What Makes Great Program Notes?

How can we engage our audience — both our present audience, and new people who’ll come in the future — with the program notes we write for our concerts?

I’ll start with the simplest, most basic observation. Anyone who comes to an orchestra concert also does other things. And among much else, concertgoers read. They read books, newspapers, and magazines. And so program notes take their place, for everyone who reads them, in a wider world. If you go to a concert, you’re not seized with a sudden urge to read scholarly journals that you wouldn’t read in normal life.

It should be obvious, then, that program notes shouldn’t be scholarly. But while I think we all know that, it might not always be entirely clear what “not scholarly” should really mean. How far, just for instance, should we go in the opposite direction? I think we should be lively, in the style of the best writing our audience encounters in the media, but I’d underline “best.” I’d be tempted to say the New York Times Book Review might be a model, but maybe not everyone in our audience is bookish. So think of the best writing — the most grounded, the most serious, but also the most engaging — that you see in top newspapers and good magazines, and aim in that direction.

But what about the content? People trained in classical music often want to talk about the structure of a composition — how the composer uses sonata form, let’s say, or how some musical theme develops — because this is what their training may have emphasized. They may also be in love with the history of a work, where it fits in the composer’s oeuvre, or how it influenced composers who came afterwards. All this is interesting if you’re already interested — and if, most crucially, you understand it all, for which you’d have to know sonata form, and also quite a lot about the history of classical music.

Will new ticket-buyers know these things? Do even our subscribers know them? And even if they did, is this really what they want to read about? Is this what’s most important? As a cautionary example, I’d cite some program notes I once read, when Colin Davis brought the London Symphony to New York. The program that night featured Romeo and Juliet, and the program notes went into depth about how much Berlioz learned from Beethoven and Shakespeare. Which could be fascinating, but what wasn’t said was why Colin Davis, plus an orchestra and chorus, would have crossed the ocean to play this music for us. Surely there’s something more immediate than Beethoven and Shakespeare, something that — once we’re gripped by it — might even make us thirst to know about the finer details.

And this is what programs notes, I think, might talk about: Why a piece is gripping, why we care about it, why we’re still performing it after all these years (or centuries),and — maybe most important — what some moments are that show these things, moments in the music that anyone can hear, even if they’ve never had a moment’s training in anything related to classical music. This tangible connection to the music is, for me, the crucial thing. Give your audience something to listen for, especially in difficult scores, but even in simpler works. Say, as a student in one of my Juilliard classes once said, that you love the entrance of the horns in the last movement of the Brahms First, because you feel a sense of redemption that the entire symphony has been building towards.

This student, I might add, was a trumpet player, so he was talking about a moment that he didn’t play. He’d just sit there in the trumpet section, longing for it. This suggests that program notes could most effectively draw on your musicians, and even your music director. What do the musicians love about the pieces on the program? What does the conductor (and any soloist involve) think is most important? What are they trying to do with the music? What’s hard to play (or conduct)? What are the easy parts? Take your audience behind the scenes. Don’t just tell them facts about the music. Also tell them things about performing it. Describe the concert as a human experience, which the audience shares with the conductor and musicians. And while this alone won’t transform your concert hall, you might find that your audience will thank you, will participate more actively in listening — and will want to come back.