20 July 2014

MFA Graduation Recital Program Notes (iii):
Why I Hate Program Notes (and you should too)
Part 1 of 4

“Program notes are...required?”

“For a tuba recital?!”

“At CalArts?!!”


For the whole of my musical adulthood, I have steadfastly refused to provide program notes for my performances in every circumstance under which I am afforded a choice in the matter. As you have surely gathered, this is not one of those circumstances. Hence, reluctant as I am to comply with this seemingly innocuous demand of my present course of study, this compulsion does in fact present a unique opportunity, as the saying so often goes, “for performer and audience alike.” It was upon this realization that I resolved to eschew the writhing fit of adolescent sarcasm that might have filled this space in my younger days and instead opt for a more mature, scholarly interrogation of both the musico-cultural phenomenon of the program note and my own long-standing contempt for it.

My conclusion, as it turns out, has remained the same: that the convention presently being enforced is one exceptionally fraught with anachronism, cross purposes, and even a kind of false consciousness. It endures nonetheless on account of the program note’s peculiar ability to remain an attractive solution to a variety of perceived musico-cultural problems across more than two centuries of evolving Western economic and cultural conditions, the benevolent veneers of audience outreach and academic rigor thus belying the profound influence of myriad unseen forces on form and function alike. Dilettantish, gimmicky, and impulsive as its earliest instances may have been, program annotation soon became the domain of highly-trained and respected critics and scholars, and today, as this very instance attests, a musico-academic consensus has emerged touting program note writing as an unusually productive composite assignment for music students, a seductively pragmatic vehicle for the concurrent development and evaluation of research, writing, marketing and performance preparation skills. This contemporary function, it cannot be overemphasized, bears the hallmark privileging of expedience over measured aesthetic-philosophical consideration which has enabled the program note to cement its place in concert life without, I would argue, being properly held to account. Such is the task to which I set myself here.

Before proceeding, I should say also that if this sounds like altogether too much for one evening out, I'm afraid that it quite literally is, at least in terms of length. Hopefully the audience will forgive me for offering tonight's thoughts and sounds alike the way most any artist would aspire to; that is, very much on my own terms. The key distinction, I suppose, is that while sound is inherently transient, the essence of the written word can be captured and disseminated after the fact quite a bit more effectively, permitting me to make these notes available online for any reader inclined to take them up in earnest. For my part, I feel that the perspective taken here is too important not to share, the issues involved being so central to my own thought that the occasion of my MFA graduation recital is, so it turns out, not at all an inappropriate one on which to share them. If anything at all about these notes is so inappropriate by the standards of polite twenty-first century academic concert music etiquette, it is their verbosity; after all, an autobiographical bent is, unlike elsewhere in scholarship, generally considered an attribute in this domain for its ability to “humanize” the performer. (As a performer myself, perhaps I have always taken the hidden premise underlying that assertion a bit more personally than I should; in any case, a desire to meet this dubious cliche head-on certainly forms a secondary motivation here, as if one was necessary.) Fortunately for those so disinclined to continue reading, one can likely discern the gesture here perfectly well simply by beholding its physical dimensions, the conflict between thoroughness and efficiency thus laid bare by my having resorted to the opposite extreme from that which convention dictates. I would, on the other hand, assure anyone inclined to persevere that there is quite a bit more to it than that.


Historically speaking, program notes can fairly be characterized as artifacts of a mid- to late-nineteenth century European musical culture quite foreign from our own, just one of many such enduring conventions which in spite of their often unquestioned ubiquity fit at best uncomfortably within much contemporary thought. Music majors will be quick to identify the 1830 premiere of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique as the signal event in the history of the program note, a point which demands a certain clarification: Berlioz's program was not so much a guide to the work as an integral part of it, an important distinction with the “analytic,” “annotated,” or “descriptive” programs authored by critics and scholars which would not come to dominate symphonic activity in quite the manner they do today until decades after Berlioz's death. Where Berlioz might more accurately be understood as a direct predecessor to contemporary practice, rather, is in his use of the Symphony Fantastique program as a marketing tool in the era of an emergent Bourgeoisie. For instance, Cairns (1999: 365) writes that Berlioz was
not above exploiting his well-known and fashionably hopeless passion for Harriet Smithson to whip up interest in his symphony. ...It is a fact that the programme, publicized in advance in the press, caused a very useful stir and aroused the curiosity of the musical and literary public both because of its known autobiographical connotations and because of the unprecedented degree to which it associated instrumental music with a story.
An unprecedented degree, and yet some of Beethoven's greatest works were (and are) thought to be programmatic, Haydn's oratorio “The Creation” (1798), widely heard and discussed in its own time, has been posited as an important escalation of representational tendencies in music (Grove, 1962: 187), and Cone (ed. 1971: 294) credits the now-forgotten Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf with having composed a program symphony at the strikingly early date of 1785. Berlioz's composition and its program certainly stand apart from these precursors in style and degree alike, but it is above all, for lack of a better term, the sheer literariness of Symphonie Fantastique which was and is most striking; and that is to say that the work both embodies and exploits an emerging Romantic aesthetic in which music and literature shared a jointly elevated status. (To call it a symbiotic relationship would, I hasten to point out, be to level a value judgment.)

In the words of Leon Botstein,
The wide application of ordinary literacy to matters of music brought with it the transference into music of aesthetic ideals associated with literary culture. The public realm of music became one in which one talked about music, imagined music through reading about it, and developed a language of response and evaluation as a vital surrogate and companion for playing. Listening no longer was a species of thinking musically; rather it became an act that helped verify and vindicate a literary image.

Part of the reason that the interest in music in the nineteenth century urban middle-class population ran parallel to the rapid growth in general literacy after 1848 was the heritage of social prestige connected to musical culture. A sense of democratic triumph was associated with the broadening of participation in a cultural form linked historically to privilege and aristocracy in both patronage and active participation. (1992: 138)
Hence, when no less sympathetic and well-versed a Berlioz biographer than Cairns remarks parenthetically that, “The mixture of sharp calculation and naive spontaneity is one of the more disconcerting things about Berlioz,” it is the dual organic and contrived nature of this literary Episode in the Life of an Artist, loosely based on real events and people but hyper-sensationalized and embellished beyond the natural realm, to which he is largely referring.

The gesture was, needless to say, polarizing in its own time and has never completely ceased to remain so. According to Barzun (1969: 155), Symphony Fantastique “succeeded all too well as a piece of sensational literature and proved an encumbrance to his own freedom as a musician. People discussed what they read and not what they heard, and the ultimate effect on Berlioz' reputation was disastrous.” In his memoirs, Berlioz himself complained that, “The hostile critics nearly all blamed me for the wrong things. Instead of pointing out the palpable defects in both works...they attacked the absurd ideas I was supposed to have, though I had never had them”; and even in praise, “my partisans too have often been given to crediting me with ridiculous and totally alien intentions.” (Cairns, ed. 1969: 140) A cautionary tale, I suppose, for any similarly ambitious young composer with a literary bent acting as their own promoter, but more to the point, the crest of a wave which continues to wreak similar havoc on classical music concert life is now, for our purposes, made visible.

Tabling for now the much-discussed issues of nineteenth century Bourgeoisification and the faux-aristocratic aspirations of this new, enlarged classical music audience, one might reasonably identify a hidden premise in any assertion that “associat[ing] instrumental music with a story” or conceiving of music listening as “an act that helped verify and vindicate a literary image” might enhance a work's appeal rather than detract from it. The observation that pure music is the most abstract of the arts and hence benefits disproportionately from verbal explication is no less relevant for being so trite, but Botstein provides, I believe, a more important and historically contingent angle when he identifies a basic issue of supply and demand in the form of
a gap between the access to performance and the size of the public, a gap that would be filled only in the twentieth century with the radio and grammophone. There was a far larger spectator audience than could be accommodated even by the newer halls built all over Europe and America between 1870 and 1913. ...the demand among the musical public for descriptive literature about the musical canon and new music became nearly insatiable in the last decades of the nineteenth century, because literature on music served as a surrogate for the opportunity to hear professional performances. (1992: 140)
Herein lies, then, the linchpin material distinction between the epoch which spawned the symphonic program note and the one which we inhabit today, namely that of under- versus over-production. Today, live classical music is decidedly a buyers market, and recordings, while of course not truly interchangeable with live concerts, are more or less viewed this way by most listeners and have thus become ubiquitous. In this respect, program notes represent a response to a problem which the cumulative effects of subsequent cultural and technological revolutions have not so much alleviated as turned on its head. And if it would be absurd under the material conditions in virtually any corner of today's developed world to speak of verbal descriptions of music serving by necessity “as a surrogate for the opportunity to hear professional performances,” one might also remark in the broadest sense on the absurdity of accepting verbal descriptions of music as legitimate stand-ins whether such performances are accessible or not. Indeed,
By the 1870s, a conservative critique of the spread of the new musical culture was visible. Observers decried the loss of musical skills, the dependency of the public on bad teaching, and low standards. The inability of the public to hear and think musically was held responsible for the excesses of Wagnerism and for the loss of the aesthetic virtues of symmetry, structure, and economy associated with classicism. The critique of Wagner and of program music in general stemmed in part from the view that this newer form of music was itself a concession to a public with a debased standard of musical education, to a public that needed language and scenery to enjoy music. (Botstein, 1992: 143)
A conservative critique indeed: Wagner's oeuvre has worn particularly well despite his and others' best efforts, and it would be an exceedingly rare contemporary observer, regardless of their own predilections, who would therein find evidence of a lack of sophistication. Similarly, while I might in my own weaker moments snipe that “a public that need[s] language and scenery to enjoy music” is exactly what we have today, it would be exceptionally imperceptive of me to locate the explanation entirely in historical circumstance, especially since there have always been a few of us who have had no use for language and scenery despite having come of age in the epoch of their pronounced dominance over the ability “to hear and think musically.” I suppose that is another topic for another time. For now, I merely wish to highlight the fact that the late-nineteenth century escalation of writing about music in support or in place of the real thing had an authentic material explanation in that era which it can no longer claim today, and thus that contemporary musical life has inherited a practice which, whatever its other values may or may not be, has outlived one of its primary purposes. In a post-scarcity age, the need for descriptive language powerful enough to serve as a memory cue for music one will never hear again is not a need any listener alive today can legitimately claim, and such is one compelling defense of the contemporary musician or curator who refuses to provide it.

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