A Gentle Plea

Am I the only one who has noticed that the program notes provided to concert goers are, in the main, so badly written as to be embarrassing? To be a program annotator, it seems, one must have passed a course in turgid prose and have demonstrated proficiency in windy, circuitous, elliptical writing. Thirty five years ago, when I was a college undergraduate, I remember complaining to a professor that the program notes regularly provided by the National Symphony Orchestra to the Kennedy Center faithful were appallingly bad. "They are, to paraphrase Anna Russell," he sighed, "written by great experts to impress -- and for the edification of -- other great experts." Not much has changed.

Program notes are written for a captive audience. They are a chance to educate the audience, to prepare them to be "intelligent listeners" of the works to be performed. What is printed in the program, however, all too often defines "off-putting."

The artist biographies are the usual sort of laudatory garbage turned out by press agents, full of flattery and bombast, extolling the performers as Olympian geniuses, sagacious humans, and just the sort of people you'd like for your children to marry. This is, I suppose, all for the best. The audience might be disturbed to read that "Herr von Beneckendorf, having recently detoxified from opiates at the world famous sanitarium in Bad Issel, has resumed his international career by playing in insignificant concert halls throughout the United States (such as yours) and sub-Saharan Africa." The summaries of the Artists Lives are generally about as well written as a Chinese restaurant menu, albeit with fewer misspellings. The predictable pattern involves place of birth, early promise (sometimes dashed, often exceeded), education, performances with notable orchestras/conductors (blanks filled in as necessary), upcoming concert details, and one or more commendatory bits razored from favorable reviews. This is accompanied by a photograph of the Artist, usually in a rather artsy or dramatically Byronic pose. Such drivel is useful only as an emergency diversion in the event of a really dreadful performance.

The notes on the music are, if anything, even worse. The custom seems to require the annotator to make a faint stab at placing the scheduled work in some historical context. This is followed by a discussion of varying length of the forces at work on the composer at the time of composition, which will usually involves a cursory examination of the composer's love life, diet, disease profile, exercise habits and political miscalculations, followed by a roster of what else he/she was working on at the time. The annotator is then required to engage in a detailed, movement by movement analysis of the work, explaining the inexplicable in a way that makes no sense whatsoever unless and until you actually hear the music.

For example, this chosen at random from a recent concert by the Tokyo String Quartet (the work on the coroner's table is Mozart's Quartet in G Major, K. 387): "This first theme is broad and expansive, contrasting with the second theme, which is introduced by the second violin and is much more compact. The Minuet has a remarkable opening motive consisting of a rising chromatic scale that alters forte and piano dynamics with each note. The Trio section interrupts the Minuet with a startling unison in minor. ..." Well, that explains everything, doesn't it?

It is suspected that concert presenters have access to some nefarious web site, the URL of which is a closely guarded secret, and that this sort of undiluted crap is pulled from it in the dead of night, mere hours before the program goes to press. Some malevolent dweeb has likely gone fishing in this polluted stream and brought forth a badly mangled version of a program note originally done by some long forgotten "Professor" of the Ozarks Normal School (Dept. of Music) that appeared in the mid-1920's for a program by The Mediocre Quartet in performance at the Palais de Beaux Artes in East Overshoe, Arkansas. The same generic twaddle keeps rising to the surface like a colony of odiferous bacteria. Again, and again, and again.

Just once I would like to walk into a concert hall, take my seat, open the program, and read a series of notes that actually tells me something that will enhance my appreciation of the work I am about to hear, and which will be written in passable English. If the work is a masterpiece of eighteenth century composition, tell me why it is generally esteemed as such. Phrased another way, tell me, Mr. or Ms. Annotator, exactly why those versed in the subject hold the composition in high regard. If the piece about to be performed is commonly regarded as one of the composer's lesser works, please inform me of the facts behind this judgment and even more to the point, inform me of why the performing artist believes that this is a work I will benefit from hearing despite its short-comings. If the piece is a flawed, don't tell me what those flaws are (I am perfectly capable of discerning them myself!) tell me instead why the unflawed parts outweigh them.

It is not merely that I object to being treated like an idiot. I object to the patronizing tone of these annotations. I object to the general lack of research that such program notes usually display, and I object to the steadfast refusal of the annotator to say anything even remotely "controversial" let alone "unflattering." And worse still, I object to what seems to be the unbending rule that a decent English sentence may never appear in the program notes. I object to the refusal of the annotator to make even the slightest stab at clear, concise, impactful writing. Perhaps it is thought that jargon and high sounding mumbo-jumbo will impress the readers. It doesn't. It merely bores those who it does not insult, and it helps no one.