The other day on twitter the person behind @BBCMusicMag began a discussion (#prognotes) about program notes and their benefits or otherwise. One comment in the mix expressed a view I’ve encountered before:
“I try not to read programme notes for concerts, preferring to decide for myself about the music as heard.”
I have two responses.
First, the really beautiful thing about program notes – as opposed to, say, presentation from the stage – is that they are entirely optional. You can read exactly what and as much as you like, and you can read when you like, whether that’s before, during, or after the performance. So the program book, as a medium, is ideally suited to the kind of concert-goer who feels this way.
But my main response is one of mild disbelief. The people who say things like this are generally thoughtful and intelligent. Do they really feel incapable of reading a program note and then deciding for themselves about the music and its performance? Really??
It reminds me a little of the misguided attitude I saw when I was studying music at uni. Students were regularly offered all sorts of great opportunities to hear performances around town: free or very cheap tickets, for example, from the leading concert presenters. Good programs with good artists in most cases. And yet we all too rarely took advantage of these. (From what I hear in marketing circles, tertiary music students haven’t changed much.)
One reason was a kind of jadedness: attending concerts seemed like more study, more work. And sometimes we simply had the fiercely treasured prejudices of youth – refusing to hear certain composers or works for example, because we’d decided against them. But another frequent reason went along the lines of: “Oh I don’t want to go and hear so-and-so play such-and-such – it might influence my interpretation.” To which the proper response should have been: Puh-lease! (At least, that’s what I would say to my younger self if I could time travel, before dragging myself by the collar to every concert on offer.)
How arrogantly insecure we were to think that hearing a professional performance of a great piece of music would in any way damage our ability to make our own interpretative decisions. I won’t call the program note non-readers arrogant, but I do wonder why they seem to have so little faith in their ears and their own good judgement and imagination that a humble program note would be so influential.