20 July 2014

MFA Graduation Recital Program Notes (v):
Why I Hate Program Notes (and you should too)
Part 3 of 4

Scholes (1964: 24-5) identifies “a Concert of Catches and Glees, given by [Thomas] Arne at Drury Lane Theatre in 1768” as the earliest known instance of program annotation, and locates other early examples in Potsdam (1783), Philadelphia (1787), Biberach (1790), and at Covent Garden (1801). The Philadelphia example is significant on account of America’s comparative underdevelopment at the time, musically and otherwise. The concert in question was given on April 12, 1787 under the auspices of the Uranian Society, formerly “The Institution for the Encouragement of Church Music,” an organization founded by the American singing teacher and song collector Andrew Adgate. The annotation consisted of brief “remarks” accompanying the text of Handel's Messiah: sentence fragments describing the music, indications of how many times lines were repeated, and a few humorously naive displays of enthusiasm (Sonneck, 1907: 115). Sonneck notes both the musical evangelism of the society, explicitly founded to raise singing standards, and also that the organization “survived on public bounty, a rather bold and optimistic point of departure.” (103) Hence, anomalous as this example might appear to be in the larger history of program annotation on account of its location, the presence of just this combination of underlying motivations would soon become familiar, and their appearance at this early juncture speaks ever more strongly to their responsibility for the practice’s rapid growth.

It is if not notable then at least intriguing that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra does not appear in Scholes’ pre-history, nor anyone else’s that I have examined. According to Grove (1962: 91), this ensemble’s programs were annotated for the first time only in 1807, still quite an early date in the history of the practice but late enough in the history of the organization itself to warrant consideration. To that end, Hennenberg (1962: 6) reminds us that
Leipzig was a city of merchants and scholars. It was never a seat of the court, no princely privy purse aided the small budget for the muses. However, this had its good side: the musical life here was not dependent on the caprices of a sovereign, whose propensities and tastes could promote the cultivation of music, but also hinder it.
Like Adgate’s Uranian Society, then, public support was essential to the Gewandhaus concerts; this support was, however, never in doubt, a key distinction. Having in fact anticipated classical music’s emergence into the public sphere by several decades, the Gewandhaus Orchestra represented a homegrown musical tradition in a city which came by its musical patriotism honestly, obvious but crucial distinctions with so many future strongholds of German music all over the Western world where the tension of importation is palpable in the surrounding dialogue. Indeed, from 1780 the scroll on the front of the Gewandhaus concert hall read Res severa est verum gaudium, rendered by Hennenberg as, “A serious thing creates true joy.” (10) Appeals to such sentiments were soon to become contrived, and ultimately to lose their meaning entirely as a result, but it is important to recognize the authenticity of the gesture in this early instance, an authenticity which it seems precluded any further written commentary in the programs, at least until the practice began to be taken up elsewhere.

Incidentally, Hennenberg (21) notes that Mendelssohn, who famously took over at the Gewandhaus in 1835, was by his own description “not one to talk about music” and had on that account previously declined Leipzig’s initial courtship in the form a professorship, telling his suitors, “Not once have I ever been able to follow an entire colloquium satisfactorily, and always came away feeling more unmusical than I did when I went in, so that little by little I set myself the goal of being a practical musician and not a theoretical one.” (Mendelssohn, 1986: 204) Similarly, Weber (1975: 19-20) writes of contemporaneous Vienna that “discussion of the difference between [high and popular culture] took on a characteristically modern cast” in this era, positing that
A strong anti-intellectual streak also lay in the attitudes of wealthy business families. While they valued musical skill, they looked down on any form of erudition in musical activities. A Viennese satirist who championed popular music taste chided certain families (obviously those active in classical-music life) for their “philosophical mania” toward “higher music” and their snobbish name-dropping of Goethe and Schiller. (34)
To be sure, the “characteristically modern” condition underlying this schism was (and is) marketplace competition between high and popular culture, a competition in which the former stands at an extreme disadvantage and hence is driven to contrive all manner of linguistic appendages with which to bang its chest.

Fittingly for such an insidious process, there emerged a certain desire to cover one’s tracks. Waxman (2012: 112) identifies “the beginning of the idea of the ‘objective’ program note” in John Ella’s notes for London’s Musical Union concerts starting in 1845, wherein Ella, in his own words, aspired to write “without bias, and always with a religious sense of truth.” Waxman also points out that early twentieth century American annotators “often placed themselves in the background using self-effacing phrases such as ‘the annotator’ or ‘the editor,’ and often left their notes unsigned, or simply affix[ed] initials at the bottom.” (189) All of this is to say that even among those writers who pioneered program annotation there prevailed in some much the same discomfort with the notion of a particular person and their viewpoint unduly and uninvitedly meddling in the listening experience of another individual as I have expressed throughout this study. Only by appealing to the conceit of near-perfect objectivity could this discomfort be overcome, a maneuver which has, of course, been relentlessly scrutinized throughout the intervening century.


The Philharmonic society of New York was founded in 1842, making it the oldest surviving organization of its kind in the U.S. By 1892, distinguished New York critic (and program annotator) Henry Edward Krehbiel had published a history of the society, which includes this summary of its earliest annotation practices:
It must be borne in mind that in the most literal sense the Philharmonic Society at its first concert appeared as a pioneer of musical culture. Practically a knowledge of symphonic music was confined at the time to the better educated musicians and those fortunate members of the community who had enjoyed the advantages of European travel. There are evidences in the writings of the day that the notions concerning the music which the society had organized to cultivate, even of those who were enthusiastic in their desire to help advance the art, were of the haziest description. The Board of Government itself, by sanctioning some of the explanatory notes which appeared upon the society's first programmes, confessed to an ingenuousness of thought which to-day compels a smile. Readers of that singular kind of literature which passes for musical exposition are accustomed to fantastic things, but I cannot recall anything much more diverting than a Philharmonic programme annotator’s appeal to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to explain Beethoven’s Symphony in A major, or anything more convincing of the low state of theoretical knowledge amongst the musicians themselves than the statement officially made that the variations which compose the finale of the “Eroica” are “a combination of French revolutionary airs.” Obviously the musicians were venturing on what was little better than unknown ground when they began the production of those masterpieces which occupy the same position in the literature of music to-day that they did fifty years ago. (Krehbiel, 1892: 57-8)
The characterization of the Society as “a pioneer of musical culture” says as much about the time at which this history was written as it does about that in which the Society was inaugurated. Krehbiel, “Hanslick’s nearest journalistic counterpart in New York” (Botstein, 1985: 883), objects to the arbitrary, flowery language of the notes but excuses it nonetheless on account of its authors’ devotion to music’s noble cause. All the while, concertgoers in Krehbiel’s own time evidently remained “accustomed to fantastic things” appearing in their program books.

Theodore Thomas was a German-born, American-bred violinist and conductor who spearheaded much early classical music activity across the U.S. in the nineteenth century and was instrumental in the early history of the New York Philharmonic. In 1865, he initiated a series of what today would be called “pops” concerts in New York’s Central Park Garden. By 1873, these concerts having met with much success,
Thomas boldly convinced the management to raise prices on Thursday nights so that he could enlarge his orchestra and do full-scale symphonic works. To elevate the “tone” of the concerts and teach his audiences more about music, he provided them with a major essay on music and short news items in the printed programs. The first essay read like a sermon about Thomas and his mission, reminding readers that the Thursday concerts would have been too ambitious a few years back, that Thomas was “a teacher as well as an entertainer,” and that, although he did not intend “to make the concerts mainly a study,” he would exclude “whatever is not sound and wholesome.” (Schabas, 1985: 58-9)
Schabas, Thomas’s modern biographer, describes the notes as “puffery, poorly concealed in Gilded Age rhetoric, noble artistic concerns expressed in florid and tedious prose,” and remarks that even Thomas's admirers were uncomfortable with the gesture. Indeed, “Thomas’s plan for audience development–from light to serious music in gradual stages–would have been more effective if he had not cast himself as the standard-bearer of the German connection, a symbol of the artificiality and hypocrisy of the times.” (62-3)

As strongly as Thomas believed in German music, however, he believed the New World could do it bigger and better, touting America's “ambitious driving purpose” in putting on ever “bigger, greater, more impressive” concerts, and thereby challenging Europe’s classical musical supremacy (115). Tellingly, the program books swelled in direct proportion to the orchestral forces, to 143 pages for the New York leg of an 1882 three-city music festival which boasted an orchestra of 300 and a chorus of 3,000. The very next year, sporting a more reasonably proportioned ensemble, Thomas embarked on a seventy-three day, thirty city tour stretching from Baltimore to San Franscisco, the latter city’s
thorough preparation for the festival reflected in a 110-page program that rivaled the New York festival’s in scope and content. Included were: the seven concert programs; annotated program notes with musical examples; full texts for choral compositions; biographies of Thomas and the soloists; lists of members of the local advisory committee, subscribers to the guarantee fund, and members of the 500-voice chorus and orchestra; a history of American music festivals, beginning with the Cincinnati Sängerfest in 1849; “A Local Retrospect,” which gave accounts of instrumental music in San Francisco from its beginnings thirty years earlier and the work of Rudolph Herold, the city’s first serious musician. (127)

Thomas was by all accounts a man of exceptional musicality and intelligence, so much so that he must have understood the sheer visceral impact of a 300-piece orchestra does not require scholarly annotation in order to get over. He was also, however, a first-order expansionist, as the gesture and content alike of his program books speaks to: one essay for his Central Park Garden concerts stressed “the need for a permanent orchestra hall to put New York in respect of orchestral music on a level with the musical capitals of Europe,” (59) while in the notes for San Francisco, “The leading urban center of the Far West proclaimed that it needed ‘endowments’ to establish a permanent orchestra like Thomas's and build a symphony hall like Cincinnati's.” (127) Annotation in this case, then, was not merely a disinterested charitable gesture toward an uninitiated audience, but in fact one which overtly suggested reciprocation at every opportunity, a necessary clarification of the cause these spectacles were staged in support of. The notes indeed said what music alone could not, and perversely so.

The local presses were for their part hardly oblivious to the panhandling. As Petteys (1992: 173) reports,
After the Kansas City festival the Daily Times commented: “The results of the festival in effecting a local musical awakening may already be discovered, and the music dealers agree that the harvest for them will be a profitable one. The construction of a music hall and the repetition of the festivals yearly were favorably discussed, and it is by no means improbable that both these ends will be attained.”
Similarly, in San Francisco “a local newspaper reported another positive effect of Thomas’s visit: ‘It is not too much to expect as the result of this festival some definite action toward the founding of a school of music in this city.’”

Indeed, in his survey of California musical publications throughout the same era, Saffle (1998: 167-8) finds that
advertising of one kind or another constituted most (if not, as it sometimes seems, virtually all) of the reading matter in turn-of-the-century American music periodicals. It also constituted most of the materia musica published in daily newspapers and the popular press as a whole. Even factual accounts of musical events in places like London or Rome were frequently run in American periodicals for purposes of comparison–which is to say, in order to encourage local music-lovers to perceive themselves as sophisticated. . .Only during and especially after World War I, with the rise of strictly “professional” magazines like The Musical Quarterly, was American music journalism replaced by musical scholarship, thereby achieving a standard of objectivity previously unknown in our nation’s periodical press.
Such was the extent to which the act of writing about music could become only secondarily about music itself.

All of this being as it is, Thomas, in spite of his healthy ego, rarely acted purely out of self-interest, and I would argue against understanding his expansionism this way. At worst, we might by today’s standards find in his quasi-religious devotion to classical music a misplaced faith in the universality of this (or any) music, one which diverted his considerable talents and generosity of spirit towards a cause of more limited scope than that which he imagined it to be. Such relativistic conjectures aside, though, it is much plainer that as Thomas’ endeavors grew in scope, so did the sheer amount of text accompanying them, and that the motivations for this were not purely or even largely musical or aesthetic ones.

It is telling, then, that critics themselves eventually turned against the more-is-more outlook that fueled this short-lived festival craze in the American classical music world, among them Krehbiel, who himself had edited the 1882 New York program book. Thomas of course maintained that such excesses were “not ‘mere sensationalism’ but necessary if one were to hear the ‘monumental creations in...choral music’ that would be brought out in ‘their full potency, with solo and instrumental forces commensurate in all respects with the magnitude and magnificence of the choir.’” (Schabas, 1985: 117) It is not inconceivable that Thomas believed just this strongly in the power of sheer visceral excitement at the expense of subtlety, and it is important not to allow our present-day vantage point on this repertoire and its place in a very different modern world (that is, where classical music is more readily seen as a foil to the unmediated visceral excitement of more technologically advanced contemporary mass spectacles with which it can scarcely compete in this particular way) to cloud our assessment of this interpretation’s plausibility. I am nonetheless secure in speculating that Thomas’s expansionist tendencies informed his modes of presentation more so than the reverse. Here it bears mentioning Botstein’s observation that “when flashy concerts were performed with the [Vienna] Philharmonic, particularly by famous stars, there was no program note at all. The brilliance of the virtuoso performance -- the thrill of the acrobatics -- made a musical guide unnecessary. Cliches of virtuosity required no translation.” (1985: 962-3) Thomas was, again, plenty intelligent enough to know that the same holds for mass spectacle, a fact which justifies a certain amount of skepticism about the ballooning of his program books.

Program annotation, though present in New York from an early date and later central to Thomas’s transcontinental endeavors, nonetheless remained sporadic there throughout most of the nineteenth century. Shanet (1975: 462) confirms that, “There were no regular program notes until 1887-88. Before that time there were only occasional ‘descriptive programmes,’ either unsigned or merely initialed, for individual pieces that seemed to invite verbal explanation.” Thomas’s expansionism was picked up by his successor, Anton Seidl, who took over as conductor in 1891:
Expenditures for advertising had gone ahead slowly but steadily under Thomas until they exceeded $1,700 in his last year; under Seidl they rushed on to reach $3,700. Regular program notes, or “descriptive programmes” as they were called, were now commissioned by the society; A. Mees wrote them from 1887 through 1896 at $15 a concert, after which the distinguished critic Henry Edward Krehbiel took on the job at a fee more in keeping with his position in the musical community–$25 a concert. (180)

Krehbiel would continue writing the notes through 1912 (462).


Of programs at the London Philharmonic Society, Dale (2003: 35-6) reports that
Prior to [1836], the identity of the pieces was rarely even stated in full; for example, the listings in the early programmes of the Philharmonic Society include ‘Symphony, Mozart’ or ‘Symphony, never performed, Beethoven’, and it was not until 1817 that the number or key of the work was indicated. The next development came in 1835 with the printing of the texts of vocal works, with translations where necessary, on the fly-leaf of the programme, and in May 1844 the performance of Beethoven's overture ‘Leonora’ no. 1 was accompanied, at Mendelssohn's instigation, by a short account of the origin and dates of the four overtures. (35-6)
Of this era’s program notes, Dale contends that, “the validity of considering them as a unified corpus of works within the context of a study of music analysis is arguable;” rather, “they comprised...an ad hoc amalgam of historical, biographical and technical discussion couched in a more or less literary narrative style.” (36)

Later in the century, we find not only the institution expanding but in fact the repertoire itself. Foster (1912: 304) reports that for the Philharmonic Society’s 1869 season,
Mr. G.A. Macfarren was asked to prepare analytical programmes of the concerts; a novelty in those days and looked upon as a doubtful experiment, but considered, at the end of the season, successful. There were some amusing complaints from certain Subscribers, one Member of Parliament writing that he “objected to penny-a-liner analytical programmes, and preferred a simple to an historical bill of fare.” Another wanted musical illustrations added!
The reference to a distinction between “simple” and “historical” programming is quaint and, in fact, confusing when taken out of context, but it is important. Part and parcel with so many other nineteenth century musicological tropes about capitalism, the middle class, the rise of the virtuoso, the ubiquity of the piano, and so on, many scholars have pointed to a new and distinctive consciousness of received tradition which emerged in the Romantic era, and which fed, among other things, the burgeoning moral overtones of much classical music criticism and outreach. As “the first to play the whole keyboard repertory (as it then existed), from Bach to Chopin,” (Walker, 1987: 285) Liszt was a key figure in this regard and representative of a larger trend. Indeed, it was not just premieres of brand new works by Wagner, Brahms, and Bruckner which posed unfamiliar repertoire to many nineteenth century concertgoers but the newly-rehabilitated works of Baroque and Classical masters as well. Odd as it may seem today, the classical canon was for a time being expanded in both directions, and along with it, the perceived necessity for annotation expanded as well.

This new musico-historical self-consciousness had a profound effect on the professionalization of criticism, and therefore on the institution of program annotation. Indeed,
By the 1870s...the explosion of newspapers and journals had spawned new fields and new vocational possibilities, which encouraged a career centered on writing music criticism and studying music history. ...Writing about music and preparing editions of historical music became a professional option all its own.

In contrast to the generation of Hanslick...familial pressure to take university training in professions (law and medicine) or philosophy could be overcome (especially in the absence of marked instrumental or compositional talent). By the 1880s, university training in music history could equip one for a career either in “belles lettres” or in teaching without requiring of the individual an active career as composer or performer. (Botstein, 1985: 875)
Perhaps, then, ripples of this emerging historical self-consciousness extend all the way to the artificial division of labor between performer, composer, and scholar which characterized much of the twentieth century, and therefore to the distinctively contemporary distrust of music-makers’ own critical perspectives as well. Certainly each of these trends dovetails seamlessly with the giving over of musical culture to market forces, wherein the perspective of the idealized naive listener (not just ideally naive, it should be added, but also ideally numerous) is privileged in critical discourse over that of the studied practitioner, the latter being a member of a tiny minority thought to give a false readout of sorts on account of having received technical training, and therefore representing too few listeners (an elite, perhaps) to be of use as a populist barometer. As with the essentialist theories of listenership I ascribe to Forkel and Gann above, this is a view which has both an elite and a populist manifestation, with, on one hand, distanced scholars customarily dominating practitioners at the Yales and Berkeleys of the world, and, on the other, militant autodidacts freezing out formally trained musicians throughout many jazz, rock, and pop music subcultures.

Botstein in fact devotes an entire chapter of his PhD thesis Music and Its Public: Habits of Listening and the Crisis of Musical Modernism in Vienna, 1870-1914 specifically to program annotation, therein making the following rather bold assertion:
Music journalism, which experienced its heyday in the decades around 1900, completed a process of the transformation in musical hearing and perception that precipitated the final collapse of the power of novel contemporary music in the classical tradition to reach [a] wide audience...It accelerated the final “museumization” of the live concert into a social ritual celebrating the past and inhospitable to new music. The isolation of the modern composer and the failure of modernity in music to enter the mainstream of so-called educated taste in the 20th century derived in part from the way in which the public was guided in its approach to music by writings about music, regular criticism, and by the conception of music history. (878-9)
If such a claim is bound to initially strike contemporary observers as farfetched, this is because the “museumization” process to which Botstein refers is such an overdetermined one, with program annotation for its part comprising just one marginal branch of the institution of “music journalism” and thus seeming a relatively harmless gesture. Botstein, however, proffers a number of compelling reasons for suspicion, among them the severe constraints of brevity and accessibility imposed by the very nature of the emergent popular press and embodied in the institution of the Feuilleton, the nineteenth century equivalent of today’s newspaper gossip columns, and the “quintessential medium of Viennese newspaper commentary and criticism from the decades after 1860.” (865)
Its implicit ideal of literary refinement (hinted at in the use of the French name) was matched by its demand for brevity. A three- or four-column newspaper essay at the bottom of the first two pages (at most three) of a major newspaper had to convey a distilled judgment and an argument, both carrying the appearance of the greatest subtlety about weighty matters of art. (865)
According to Botstein, Feuilletons were “widely read,” “prestigious examples of cultural sophistication” which nonetheless were short and “could be taken in rapidly,” hence becoming “profoundly influential in the ongoing cultural and musical life of the city.” (866)

Botstein anoints Hanslick the perfecter of Feuilleton writing, but the practice had another notable (if reluctant) profligate who had already figured prominently in the history of writing about music: Berlioz. Finding himself estranged from many of the institutions that might otherwise have supported his composing and conducting careers, Berlioz had come to rely heavily on Feuilleton writing for income despite grave misgivings about the practice, expressed in the following colorful memoir:
The critic – let us suppose him intelligent and honest – writes only when he has something to say: when he wishes to illuminate some question, challenge some theory, bestow well-merited praise or blame. He always has reasons, to him genuine, for airing his opinions and dispensing his accolades or his thunderbolts. The wretched feuilletonist, obliged to write on anything and everything within the domain of his feuilleton (gloomy domain, bog-ridden, infested with toads and grasshoppers), wished for one thing only – to be done with the labor that weighs upon him. More often than not he has no opinion about the objects on which he is compelled to give an opinion; they stir him to neither anger nor admiration; they do not exist. Yet he has to behave as if he believed in their existence and felt strongly about them and had powerful motives for bringing his whole mind to bear upon them. Most of my colleagues can extricate themselves without difficulty and often with a dexterity which it is a pleasure to watch. But for me, it is a long and painful struggle to keep up the pretense. (Cairns, ed. 1969: 355)

Towards the end of contextualizing the institution of the feuilleton, this hardly registers as an objective account; yet it certainly does color the musico-literary excesses of younger Berlioz in an unexpected, perhaps even tragic way.

Botstein also devotes lengthy consideration to the work and thought of Robert Hirschfield, an influential Austrian music critic and historian (though not a performer or composer) who wrote and edited program notes for the Vienna Philharmonic from 1892 to 1913. (887-8) According to Botstein, one of Hirschfield’s primary objectives as annotator was “to relieve the audience of any anxiety that they would encounter surprises;” rather, “the program note functioned the way a libretto summary did at the opera. No part of the dramatic action was unaccounted for before the curtain rose.” (950-1) This meant that some descriptions reflected the relative familiarity and unfamiliarity of various musical elements more so than those elements’ relative importance to the piece, and were often more detailed for newer, less familiar pieces than for their longer-established and more frequently heard counterparts. “For mid-19th century music,” asserts Botstein, “Hirschfield took even greater pains than in 18th century music to mark every critical or striking sounding moment,” and thus, “what Hirschfield chose to describe...was therefore not always elements central to structure” but rather those which were thought to contribute to the sense of drama. (950-1)

In the final analysis, then, “The pleasure of the audience was no longer an echo of the pleasure of the listener who heard a work of music as if he were or could be a player and participant, or could ‘compose’ along (‘mitkomponieren’) with the music,” (957) a striking departure from earlier Viennese musical culture.
The audience had changed since the early 1800s from a world of Viennese listeners that prized novelty, new works, and an ability to participate or hear as if they could or might participate. It had become a passive audience that prized recognition of the familiar and acknowledged. It demanded the familiar and required a translation of the language of music. (958)
Botstein ascribes to Hirschfield “a romantic view of the emotional spontaneity of an idealized but untutored audience -- a faith in the responsiveness of the wider populace...” (899-900), rooted in the belief that
in order to fight against the spirit of vivisection in science, the triumph of photography and newspaper criticism, dry analytical procedures, commercialization and the conspicuous consumption of learning and culture as mere symbols of personal exterior differentiation, modernity had to throw away its crutch: its desire for precision. (913)
And yet,
The correspondence between musical forms and singular [that is, “precise”] musical elements and music’s power to affect the emotions and inspire moods was referred to and relied on by Hirschfield, even though he ideologically resisted this manner of viewing and hearing music...The use of technical musical terms in the program notes maintained for the lay reader, who often could not hear what they described, was hopelessly inadequate from a musician's viewpoint. (940)
Indeed, subsequent Viennese critics would soon point out that
the kind of knowledgeable appearance generated by Hirschfield's notes...made musical response a hybrid between feeling emotional associations and recognizing compositional landmarks. Anticipation of the familiar, repetitive and obvious was reinforced by Hirschfield’s prose guides. An aural experience was turned into following a set of formulae. Little was left to chance... (940)

It is not difficult to locate mainstream or even revered musicological thinkers from the Twentieth century who took direct exception to this way of doing things. In a now-famous essay, Virgil Thomson cynically but perceptibly wrote that
Teachers tend to form opinions about music, and these are always getting in the way of creation. The teacher, like the parent, must always have an answer for everything. If he doesn’t he loses prestige. He must make up a story about music and stick to it. Nothing is more sterilizing. Because no one can make any statement three times without starting to believe it himself. One ends by being full of definite ideas about music; and one’s mind, which for creative purposes should remain as vague and unprejudiced as possible, is corseted with opinions and partis pris. (1939: 111)
Thomson writes here from the perspective of the teacher, but there is an obvious lesson for the student as well. In the career of Theodore Thomas, for example, we have already seen attempted the explicit transfer of the teacher-student relationship to the performer-listener relationship; it is at best a strained analogy, which is to say that the unavoidable political dimension of education is in fact quite avoidable in concert music life once we liberate ourselves from free market ideology and cease to conceive of the listener as passive consumer. Listenership is, rather, productive of musical culture itself, an equal partner with performance, composition, and, for better or worse, education also; and just as the performer, composer, and educator must each “find their voice,” so too must the listener be permitted to do so.

The pre-concert talk and the program note may wear an egalitarian cloak, but in inhibiting this process they actually reinscribe the worst kind of institutional paternalism. Kerman’s (1980: 314) assertion that “the true intellectual milieu of analysis is not science but ideology” speaks to this point, as does Cook’s (2001: 173) observation that “the development later in the [twentieth] century of more formalized approaches to analysis as an attempt to regulate debate” represented a backlash of sorts against “a mid-nineteenth century ‘rush to interpretation’ in which extravagant claims about musical meaning were made in the absence of serious engagement with musical texts.” This maneuver, adds Cook, ultimately “went well and truly off the rails,” a point which I can only think resonates heartily with a great many music majors past and present.


Jann Pasler’s study Concert Programs and Their Narratives as Emblems of Ideology documents late-nineteenth century Parisian annotation practices and the agendas they served. As with so many institutions and individuals already discussed, Pasler ascribes to French critics, composers, patrons, and “even state officials, too” the belief that “concerts have a mission to accomplish,” that “they are educators and it is they who have the honor of forming musical taste.” (Pasler, 2008: 365) Also familiar is “a remarkable change in the size of the program books” after 1900 at the Concerts Lamoreaux, an important private musical association founded in 1881, ballooning from “no more than four to six pages” to include “up to thirteen pages of advertising – for pianos, organs, perfume, train travel, and clothes,” eventually expanding yet further to include inserts. (395-6)

“Perhaps to defend their support of German music,” writes Pasler of the Concerts Lamoreaux, “in the program notes – which remained virtually the same from year to year – the annotators made every effort to appropriate Wagner as one of their own,” emphasizing for example the “Celtic and by consequence essentially French” origin of the Tristan story. Similarly,
as for Wagner’s other works, such as the Faust overture and Rienzi, they cite the composer’s various stays in France, meticulously describing which parts he composed in Paris. When it comes to other composers, the program notes likewise point out any association the composers might have had with France. For example, we’re reminded Gluck wrote his masterpieces for the French, Tchaikovsky had a French mother (or at least a mother with French blood), and so on. This kind of information invariably comes in the first sentence of the notes. (367)
Writing about the Société des Grandes Auditions Musicale de la France, Pasler locates a more general “increasing interest in foreign music per se and in its national identity.” (375) “When it comes to which foreign music to perform and which visiting composers to invite, the program notes make it clear that the organizers chose what their peers in Russia, Germany, Austria, England, and Italy considered their countries’ best work.” “As such,” according to Pasler, “their concert programming functions as subtle flattery of their peers in other countries and an expression of support for nationalist energies.” (375-6)

No comments: