was shifting away from the landed aristocracy to an urban middle class that included bankers, lawyers, merchants, and factory owners.

This note is for the “Trout” Quintet. You, listener: get serious, be studious and pensive for the urban middle class specimen you’re about to hear! If the performer’s aim is to recreate the piece in the present, immediate, alive, why do so many program notes make that so much more difficult?

The second sin is MAKING GENERIC: the sausage-like conversion of extraordinary musical moments into blobs of generic prose. Think of the program note as a field of battle on which the great defining characteristics of a work of art lie strewn, wounded by flying bullets of blandness.

Generic-ization is a very understandable sin; there’s nothing worse than a program note writer who goes hogwild with subjective and silly adjectives, like me. (I hate my own notes, for the most part, but I can’t help writing them!) To avoid this, the “typical program note writer” holds back, purging description of individuality. For instance:

The last movement takes up the motives of the first in varied form.

Now, it’s not that this sentence isn’t true, or isn’t a valid, cogent structural observation about the Stravinsky Piano Concerto. But this phrase “varied form” sticks in my throat–generic, indigestible. It seems a wasted opportunity. Varied how? To what purpose? I mean variation is nearly everywhere, it’s like the amino acid or DNA of music: a replication process which allows life to happen.

In fact, in this particular piece (the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds) the last movement visits some particularly grotesque, comic transformations on the ideas of the first. And as it turns out, the first movement is a set of inventive rethinkings of Bach and the Baroque: so, the last movement is a transformation of a transformation! While the first movement has ragtime mashed in with its toccata-Bach, the last allows Bach to head towards vaudeville, towards the Charleston, or the Foxtrot. The main thematic material is good crusty Baroque fare: full of pointed, jagged intervals, evoking an academic abstruse fugue, food for angular counterpoint … to allow this to become roaring 20s jazz is a punning leap from the cloister to the cabaret. The composer is grinning, he’s courting sacrilege; it’s a wicked, almost brutal mashup.
Perhaps you feel my description goes too far. But would you say …

“Picasso in his Cubist period takes up the motive of the guitar in varied form.”

No, I didn’t think so.


Included in many program notes are tidbits of historical information.

It’s amazing how canonical these tidbits can become. I played Beethoven’s First Concerto a number of times last season and every single program note noted that while the First Concerto is called number 1, it was actually composed second, after the Second Concerto, which was actually first. Now, as a performer and person, I am theoretically glad I know this, in the larger context of the Beethoven story, but, finally: YAWN. In fact, double yawn! Yawn times infinity plus one! Suppose you as a listener and program note reader do not know the Second Concerto, and you’re just looking for help to appreciate the work before you: this seems like a pretty “meta” piece of information to help you out; it seems like what a kind of tedious museum guide would say. Ironic, because of all Beethoven works the First Concerto is not “meta”: from the moment the piano enters, its simplicity requires no insider information. Beethoven takes care to speak to you with obvious grammar, with clear rhetoric, almost Phrasing for Dummies. And he takes you dummies through an epic tale nonetheless, using the harmonic equivalent of “see Jane run” as a doorway to shaded, subtle corners of tonality.

When I find these tidbits in program notes, I get an unshakable mental image: a group of gentlemen in smoking jackets, smoking cigars in a private club, exchanging “I say, old chap, did you know that the first concerto was actually composed second”? They’re chortling to each other, but their back is to you; through the knowledge they share, they exclude the larger group. The tidbits of knowledge are a badge of belonging, even though they do not particularly or centrally illuminate the work in question. For some reason these tidbits have become a habit, even a required element of program notes: I have no idea why.

And the last sin: DOMESTICATION.

These works are not our pets. They are not tchotchkes to be set upon the shelf for occasional amusement and decoration. But certain turns of phrase in program notes seem to reduce tremendous originalities down to size, seem to want to put composers’ innovations in their place. I found the following in a program note for the Stravinsky Piano Concerto (again):

Although Stravinsky moved very far from his earlier “Russian-period” works in the Piano Concerto, we may recognize him, among other things, by his fondness for asymmetrical rhythms, which is evident in all three movements of the work.

A “fondness” for asymmetrical rhythms? FONDNESS? You may as well say “Proust has a fondness for discussing the passing of time,” or “Beethoven has a fondness for exploring the relationship between tonic and dominant,” or “Shakespeare has a fondness for observing character traits.” It’s the fatal understatement, the polite absurd word that stops meaning in its tracks.

Stravinsky’s attack upon, and reinvention of, rhythm is obviously core to his life’s work, core to his whole revolution of musical time, which has haunted and inspired much of the twentieth century. It is not a fondness, but an artistic essence, the grammar of a thrilling, unsettling new language. Program notes should avoid this mistake; and yet, it is the very human, natural mistake of someone wandering too long through an art museum, fatigued by one great canvas after another, trying to know what to say. Sometimes, sadly, you don’t have the option to say nothing!

Through the grimy kitchen window (I really should get that cleaned!) there was a gradual increase in the green and now yellow and blue stripe of dawn. I’m a sucker for quickening colors. My anxieties began to blow away, leaving reality sitting on the table: a hunk of sweaty cheese. Having written down my rant, I realized I wasn’t upset at any one program note writer; I was upset at the construct, the genre, and its expectations.

I perversely Googled one last program note, for the Archduke Trio. It began:

Despite the considerable contributions of Haydn and Mozart, it remained for Beethoven to give the piano trio an importance it had not enjoyed before.

I mean, I can’t argue with it, it’s depressingly true–but somehow the word “importance” gets on my nerves. The piece is very important to me. But the sense of the word “importance,” in this context, seems violently different from that personal importance. I scrolled down to see what the author said about my favorite movement:

The serene slow movement … is a series of variations on a hymnlike melody. [“hymnlike”: true, but GENERIC] (After Beethoven’s death it was gratuitously adapted to a choral setting of verses by Goethe.) [HISTORICIZATION, INSIDER’S CLUB] There are four variations, of great melodic and rhythmic interest [GENERIC: what interest? how?], and of growing tension and complexity, but after the fourth the theme is restated in its original purity [GENERIC: not exactly, crucial changes are made], to be followed by a dreamy coda which extends as a bridge to the finale (yet again as in Op. 59, No. 1–and numerous other works of its period). [INSIDER’S CLUB, DOMESTICATION]

I found all my enumerated sins. Of course I was evilly looking for them. “Dreamy coda which extends as a bridge to the finale”–it’s accurate, but upsets me. It absorbs one of my favorite moments in music, absorbs it into terminology which seems too comfy, too prosaic … like putting caviar on mashed potatoes.

I wasn’t being objective, I admit that. This Archduke note is just fine, it’s even quite good; it is well-written, and what’s more, it doesn’t force any particular vision. But…

What is it about these variations, why do they make me so happy? Maybe they have what I feel I lack? Patience, reliance on the beauty of a few tried and true harmonies, on color itself, and time: all of these givens, given space to breathe. The cumulative effect of all this space and breathing and inevitability is a kind of love expressed in tones, not the potiony feverish love of Tristan but–I’m embarrassed to say it, I suppose–love for the universe, love for things as they are, or if not that either, love for just being. Felix Galimir, the famous violinist and teacher, at my first lesson on the piece, said that it was “the only truly beautiful thing ever written for the piano.” (Haha.) Yes, in its profound color-thinking at the piano, the exploitation of the overtones, registers: it was (is, continues to be) a new kind of prayer to sound, sensual sound as a sign of love. Of course, you cannot say “prayer to sound” in a program note; that would be ridiculous. It’s so much safer to say “series of variations on a hymnlike melody,” don’t you think?

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  1. cb
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    You forgot composers’ notes on their own music [BIBLIOGRAPHY WITH GRAVY SPATTERS].

  2. Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Jetlag seems to make your writing/content more accessible. Yay!

  3. Posted May 25, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    I am curious as to whether or not you would agree that the most important thing about any text written about music is that it be “usefully descriptive” (bearing all the different ways we can hedge around that adjectival phrase). I have put a lot of thought into the nature of the descriptive text; and that includes reading a rather dense text (in French) by Philippe Hamon on the topic. About the only thing I have learned from my research is that good descriptive writing is very difficult. I say this not to apologize for those who do it badly but to clarify that you really do not know what a challenge it is until you have taken it on seriously for yourself.

    Unfortunately, things get worse. Hamon never gets beyond static description in his study. In other words one might say that he is addressing how one can achieve through text what others have achieved through painting or photography. On the other hand music is never dynamic. As I like to say (too often?), when you freeze time, the music ceases. Describing an ongoing process is even more difficult than describing a static object.

    Personally, I think program notes ought to be about the listening experience. In that case the author is obliged to do little more than capture at least some aspect of his/her own listening experience in words. This is no easier than any other descriptive task, but at least it allows one to drop anchor on a familiar seabed. After that, each of us who tries to write proceeds at his/her own risk!

  4. Janet
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    You probably saw this article:

    The gist is that some study has demonstrated that listeners who have not read the program notes enjoy a concert more than those who do (because once they’ve been told what they’re going to be hearing, that’s what they try to hear). But the alternative given in the first paragraph–listeners should “simply let the music wash over then”–doesn’t seem ideal either.

    Those of us who are not musically sophisticated really do benefit from some kind of program-note type guidance (at least I do)–otherwise a piece on first hearing can seem like nothing more than a colorful, amorphous mass that does “wash over” you and then disappear leaving only inchoate impressions.

    But why can’t you write your program notes the way you write your blog? The kind of visceral, personal writing you indulge in here would make a much more engaging program note, and I should think it would be more helpful for the audience, without inhibiting their response. The formal discussion for the Archduke Trio gives me some information I’m glad to have, but your comments make me want to rush right out and listen to the piece to see what I can discover in it. This would be an excellent state of mind to be in right before hearing a performance. Would concert halls not let you publish notes written in such an informally emotive style?

  5. Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Kyle Gann posted an interesting take on writing program notes a while back, but I’m even fonder of his templates for “new music” program notes.

  6. Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Do you think it’s possible to share all of this tasty information, crack for geeks, in a way that keeps the back-alley edge?

  7. Posted May 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Oh God, I literally—LITERALLY—committed all of these crimes before breakfast yesterday.

  8. Brent
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Wow, I’ve been following your blog since its inception and this is your darkest post that I can recall. Maybe you need some Viagra…………for the jet lag of course!
    That or coffee and short naps.

  9. Jason
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    I love this post. What a sharp, accurate analysis of the sins of program annotators [INSIDERS CLUB – overly precise/stuffy description]! I read through two of my program notes from 4 years ago and found that I was deliberately avoiding GENERIC & DOMESTICATION by not saying much about the music at all. My theory then was that GENERIC & DOMESTICATION make the program notes neutral or negative, at least HISTORICIZATION might add something to someone’s experience (i.e., neutral, possibly positive). I didn’t see the point of describing music that everyone was about to hear, especially since so many of the terms don’t resonate for much of the audience. Instead I ended each paragraph with an evocative description of some part of the piece (maybe courting PRECIOUS while trying to avoid GENERIC & DOMESTICATION).

    So then, the obvious next question…What are the positive qualities we can put in capital letters for future notes? (I agree with Janet above that some of your writing is so evocative and engrossing that I want to listen immediately…but wouldn’t your program notes then become book length?)

  10. 12 bits
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know what you are writing, I only love your smile!

  11. Anne Marie
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Wow–you have just put my darker thoughts about program notes right out there! When we go to a concert, I always skim through the program notes because I think I should (being a music historian, and all), but almost never do I read anything that makes any difference at all to my experience of the music. Historical context, biography blah, blah, blah, then a little very unsatisfying and vague analysis of the music. And it’s pages and pages of this nothingness.

    My husband never reads them, preferring to just experience the music for the first time with no preconceptions–he says it’s like reading a review of a movie that gives away the plot and ending. I was getting upset with him because it seemed like he had no interest in what I’ve been educated in and what I do–think and write about music, but after reading your blog, the rightness of his view really crystalized for me–I wouldn’t want to read that crap either really, if I didn’t know much about music (like my husband). And even though I do know a lot about music, why do I feel like I have to slog through the notes, when they rarely tell me anything I didn’t know, or am interested in, or illuminate an aspect of the music that I will be listening to.

    What a weird enterprise anyway to tell someone what they are going to hear. And in some sort of objective, authoritative voice (=bland and generalized). Listening to and experiencing music is such a personal thing. That’s why your blog is so enlivening–it’s clearly your experience of music, and your love and enthusiasm are infectious and make me want to go out and experience the music for myself with your thoughts in the background. Why can’t program notes be an example of one way to listen to the music, inviting people to create their own experience?

    Or do we really need them at all? What is the point? Just to give jobs to impoverished music historians? To pad out the Playbill?

    On the other hand, I am passionate about music and want to share that passion with others–but writing stale program notes ain’t gonna do it. Maybe it would make a difference to write from the perspective of the performer–what’s it like to play a piano piece, what’s it like to sit in the orchestra and play Beethoven, what are you paying attention to, what makes you smile, what moves you? What is so clever you want others to get the joke? What is so compelling you want to be sure people don’t snooze through it? What are the moments that you want people to share in your joy of and experience fully? One of the most powerful ways to discover what’s great about a piece of music is when someone who is passionate about it shares why they love it.

    THAT’S what’s missing in the majority of program notes–love, passion, joy, humor, engagement, invitation, sharing. A dry “authoritative” “objective” voice just doesn’t cut it, and keeps classical music in its rarefied and increasingly irrelevant place. And it shouldn’t be irrelevant because it’s beautiful and amazing, and can be current, up-to-date and relevant in the experiencing of it.

    Amen to you. Write more!

  12. stringph
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Did Beethoven issue any ‘program notes’ for his concert consisting of (among other things) two symphonies, a piano concerto, half his C major Mass and the Choral Fantasy? I doubt anyone ever got more than a bare list of pieces and performers until well into the 20th century, and I don’t know why this shouldn’t be enough. The only function I can see for extra ‘notes’ is to distract the chronic non-listeners who somehow find themselves sitting in the concert hall. (There can be quite a number of these, and they definitely need some distraction otherwise they will start talking and/or using their mobile phones.)

    In other words, the primal sin is assuming anyone needs or wants program notes in the first place. I think it’s usually a scheme to make a little more money, like a mandatory 15% service charge for large parties in restaurants.

  13. Alon
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jeremy
    It is 4:30am. how ironic…
    I am in Bucharest (arrived yesterday, playing Chopin 2 tomorrow). At this point I am beyond getting mad at myself for not falling asleep. Your blog, your insights, especially YOUR paragraph about the third movement, is so inspiring (yet again).
    just sending you warm regards, and thank you for this post.

  14. Zach
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I could not have happened upon this post at a more appropriate time. Yesterday I attended one of the Chicago Symphony’s Beethoven Festival concerts featuring the Second and Third Symphonies, in my excitement arriving an hour and a half early to engage in some preliminary information-mongering. The first part of the presentation consisted of CSO musicians performing Beethoven’s early wind quintet, introduced ( and I daresay performed) in such a manner as to make it seem feeble and immature in the context of the forthcoming Eroica. The speaker intended for the listener to wonder “how did Beethoven come so far so fast” without realizing that with that mindset, the quintet comes off as a trifle and the Eroica takes on a musty weight so inimical to its spirit.
    To fill the subsequent half hour, the speaker had to remind the audience several times of how NEW AND CRAZY this music must have sounded way back in the day, engage in virtuoso descriptions of the musical content of both symphonies, and encase the whole sausage in irrelevant historical tidbits of the sort you describe. To top it all off, several of the most obvious excerpts were played on the sound system with no explanation other than “this is important!”. It’s not like the speaker was unprepared or lacking in technical or musical understanding of the pieces, but it doesn’t leave the actual performance much space to say anything besides “uh, yeah, what he said” and to function as anything but a checklist for the audience. The strange thing is this is the sort of presentation I would have happily listened to in the past, when I was less knowledgeable about the details of music history. Nevertheless, I refuse to believe that our current practices represent the best way to discuss music with a wider audience.

  15. thad
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I like program notes, but then, I like reading the back of the cereal box.

    The problem is – as the oft-repeated one-liner goes – writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

    BTW – Really enjoying your Chausson/Faure disc with Soovin Kim.

  16. brent
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    BBC Radio 3 has a good program( my opinion) called Discovering Music that examines pieces of music in detail each week. Sort of a program of liner notes!
    Judge for yourself;

  17. Posted June 7, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    A couple of years ago I produced an Alice Tully hall recital by a respected pianist and hired a friend to write the notes. This friend, a professional writer with a deep love and knowledge of music, came back with a delightful set written very much in the first person that, along with expected historical notes, described his love of and experience with the pieces being performed. Alice Tully Hall (or the PlayBill guardians, or somebody) rejected them saying they “were not in the appropriate style”! Who knew?!

  18. pam
    Posted June 13, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    dear all,
    does anyone have opinion on the best recordings of mendelssohn’s double concerto in D minor for violin, piano and strings?


  19. Posted June 14, 2010 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Amen to that.

    Seems to me that there is an example of what might be possible from the world of wine aficionados. Gary Vaynerchuk comes across at times like a hamster on caffeine, but he’s passionate, knowledgeable, and talks about wine like a normal person. Is this a stretch? I’d like to think not.

    Some might argue that more passion, fewer SAT words, and less dry academic stuffiness would be “dumbing” things down, but I’d disagree. I think it’s far more challenging to write a compelling, captivating program note that not only draws the reader into the written word, but also serves to heighten the listen’s anticipation and engagement into the performance of the piece that they are about to hear.

    I for one, would be curious to read a program note written by Dave Barry, Bill Cosby, or Malcolm Gladwell for instance.

  20. Genevieve Jones
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    I recently re-read a bio of Isaac Asimov. On the cover there was a tale of his favorite book, a small picture book about animals that he vividly remembered from his childhood in Russia. The boy could not find it anywhere among his things. He asked his parents about it. They told him he had read it so many times it had simply fallen apart. He had, essentially, “loved it to death.”

  21. Englishman
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink


    Write about Lieux Retrouves.

  22. Megan
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    Musicians who are “intelligent, educated?” -we go to concerts and really don’t bother to read the notes because they will not help us. Either we go to concerts and are in the right mind-space-here and now place to actually enjoy what we hear, or not, regardless of the quality of the performers or preference for the music. For instance, I may go to a recital of Emmanuel Ax playing Brahms and “yawn, yawn,” because I’m far away from him, in a huge symphony hall with a million people in front of myself and the sounds, interrupted by an inevitable amount of coughing.
    I certainly doubt if program notes ever helped anyone to enjoy a performance, whether they are musicians or not. The background knowledge nearly always seems incidental and unrelated to a person’s own emotional experience of the music, if they have one.

  23. Brendan
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while and enjoy it immensely. You are so right about the generally unsatisfactory quality of program notes, and the specific problems with them. I’ll keep this guide handy, as I’ve taken it upon myself to write program notes for my upcoming junior piano recital featuring “Emerson” from Ives’ Concord Sonata, and Schubert’s Sonata in B flat. So far it’s been really hard to condense the abstract beauty and profundity of these pieces into coherent prose.

  24. Posted July 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I love this article. Right on the mark. In fact, it could be argued that Music Programs can be a great diversion from actually listening to the music being performed. When I perform with the Amicus Music Duo we don’t use programs – we have conversations about the music as the performance proceeds. This works because we intentionally choose small venues and re-create the old salon experience. But why not with a larger audience in a larger venue?

  25. Karl
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    My first sojourn into your blog and I very much enjoyed it. I don’t remember seeing program notes when I started going to concerts in the 60’s. I won’t say that they shouldn’t be provided (since I think they give some people a hook to grab on to the music with) but they bring to mind the ubiquitous “artists’ statements” that bombard us in every art gallery and museum. Can’t they just let the art speak for itself? And as for program notes, can language ever describe music adequately?

  26. Posted August 6, 2010 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Jeremy! Just saw your new album on the top of iTunes classical on my iPhone – how exciting! I think this warrants a new blog post 😉

  27. Stephanie
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know you, Jeremy, but I found myself here. Please do write “prayer to sound” next time…

  28. Cecilia
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    One of my favorte pre-concert speakers says that she likes to give listeners ‘guideposts along the way’ – not a blow by blow description of the piece, but rather a few strong toe-holds to hang on to while experiencing the music. Sure, put the music in context historically, culturally – then get on with it. My particular frustration of late is that program notes are all about the back story, and not about the music. Have the writers ever actually listened to the piece? Do they actually know anything about music?

  29. Orchestra historian
    Posted August 21, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Please, program notes are NOTHING compared to performer’s bios.
    First sin: ITINERARY. It is mind numbing the grocery list where one has
    played. Pull out an atlas. Yawn. Why is it significant? What does one play on their fourth visit to San Francisco?
    Singers are the worst. Few people stray from the senseless parade of
    Second sin: NAME DROPPING. Well I suppose its needed to a degree. One does
    play with other people. If you are a pianist, you had better.

    Have you read your bio recently?

    Could you perhaps tell your management to rewrite it so that it is possibly
    as interesting as this blog? Perhaps YOU could write it.
    Don’t tell me you play everywhere. What makes you interesting as a human being?
    What has shaped you as a musician? Why should I listen to you rather than my
    Arrau records?

    Meantime, I point you to the wonderful writing of the late Michael Steinberg.
    He regularly commits many of the sins you cite, especially the
    first one. Yet he is a fascinating read. One doesn’t need to know that
    the London premiere of the Brahms D minor was given by a Ms. Bagelhole.
    But I enjoy the fact nonetheless.

  30. Eli
    Posted August 22, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    If anybody remembers the cartoon strip character Pogo who said “We have met the enemy and HE IS US” seems to sum up the problem with “classical music”.Orchestras and soloists are so impressed with their importance in “making music” (whatever that means) that they forget that there are Human Beings out in that black void called “the audience”, whose main function seems to be to greet the entrance and welcome the exit of the leader/soloist with applause.
    I went to my first concert on November 14, 1947 and no, I didn’t read (or know about) program notes but I had treated to an explanation of the first work – Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger – with examples on a scratchy 78 recording. (Were there any other kinds of 78s?). Yes, I survived with knowing music terminology but I was hooked on music.
    So, do away with program notes!!!
    Instead have the conductor and or the soloist spend 3-4 minutes showing us examples of what the composer did with the music. Show how Debussy created waves in La Mer. Show how Bach created a toccata and a fugue. Show how Beethoven took a theme in the first movement of a piano concerto and repeated it, with variations, in the last movement.
    After over 60 years of attending concerts, I still don’t understand program notes. The best ones are written in a foreign language which I don’t comprehend. Program notes seem to be written for the orchestra members – not for the black void.
    Instead of program notes – show me the music!

  31. Jonathan S
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Spot on about programme notes – the sins you enumerate have been driving me crazy for years, without me putting my finger on why. I have to say the new style BBC Prom programme notes do avoid some of the sins, but probably create a few more.

    Now – could someone please start educating the artists’ bio writers for concert programmes – ABC started playing the piano at the age of 7, and has studied with ZZZ and XXX. He attended the Royal College of Piano playing, where he studied with BBB, and won the Amazing Pianists’ Prize in 2001. Since then his/her career has taken her to ….[longlist of countries], where s/he has played [list of works] with such great conductors as [list of conductors/orchestras/halls/festivals]. ABC is a keen player of chamber music and has played [list of works] with [longlist of famous string players].

    S/he has recorded [concerto, preferably tonight’s] on the [label] label.

    If there’s room, ABC is married and lives in Hampstead with his two children and dog,Lassie.


  32. Posted September 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jeremy,

    I met you a few years ago as your page turner at the Barge, and came across your blog and this post via a mention in your bio, which I was reading as part of the work I currently do. I have always admired your playing, and feel you are an exceptional pianist in the truest sense of the word. It’s not surprising that you are holding program notes to higher standards!

    I have been reading program notes every weekday for over 6 years now as my current occupation (though I admit it’s more like scanning these days to keep my eyes from glazing over), and so it was refreshing to read this post. I wanted to share with you an excerpt from amazing program notes, though, that caught my attention a few months ago.

    “When one thinks of Rachmaninoff, usually what comes to mind is his face, serious and stern, clean-shaven, with a short modern haircut. His expression is distant and cold. He looks like a British gentleman, not easily approachable, always well dressed, with a posture of self-confidence if not arrogance. Then one may remember the endless tales of Rachmaninoff’s depression, his legendary gloom, the trademark-able depth of his Russian soul. Yet to me Rachmaninoff’s name has always been linked to joy.” (from a note about Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2)

    These were part of notes composer Lera Auerbach wrote for a program she did. Though this excerpt may not bring the entire notes justice, I felt that her notes were honest and offered insight that I’ve never seen reading notes in these past six years. It was very refreshing, to say the least.

    There is hope!

    Wishing you all the best as you try to revolutionize the classical music world one note at a time. 🙂

  33. Posted September 22, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Again, as I always say, I don’t think writing about music is at all like dancing about architecture … partly because writing and speaking is something we all do, language being a great human common denominator. But even if it is like that, I think dancing about architecture would be a lovely, fascinating thing to do, not at all ridiculous as this quote seems to snidely suggest.

  34. Lynne
    Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing about program notes. I have felt vaguely guilty because I don’t enjoy them, and I can’t seem to remember the stultifying information they include. Often they make me NOT wish to hear the music. It’s like a drug advertised to be an aphrodisiac, but which actually takes away desire; bad medicine.

  35. Posted December 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Also, they’re too long.

  36. Posted November 5, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    Manual trackback – I’ve been talking about this post here:

    Just thought you’d like to know!

7 Trackbacks

  • By Friday miscellany « Classical Life on September 3, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    […] of his opera “Oresteia,” and it’s free. … Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk writes a thoroughly crabby and erudite manifesto on program notes. … Dean Corey, president of the […]

  • By Classical study halls. | Josh McNeill on December 7, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    […] its complexity and importance. Pianist Jeremy Denk checked something similar to this off on his list of program note sins, calling it the “insider’s club” sin: Included in many program notes are tidbits […]

  • […] The BCO provides a good opportunity for Boston Conservatory students in allowing them to write the program notes, but unfortunately this comes at the expense of any overarching programmatic cohesion, despite the obvious links between the pieces performed. The authors of the notes on the first two pieces acquitted themselves adequately enough, but two unbearable pages on Dvo?ák’s seventh demonstrate the worst kind of program note writing, the musical play-by-play, made worse by wince-inducing personification (in lines like, “the violins charge ahead”), interspersed with unrelenting and unnecessary comparisons of Dvo?ák to other composers. I would commend these aspiring music writers to pianist Jeremy Denk’s incisive excoriation of the form on his blog is here. […]

  • By Erik denk | ChangeYourWater on March 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    […] Jetlagged ManifestoI woke at 3:32 and stumbled over my open suitcase towards the kitchen, neither awake nor asleep, floating in time-purgatory. A slice of slightly crusty Monterey Jack from the back of the refrigerator did not bring comfort. … think denk … By Jeremy Denk | Published: May 25, 2010… […]

  • […] other people’s performances. But I can criticize other aspects of classical music. For example program notes. I feel there are a number of recurring issues with them that only exacerbate the age problem with […]

  • […] here’s Jeremy Denk on the unmusicality of programme notes. It was browsing his blog and thinking, ‘Gosh he’s a […]

  • […] “Meet Your #operaplot2010 Winners,” Best Music Writing pp. 74-76 7. Jeremy Denk, “Jetlagged Manifesto,” Best Music Writing 108-114 8. OPTIONAL but I’d *love* to talk to you guys about this […]

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