Notes on Programme Notes

The other day David Lister, arts editor at The Independent, had a good grumble about the content of programmes at the opera. You don’t need just a degree to understand them, but a doctorate, he suggests. He’d been to see Tristan und Isolde at the ROH. The column is here.

Tristan is bound to be an extreme example, but he has a good point. In an age obsessed with outreach, why doesn’t that extend to programme notes? On Saturday I went to see The Sleeping Beauty at the ROH and much enjoyed the programme, in which well-established ballet writers trace with lucidity, enthusiasm and even a smidgen of a sense of humour the story of the Royal Ballet’s relationship with the work, the histories of Tchaikovsky and Petipa – blowing away the myth of their ultra-close collaboration – and much more. It was a good souvenir of, and complement to, a marvellous evening.

But can you imagine if the notes on the ballet set out a blow-by-blow account of the choreography, tracing every landmark grande piroutte, grand jete and port de bras with in-the-know terminology spread as thick as marmalade? Even an enthusiast with some basic knowledge could scarcely help but feel a tad left out.

It’s a conundrum. You don’t want to patronise your audience, but neither do you want to alienate newcomers. You don’t want to ‘dumb down’, but how far is ‘lightening up’ acceptable? Even the most basic technical words in musical description meet with incomprehension the minute you pass outside the elite coterie of intellectual concert-goers who understand them. I remember using, thoughtlessly, the word ‘recapitulation’ while we were rehearsing a music-and-words show a few years ago, referring to the return of an idea we’d already encountered in a different context that cast new light on it. The actors were mystified at first – then took the mickey. They were terrific performers and well-educated people. But ‘recapitulate’?!?

The main problem is, of course, nothing to do with programmes themselves but rather the marginalisation of western classical music in the education system.

I’m not sure that was ever especially good – memories of our school music teacher, when we were 12, explaining that semiquavers go “taffateffy” although those of us who played instruments had learned what they were years before, and nobody else gave a damn. And occasional visits from orchestral musicians or string quartets aren’t the answer – they never were and never will be more than a politically correct token gesture and a bit of extra-curricular fun. As El Sistema has been proving, kids need regular and good and personal tuition (and as most of us knew that already before Thatcher, it seems amazing that it’s taken Gustavo Dudamel to get the message across). Its application in this country is going to take a bit of effort

The programme note commissioners can’t fix that single-handedly, but if musical organisations are serious about building audiences, they shouldn’t necessarily feed them musicoliterary dry muesli, even if it is organically grown and full of vitamins. There should be nothing wrong with adding a little cream with a view to palatability.

What do you want from a programme when you go to a concert or opera? Ideas, please!

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