It’s a terrible piece by an idiot composer, and you’re wasting your time and money by listening to it!

I think it is as close to a truism of writing about music as you will get: The better you know a piece, the more you understand it. The more you understand it, the more you value it. The more you value it, the better you write about it.

In converse is also true- bad  or condescending writing about a piece you don’t value usually serves primarily to expose the holes in your understanding of a work.

I can hardly think of an example of a major piece of music by an accomplished composer where a writer said something negative that was the result of them knowing the piece better than someone who has a more positive take on the work at hand.

I was reminded of this truism the other day when I was sent the program notes for an upcoming concert. Although the notes included some good factual detail about time and circumstances, and weren’t explicitly negative about the works on the program, the annotator did accuse the composer of “hollow bombastry” in one of his most famous and hugely important masterpieces, and called another, equally important and masterful symphony by the same composer “a colossal but musically patchy work.”

This sort of thing really, er, pisses me off.

Over the years, I’ve read program notes that called Mahler hollow and superficial, Bruckner lacking in structural judgement, and slandered Schumann as a bad orchestrator, Shostakovich as empty, Sibelius lacking rigor, and Haydn as pedestrian and predictable. These are, admittedly, opinions that a regrettable number of people hold. That’s not what really bothers me. Nor is the fact that nobody who knows and understands the work of any of these composers intimately would ever say those things or agree with such half-baked opinions that gets my forehead creased. It’s the fact that they’re half-baked, ego-driven non-assessments I’ve read in program notes.

At least, in this case, the program annotator was decent enough not to slag off the works being played on the concert, but I still think it is extremely rude and disrespectful to the audience to use the program booklet as a venue for beating your chest about your own bugbears and blindspots. The concert program should be a resource to help the audience member ENJOY THE CONCERT more, to help them understand and engage with the music they are hearing. It’s not the place for ranting, or snide and snooty comments about the composers being heard. For that matter, it’s not the place to show off your own abilities as a writer or musicologist. The notes are there for the benefit of the listener, not the writer, not even the orchestra or even the composer.

Especially in Britain, where you have to pay extra for a program (or, more accurately, a “programme” was the Franco-phobe Brits still spell it ), everyone who gets a word of their prose printed ought to be focused on enriching the concert experience of the listener, and nothing else.

And remember, chances are, if you accusing a great composer of “hollow bombastry” you’ve almost certainly missed the point of a major work of art. Why make the audience pay £1 just for the privilege of getting to know your prejudices and shortcomings as a listener or analyst? Why waste one line of print when you could use that space to help bring the concert to life. You’re just making yourself, and, by association, the orchestra, look like an ass.

There are so many great note writers out there- Malcolm MacDonald, Richard Bratby,  Peter Davison have all written notes for concerts I’ve done in the last few years that deserved to be published in “proper books” for all time. Michael Steinberg’s magical “proper books” of program notes, The Symphony and The Concerto are a perfect example of the annotator’s craft elevated to the point of bringing to the reader truly profound insights into great music that any listener, novice or expert, can use and understand.

To all note-writers, from the overworked pro to the well-meaning amateur, I just implore you, if it comes time to write about a piece or a composer you don’t like, or don’t get, please remember my grandmother’s advice about life in general “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

And if you really, really, really, really need to convince the world of the” hollow bombastry” of one of the 20th c.’s greatest composers?

I recommend blogging.

_________________________________

Have you read anything lately in a concert program that got your blood boiling? Please share your favorite “I can’t believe I bought a program to read that crap” moments…

UPDATE-

The Twitter reaction (In reverse chronological order) was unusually lively….

AnnaAmbrose Anna Ambrose

RT @RichardBratby I’d still agree with everything @kennethwoodssays here even if he hadn’t flattered me senseless:http://j.mp/oZe7fU -YES

1 hour ago Favorite Retweet Reply

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods Think it’s only the trashings/damnings with faint praise that are the issue, to be honest – they do exist tho’.

1 hour ago

 

igortoronyi Igor Toronyi-Lalic

@

@RichardBratby @kennethwoods Was once warned by a chef not to order something. He said I wouldn’t enjoy it cos I was western. He was right

2 hours ago

 

igortoronyi Igor Toronyi-Lalic

@

@RichardBratby @kennethwoods Can agree fully with that. I’m not asking for a trashing. Just some space for other perspectives.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods Agreed, but there are ways of doing that; important that writer comes down on side of work.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods What other biz charges you £40 for a product, then makes you pay £3 more to read that it’s actually worthless?

2 hours ago

 

igortoronyi Igor Toronyi-Lalic

@

@RichardBratby @kennethwoods Useful for people to be told of critical divide over a work. Otherwise they feel stupid if they don’t enjoy it

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods “Not the chef’s finest creation,but interesting as a precursor to the far better dish we’re not serving tonight”.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@AlexLaing @kennethwoods Absolutely; you have to help them enjoy it as much as possible on one listening.Not too much detail;not too little.

2 hours ago

 

AlexLaing Alex Laing

@RichardBratby @kennethwoods as you both are. It’s also why I think a good spoken intro usually goes down a treat – not always suitable tho

2 hours ago

 

AlexLaing Alex Laing

@

@RichardBratby @kennethwoods I reckon you just need to be engaging about aspects of the music that you know the particular audience will get

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods Brilliant in a review. When you’re a first timer who’s just paid £40 specifically to hear Shosta – less helpful.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods Can you imagine it on a menu? “A second-rate dish, regrettably over-spiced but worth eaing a few small mouthfuls”

2 hours ago

 

igortoronyi Igor Toronyi-Lalic

@richardbratby @kennethwoods Am reminded of Boulez accusing Shostakovich of being a ‘ninth pressing of Mahler’. Much prefer that to niceties

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods Programme notes are no place for belittling music the audience has paid to hear,even if point is completely true.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@igortoronyi @kennethwoods It’s not about value of thoughts, it’s purely about the context in which they’re expressed.

2 hours ago

 

OperaCreep George

@

@kennethwoods Can we blame the commissioners of programme notes for picking unsuitable writers? I think so.

2 hours ago

 

igortoronyi Igor Toronyi-Lalic

@

@RichardBratby @kennethwoods Couldn’t disagree more. It’s just as valuable to hear a wise man’s negative thoughts as his positive ones.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@kennethwoods @alexlaing I fear that classical music writing for an “intelligent general” public(eg the Penguin guides) is a vanishing art.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@kennethwoods An element of intellectual overkill at times;Schenkerian analysis might not always help you express spirit of a Strauss polka.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@alexlaing @kennethwoods But put it this way: he’s more of an Elliott Carter man. By the time note arrived, too late to commission another.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@AlexLaing @kennethwoods It was printed by my employers yrs back, written by a writer of immense knowledge and style, whom I respect hugely.

2 hours ago

 

OperaCreep George

@

@kennethwoods Absolutely…there aren’t that many good writers around that are devoid of ego.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@kennethwoods No-one’s saying it’s Mahler 10, but if you can’t find & express the joy of the piece, give commission to someone who can.

2 hours ago

 

AlexLaing Alex Laing

@

@RichardBratby that is an excellent article written by @kennethwoods – I agree with you – and him obviously

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@kennethwoods Never got over seeing one of our very greatest music writers dismiss “Capriccio Espagnol” as “insignificant” in 150 words.

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

@

@kennethwoods Thanks Ken, blushing here. I always, always, remember Tovey: prog note writer is “counsel for the defence”.

2 hours ago

 

OperaCreep George

@

@kennethwoods I like programme notes with a personality to them…maybe asking someone that likes the composer should help cut the crap!

2 hours ago

 

Lindygeek Nicole Stevens

@

@kennethwoods I once read program notes that gushed Tony Williams “plays the drums as if they were a fine tuned instrument!” *head desk*

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

I’d still agree with everything @kennethwoods says here even if he hadn’t just flattered me senseless: j.mp/oZe7fU

2 hours ago

 

RichardBratby Richard Bratby

Rt @Kennethwoods It’s a terrible piece by an idiot composer, & you’re wasting your time and money by listening to it! j.mp/oZe7fU

2 hours ago

 

 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

9 comments on “It’s a terrible piece by an idiot composer, and you’re wasting your time and money by listening to it!”

  1. Elaine Fine

    I always think of program notes as a way of helping an audience approach what might be an unfamiliar work or to have a fresh batch of contextual information to enlighten the experience of listening to a familiar one. The concert program is indeed not the proper place for an “expert” to write about how superior he (usually a he in this case) or she is to the person who wrote the music, but I have never had the “pleasure” of reading the kinds of program notes you describe.

    When I was younger and thought I knew a lot about music (in my 20s and 30s), I had rather rigid opinions. My opinions were mostly formed by the opinions of people I respected, whether those opinions were worthy of my respect or not. I blush when I think of the ways I would dismiss “warhorses” without really understanding what made them remain in the repertoire.

    Many program annotators and music critics have about as much “knowledge” as I once had. Now that my head is full of more music than opinion, I feel as if I know very little. I have a harder and harder time writing about pieces of music that mean a great deal to me when I write program notes, because there is so much to say, and so much of it is contextual and personal. I usually find myself resorting to explaining how certain sections work (in as un-technical way as possible), and trying to put the piece in the context of a composer’s work and the musical culture of his or her time.

  2. Helen B

    “I recommend blogging”

    ha ha ha! I can’t even do that when I have something bitchy to say, because people know who I am. I know some composers’ music inside and out and still don’t really like it, but would never trash it even in a blog. The world is too small, and life is too short.

  3. Monica B

    It’s a shame people have to trash a piece instead of saying ok, the piece is well written and effective, but despite its many qualities I still – subjectively – don’t like it.

  4. Erik K

    I saw the title of this post and thought, “Is Ken performing one of my compositions and didn’t tell me?”

    Agree on the principle…are program annotators and critics not allowed to inhabit the same body? Can’t you write an informative essay on Fantastique and save the part about how boring the third movement is for some review or other down the line? I can’t imagine nowadays someone being exclusively asked to do one or the other, but what do I know? (Correct answer: very little).

  5. Peter

    As note-writers what is our obligation to the audience? Obviously the aim is to provide a meaningful context for listening. I think we are not obliged to gloss over problems or pretend that music is beyond negative criticism. But personal grudges and avid dislike cannot provide such a context. If you have a fundamental problem with the composer – don’t write.

    Many will have at some point found had to write notes about works we don’t know that well or about which we are not genuine enthusiasts. This is the moment to adopt the mask of neutrality, or to express doubts in ways which acknowlegde that not everyone would agree with us.

    I have for example so often read the comment that the Rondo at the end of Mahler’s Seventh is a formal failure which lacks real invention and which is a pale imitation of the Rondo of No.5 . Every time I hear it, it makes my blood boil, because such a view suggests a failure of imagination on the part of the critic, not the composer.

    Leave the choice to enjoy or not enjoy a performance to the listener.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    @Peter

    Peter, as always, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Obviously, boring and fawning writing doesn’t serve the audience, and that’s now what I would want to see. What I find most irritating is either using a note to grind a personal axe, or to regurgitate one of these old lazy canards like the one you cite about the 7th (I couldn’t agree more!).

    Many thanks!

  7. Anna Downes

    My Dad (Andrew Downes) once had a piece slated by a critic. I turned out said critic wasn’t even there at the concert. An apology was published in the next edition

  8. John Shakespeare

    I have nothing to say about program(me) notes, but rather about familiarity always leading to greater appreciation. I once heard Robert Tear say (in conversation, not in public) that he had become so familiar with Britten’s War Requiem by repeated performance that he had begun to think less of the work. He said he had acquired an insight into the work’s ‘stitches’ — the way it was pieced together which made him think it wasn’t as great as usually thought. I don’t quite know what he meant (and didn’t have the confidence to ask him: he was in full conversational flow, talking to a small group of choral singers, and he naturally had an aura of authority), but several people who were there nodded their heads sagely. Was it real insight? Was it braggadocio? Who knows?

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