Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes

This is the second installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first installment here.

Program Notes:

After finding my seat (which is sometimes easier said than done), one of the very first things I do when attending a classical concert is sit down, open the program book, and read through the program notes. Whether or not I am familiar with the pieces on the program, these short essays often provide useful information and prepare me for the music I am about to hear. Program notes can include any or all of the following: historical, cultural, and biographical information; stories about the work’s composition and premiere; details on instrumentation and length; musical features to listen for; texts and translations (if a vocal work); and other interesting facts relating to the piece.

However, there exists a fine line between good program notes and bad program notes. Some performing organizations do a fantastic job with their notes, providing the information in an informative, yet engaging fashion. Others, not so much. Some program notes are too “jargony.” Some don’t provide enough information. Some provide too much. Some are flat out boring.

So, what makes a good program note? As someone who has experience reading, writing, and editing program notes, I have seen a wide variety of formats over the years, and am slowly gaining insight into what works well and what doesn’t. While I don’t profess to be an expert on this subject quite yet (maybe someday!), here are my thoughts on what makes an ideal program note and how performance organizations could both revitalize and maximize the potential of this tool. Additionally, interspersed throughout are some examples of excellent program notes or organizations who are doing intriguing things with the concept itself.

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The Mysterious Case of Lilian Elkington

History, especially music history, can be weird. Sometimes a composer who is immensely popular during their lifetime can get swept under the metaphorical rug after their death, becoming nothing less than a footnote or being forgotten altogether. Others can experience more unfortunate circumstances – they can die young, their music can be lost, or their life situation can prevent them from gaining their well-deserved exposure.

Lilian Elkington in the 1920s
British composer Lilian Elkington (1900-1969)

One composer that remains on the fringes of history is the twentieth-century British composer Lilian Elkington. Born in 1900 in Birmingham, England, she studied composition at the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music and frequently performed as a concert pianist. Sadly, once Elkington married, she gave up composition to devote herself to being a mother and wife (as was the reality of many female composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Perhaps even more tragic was that her entire compositional output was “disposed of” once her husband remarried after her death in 1969. (It is unknown whether this was by accident or on purpose.)

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Copland’s Piano Concerto

The music of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is no stranger to the concert hall (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Fanfare for the Common Man are all played quite frequently), but some of his pieces are rarely brought out into the open. A good portion of this somewhat unfamiliar repertoire belongs to the early part of Copland’s career. In the early 1920s, Copland studied in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught a stunning array of other twentieth-century musicians. Boulanger encouraged Copland to cultivate his unique musical voice, and Copland followed suit with a style that embraced elements of modernism – dissonant tone clusters and jagged rhythms – as well as elements inspired by popular music, such as jazz. (The Spotify playlist below features an album of some of his “modernist” works, all brilliantly played by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.)

1899
Aaron Copland enjoying an ice cream cone at Interlochen in 1970. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

One product of Copland’s early style was his Piano Concerto, which was completed in 1926 and first performed in 1927, with Copland as the soloist. The first movement opens boldly, with a brass call-and-response before a soaring, cinematic melody is presented in the horns and strings. In a surprising turn, the piano is introduced by itself and softly, seemingly caught in an introspective moment. The music gradually builds in confidence – with help from the opening brass material – but is also full of conflict, becoming increasingly saturated with dissonant chords.

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