Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (Parkville)
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A GUIDE TO WRITING CONCERT PROGRAM NOTES

As part of their recital examinations, all MMus and DMA students are required to write and design their own concert programs. These need to be submitted for approval in their final form within 10 days of the program being approved, which means well in advance of the recital. Examiners take them into consideration in determining a recital grade. This Guide has been prepared to indicate the style and standards the Faculty expects in its concert programs, but it should assist not just performers but musicologists with writing concert program or CD liner notes for other organisations as well.

THE AIM: INFORMING THE AUDIENCE

Program Notes are read in a half-darkened hall, by concertgoers whose attention is principally on the live music they are hearing. A printed program therefore is not usually the place for an expansive scholarly study peppered with footnotes or an in-depth analysis laced with musical examples. Nor should it be designed with a typeface so small and dense as to be illegible in a dimly-lit hall. Fundamentally the program needs to announce the sequence of the items presented and to convey any necessary instructions for the good order of the concert; but it can also be used to concisely inform listeners about the music they are hearing and to assist them in its direct appreciation.

Program Notes originated in the 19th century: once its location had shifted from the private salon to the public concert hall, the concert audience developed an appetite for printed explanations and instructions. Today, music festivals and some major orchestral subscription series are accompanied by lavish programs with expansive essays intended to be read independently of their concerts. But in most concerts Program Notes on a piece should take no longer to read than the piece does to play -- and ideally much less. A 2,000-word analysis of a 4-minute prelude will be left half half-read when the piece itself has finished, having done little more than divided the listeners' attention and frustrated their enjoyment of the concert.

EXTERNAL ELEMENTS

  1. Cover page

    On the cover page of a concert program, the heading should list the presenting organisation, the series title (and series number if appropriate), the name of the performing group and the solo artists. Below the concert heading should be the time, date (including the year), and place of the concert. Remember that a printed program is often kept as a memento of the event, so full details of this kind are valuable.

    An example of a cover page follows:

    The University of Melbourne
    Faculty of Music
    Presents

    2005 Master of Music Recital Series
    JOHN SMITH, clarinet
    with
    JANE DOE, piano

    1.15pm
    29 June 2005
    MELBA HALL

  2. Contents Page
  3. The second page of the program will normally contain a summary of the order of the music. This page reads like a table of contents: it should list in order the pieces the listeners can expect, and convey any instructions they will need, such as the length of the interval, or a request to refrain from taking photographs or save applause till the end of a work.

    For each work you should list the formal title, with key unabbreviated ("F-sharp Major" not "F# maj") and index number (BWV, Hob., Op., K. etc) and the composer's name; then as a subheading list the movement titles or tempos. If the composer's full name and dates are listed later in the Notes, then the surname is sufficient here, and often makes for a less cluttered page.

    It is best to consult the score when compiling this page: where there are several tempos in a movement list each major tempo change, and separate these by a semicolon ("Allegretto; Adagio; Presto"). If a movement has both a title and a tempo, separate these by a colon ("The Farewell: Allegro"). All foreign words and descriptive titles are italicized ("Sonata in E Major," but "Spring Sonata in F Major"; "Prelude and Fugue" but "Humoresque") . Find in your software program and use all foreign language diacriticals ("Fauré" not "Faure").

    If your performance is a premiere, this fact should be listed in brackets below the title: this records an important event.

    You should also list your accompanist here, and list any soloists here under the works in which they are appearing. If you have an ensemble, list just its title here: the full roster of players is best given at the rear of the program (see Back Page below).

    An example of a contents page follows:

    PROGRAM

    Sonata Pathétique for Piano in C Minor Op.13 Beethoven
    Grave: Allegro molto e con brio
    Adagio cantabile
    Rondo: Allegro

    Partita in A Minor BWV Bach

    INTERVAL (10 minutes)

    Waldszenen Op 82 Schumann
    Eintritt: Nicht zu schnell
    Jäger auf der Lauer: Höchst lebhaft

    To avoid discomfort to yourself and others, please switch off your mobile telephone for the whole of the performance

  4. Back Page
  5. On the back page (or inside the cover) give the name of any ensemble appearing, with the full roster of its members, each listed under heading of the instrument played -- sometimes two columns makes this more concise. Below this list any official with a special role in the concert -- a technician or house manager if you used one, and acknowledge any copyright or other special permissions you had to obtain. Finally (if you must), make your personal thanks to anyone who has had a special role in your project. Keep this last brief: gushing outpourings of affection for a close friend's private support may embarrass the friend and the audience alike.

    An example of a back page follows:

    Parkville Quartet

    Shelly Peach -- Violin I
    Jonathan Exeter -- Violin II
    Joan Exeter -- Viola
    Matt Ching -- Violoncello

    Technical Assistance -- David Collins

    Text of Shallow Brown reproduced by kind permission of the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne.

    Special thanks to my mother, for her enduring patience.

PREPARING AND PRESENTING THE NOTES

5.1 Researching the Notes

Use the musicologist's search tools and resources when researching the Notes. The Music Library is your starting point; you may search the catalogue from home via the on-line catalogue, and many standard musicological references are now available online through the Music Library's website. For more detailed assistance, consult the Faculty's website "Researching Music" or talk to the Music Librarian.

In preparing a Note you will probably need to:

While the research you have done will be obvious in your writing, it is best not to let your research apparatus show in a Program Note. It is preferable not to use citations and footnotes to exhibit the tools you used. If you are using a direct quotation, citation of the source in the narrative is sufficient rather than a detailed footnote ("Wagner was 'a brilliant sunset,' wrote Debussy, 'mistaken for a sunrise.' ")

5.2 Adopting a Writing Style

Adopting the right tone is important. On the one hand, you should not employ the technical vocabulary you would use when addressing fellow musicians; on the other hand, you should not be condescending, explaining even the most obvious musical matters as if to a child. Assume your listeners are informed members of the public, who already have sufficient knowledge of music to have brought them to your audience in the first place. As a rule, you should explain any little-known term or concept which is essential to listening to the work.

5.3 Sections and Headings

Divide the Notes into a separate section for each work: a continuous essay is very irritating to navigate in the midst of listening to music. Place your name as author of the Notes once at the end of the program, not after the section on each piece. In a student examination submission, it makes little sense to list a copyright notice: use the © sign only if you have been engaged as a commercial note writer with a fee that did not cover grand rights for repeated use.

At the top of each section give the composer's name, this time in full with dates of birth and death. For a living composer, give "b.1960" rather than the ominous "1960-". If the work is an arrangement, has been substantially edited, or is an unfinished work later completed, list the arranger, editor, or completing author. If it is a vocal work, also list the librettist.

Follow this with the formal title of the work, its index number, and its year of composition.

An example of a section heading follows:

FRANZ PETER SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

"Täuschung," D. 911, No. 18. (1826)
from Die Winterreise by Wilhelm Müller  (1794-1827)

5.4 Vocal Works

A Note on any vocal work should include its text in full for the audience to follow (or a translation of the text if it is in another language). The translator's name should appear beneath the translation. If you have space without minimizing the typeface too much, printing both the text and the translation in parallel columns is often a useful format.

If possible, use a literal translation rather than a singing translation which has been copied from score. Many singing translations have been made principally to fit the rhythms and melodic contours of the music, and make little sense when read on the page. In looking for literal translations, Philip Miller, The Ring of Words: An Anthology of Song Texts (New York: Norton, 1963) contains excellent translations for most of the standard lieder texts, while Robert Hines, Singers Manual of Latin Diction and Phoenetics (New York, Schirmer, 1975) contains translations for all the standard liturgical Latin texts.

Where a text or translation is included, the note you write need only be very brief: a short paragraph at most. Obviously, the listener has little time to do more than follow the text. An example of the presentation of a vocal text follows:

Täuschung
Ein Licht tantz freundlich von mir her;
Ich folg' ihm nach die Kreuz und Quer.
Ich folg' ihm gern und seh's ihm an,
Daß es verlockt den Wandersmann.

Delusion
A light dances cheerily before me;
I follow it this way and that.

I follow it gladly, knowing all the while,

That it leads the wanderer astray.

--trans. Philip Miller

5.5 Form and Content of the Notes

Avoid bar-by-bar analysis or the inclusion of musical examples; instead, aim to give the audience at least two pieces of information that will help them understand what they are hearing, and two or three salient features to listen out for.

Firstly, if there is a descriptive title to the work, explain the title. If it refers to mythology or a sacred text (eg, The Mass), consult H. S. Robinson et al., Encyclopaedia of Mythology and Legend (London: Kaye & Ward, 1972), or a Guide to Mass, or Encyclopedia Britannica for your definition.

Similarly, if the work is from an opera, (or is an instrumental paraphrase or set of variations on opera themes), briefly recount the appropriate moment of the opera plot, to place the audience in the action of which the work is part or which is its inspiration. For opera plots and their early performance histories, consult The New Kobbe's Complete Opera Book, ed. and rev. Earl of Harewood (New York: G.P.Putman's Sons, 1976).

Next illuminate the background of the work, how and when it came to be composed, and for whom (mention the dedicatee -- whose name will be in the score -- and explain who this was). Perhaps say a word about the first performance of the piece, when and where it was, and possibly the first critical reaction it achieved. Lengthy quotation should be avoided, but a pithy clause from the composer, or an amusing jibe from an early critic is often interesting. If the piece had a long and arduous road to acceptance, a word about how and where the manuscript survived and when it finally came to be published might help.

Above all, say something about context of the work: the historical idea, the artistic trend, or the literary or artistic or philosophical movement which produced it, or the cultural milieu from which it comes.

Finally, if it is an ensemble work, list the instrumentation, something many concertgoers enjoy having so they can search for instruments on the stage while they are listening.

SOME MODELS

A number of outstanding writers of program notes past and present have had their work published, and are well worth consulting as models for style. Some of these are:

Donald Tovey Essays in Musical Analysis, 6 vols.(1938). Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Edward O D Downes, New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony. New York: Iker, 1976.
Louis Binncolli, The Analytical Concertgoers Guide. New York: Greenwood, 1971.

FURTHER READING

The following style manuals have a chapter on writing program notes:

Richard J. Wingell, Writing About Music: An Introductory Guide, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
D. K. Holoman, Writing About Music: A Style Sheet from the Editors of 19th Century Musi.c Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988
Eugene Helm and Albert Luper, Words and Music: Form and Procedure in Theses, Dissertations, Research Papers, Book Reports, Programs, Thesis in Composition. Clinton, N.J.: European American Music Corp, 1971.

Warren Bebbington
2004

 

 

 

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