Monday, March 10, 2008

Notes & Queries

A trombonist and me in the pub after the concert on Saturday:

"Great programmes notes!"
"Not much about music in them, is there?"
"Well, writing about music's a waste of time, really."

And it is.

Well, I should qualify that. There's plenty to be had out of the study of music, for performers and composers. But when you're writing for an audience the rules are different, I think. Maybe once upon a time you could have assumed a certain level of knowledge about how a piece of so-called-classical music works, but the fact is that you can't anymore. I write programme notes for intelligent people who have no musical education. I could witter on about sonata forms or whatever happens to be the bottle tonight's wine is poured into, but for those who know about such things it's unnecessary, and for those who don't it's a confusion. All those descriptions of what happens in the piece you read in most programmes - what's the point? I don't want to be told the plot before I read a book. But it does help to have the scene set, and as a lot of the time we're talking about something that was written in a different age or society, it's good to know the context in which it was created. I usually mention something that happens near the end, so that the audience knows it's nearly done. But really my ideal programme note wouldn't talk about the music at all. Long-winded technical descriptions put the layman off, make it seem an esoteric exercise that you can't begin to understand without a degree. Music should be experienced viscerally.

In the case of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, the political context of its creation is vital to understanding the work, but that's true of anything. No composer exists in a vacuum. To put a work in context doesn't diminish its universality (as some try to claim, particularly in the case of Shostakovich). When making a case, one argues from the specific to the general, and knowing how, when and why DDS composed his Fourth can only help in understanding its wider relevance today.

These thoughts are with me regularly as I write, of course, but they also come to mind this morning reading the comments on Pliable's post about the review of Alex Ross's book on Radio 3. It's true that there's not much in the way of discussion of music in the book, but is that its purpose? My impression is that the point of it is to put 20th century composers into a social context, something which has been largely lacking. I find the earlier part of the book more successful in this than the latter - although perhaps that simply reflects the extent to which the post-war composers abdicated social responsibility? It's also true that Ross's story peters out sometime in the early 70s, but perhaps with music since then it is too soon to tell. Certainly, the book isn't as wonderful as it's been made out to be - what could live up to such hype? - but Ross has attempted to put 20th century composers before a general audience, and that's something to be admired and encouraged.

1 comment:

Lucia said...

I agree with you about it being necessary to know the context of the Shostakovich. The prog notes were v interesting to me.