How to Write Program Notes
Program notes introduce the audience to works to they might not know and to understand the works in greater depth if they are already somewhat familiar with them.
Often the performer is called upon to write the program notes.
Certainly, at the college level performers are expected to write the program notes. When they submit them for approval by the professor varies. (Find this out!)
Sometimes high school juniors or seniors write their own, with help from their teachers. (If you have a chance to do this, I encourage you to do it.)
Ask if there are guidelines to follow.
If you are playing all movements of a multi-movement work (sonata) or some from a collection (Bach French Suite), you must write about all movements separately.
You want to "set the stage" with some information that helps the listener to "place" the piece chronologically; and to compare it to the composer's other pieces. Then you discuss the form of the piece and how the composer uses the basics of construction and harmonic movement; and how the composer makes changes. Big changes or small ones? What are the result of these changes? In this piece? In subsequent pieces? In pieces by later composers?
Content of Program Notes
- Composer's name, plus the opus number, Köchel number (for Mozart), or whatever other identifying system is used to catalogue the composer's works. Modern composers' works often are identified only by the year. Make sure to include the key of the piece. For example, Fantasy in G Minor, Op. 26 or Orbit of the Planets (1984).
- If the piece is identified by a catalogue number, find the date of composition. You may not be able to find something specific, so say "between the years __ and __."
- If the piece is dedicated to someone, find out something about that person. (A friend? A patron? A teacher? A spouse?)
- Where was the piece written? What was going on in the composer's life at that time?
- What other pieces were written about the same period?
- Is the piece part of a collection? Pictures at an Exhibition is an example. Note that I italicized the title of the collection, as it is a proper name. (Other examples of italicized names include boats, books, and stage plays.)
- Translate anything not in the common tongue of the audience, setting the translation in square brackets but not italicized. For example: Robert Schumann's Kinderszenen [Children's Scenes]. Sometimes, a literal translation isn't as good as one that has been recast slightly to make it more idiomatic for the reader. If there is a translation that is often used, select that. "Children's Scenes" is commonly translated "Scenes from Childhood". If you were playing the first piece in this collection, you would write:
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen [Of Strange Lands and Peoples] from Kinderszenen [Scenes from Childhood].
If you were playing the entire suite, you would write the title of the collection and indent the name of each movement:
Kinderszenen [Scenes from Childhood]
(indented)Von fremden Ländern und Menschen [Of Strange Lands and Peoples]
(indented) Kuriose Geschichte [A Curious Story]
And so on.
- If the piece has a nickname, put that in parentheses with quote marks:
Sonata in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 ("Moonlight")
The above "consumer information" is a hook for the reader to journey with you into more detail. On to the meat of the matter.
For each movement or piece:
- What the is form? (ABA? Theme and variations? How many variations? Sonata form?)
- In what key is the movement? How does this key compare to that of the other movements? Is this an example of something a composer often does? For example, Beethoven likes keys that are a second apart. In the "Moonlight" Sonata, the first movement is in C-sharp Minor and the second is in D-flat Major. This is an enharmonic spelling, so the keys are actually in a parallel major and minor relationship, though the eye "sees" the key signatures as a second apart. (John Rutter loves seconds, too, both melodic and harmonic, but seldom as key relationships.)
- Same with meter/time signature and tempo.
- What is the mood of the movement? (Rollicking? Sad? Romantic? Somber? Mysterious? Lively?) How does this compare to the other movements?
- What is the harmonic movement between sections of the movement? In Mozart, for example, the first section opens in I (usually) and works toward V (usually). He then has a repeat (usually). After the repeat the music opens in V and works its way back to I. Does the second section open in V (major) or v (minor)? Or is it something else, such as IV?
- Does the composer use the same theme in more than one movement? Perhaps it is part of a theme; or fragment of it; or an inversion (where the first theme, for example, goes up a third and down a fifth - the inversion would go down a third and up a fifth).
- Is this piece similar in style or construction to another one of the composer's earlier pieces? Which one/s?
- Does this piece influence a piece written later? Which one/s? Is it the last of this type written by the composer?
- Does this piece show the influence of an earlier composer? Who?
- How does this piece influence later composers? What is the significance of this piece? (Is it the first piece to exhibit a new style or form? Did it influence another composer (if so, who, how, and in which piece/s?)?
Add any other personal observations made while learning the piece.
Your teacher or professor probably will have other suggestions or requirements.
Where to Find Information
If you are looking for information, below are reliable resources.
Everything you read on the Internet may not be true - remember that nobody checks that whatever someone puts up is correct. Wikipedia is a good example. The most reliable entries show references; check those out. Use Wikipedia entries with care; try to corroborate from another source.
Be careful, however, as often one source will copy directly - word for word, even! - from another site. So, you find the same material on several sites, attributed to several authors (or no author), all of which has been copied from one site and is therefore useless for purposes of corroboration. (I find my stuff all over the web without attribution and even under someone else's byline! Some sites also steal my little art icons to go along with the text!)
Another point of caution: you know nothing about the writer's credentials in the area. It could be a world-renowned expert; or it could be some kid out to do mischief. For example, I could write about astrophysics, about which I know nothing, and you wouldn't have any idea I actually knew nothing and was just "talking the walk" if you also knew nothing and were trying to find out about astrophysics!
I recommend that you go to traditional, reliable sources that are backed by excellent scholarship by proven experts and have been read and corrected by numerous other excellent scholars. If you like, start with Wikipedia and then corroborate. t
Grove's Dictionary of Music
Harvard Dictionary of Music
Baker's Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Music in Western Civilization (Lang) This is a general music history book but a good source for information to use for "setting the stage."
There are many other music history texts.
Also see specific resources for the period in question:
Music in the Middle Ages (Reese)
Music in the Renaissance (Reese)
Music in the Baroque Era (Bukofzer)
Baroque Music (Palisca)
Performance Practices in Classical Piano Music (Rosenblum)
and so on
Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature (McGrath) This is
primarily a resource guide for teachers, but you can get dates and some general information from it.
Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire (Hinson) is authoritative.
Be careful, also, about introductory material in your music books. We hope that it was written by an excellent scholar (Maurice Hinson is always reliable), but sometimes we don't know who wrote it. Sometimes it's someone we've never heard of! Be particularly wary of commentary on Bach; it's better to go to Grove's.
Again, your teacher/professor will have other suggestions for resources.
copyright 2009, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.
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