Foreword by Adam Weitzer
Words About Music 2019 alumnus
Music, as a sounded art, only comes into being at the time of its performance. A program note is designed to serve as a ‘tour guide’ to the music performed in a concert, and to help us understand why we are listening to it.
Read from start to finish as a type of pre-concert ritual, program notes can enable more engaged, empathetic, and critical listening experiences by informing a listener about a work’s contents, its historical context, its performance history, and its composer’s biography. Program notes also represent a dynamic process of reception. They should introduce not only the original context of the work in question, but how such a context can be presented in our own time and how we can reconcile conflicting social, political, and cultural values. While they remain supplemental to the music, program notes form an integral part of concert culture.
The art of writing program notes has evolved in many ways since its invention in the eighteenth century. Today, as classical performers and institutions attempt to broaden access to the arts, the ability to reach target audiences by conveying complex or technical information in accessible language is paramount. In the twenty-first century, program notes are often published online rather than in print, and are written using many approaches: some are brief and objective, while others are extended and creative. Some strive purely to elucidate the music, while others hold literary merit in themselves. Despite these differences, however, program notes are unified by their continued role as a staple of concert culture. Whether one writes for orchestral, chamber, or operatic contexts, writing program notes with concision, ingenuity, and verve remains essential for any aspiring music writer.
The participants of the 2021 Words About Music program have honed this skill by producing a series of notes that reflect the realities, but also opportunities, of the contemporary musical landscape. The following notes introduce two works: one ubiquitous – Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67 – and one relatively obscure – Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op.67. Each work brings its own issues and challenges; yet the relation between them is just as important. While Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 boasts an enticingly rich tradition of critical commentary, making a distinctive impression on a reader is consequently more demanding. Conversely, a less well-known work like the Beach may lack the glamour of a canonised masterpiece, yet ultimately affords a writer more scope to make it their own.
At 750 words, these notes provide space for elaboration while challenging the writer to maintain the reader’s interest throughout. Each of these notes bears the individual touch of its author, offering varying mixtures of historical and biographical context, technical explanation, and personal readings. What unites them, however, is an invitation for the listener to engage both their ears and their minds to hear these works with greater context and imagination.