Programme notes in a digital age

For the last couple of months I’ve been busy writing programme notes for the RSNO. One of the issues being debated at the moment is, “Do we really still need commissioned programme notes in the digital age?” After all, can we not just look information up on Wikepedia or Google? Well, you could, but I think you’d be missing out on a lot, and here’s why:

  • Every concert is carefully put together – programme notes reflect this, making reference to other works in the concert and any links between them.
  • There may be a narrative to the season – for instance the RSNO and Prokofiev are both in their 125th Anniversary seasons. To celebrate this, they are performing a complete cycle of the Prokofiev piano concertos across two seasons.
  • Programme notes can maintain the ongoing narrative of this series.
  • An orchestra may have other events around a particular work or composer. These can be advertised alongside the programme notes.
  • By using the same writers on a regular basis, the audience come to recognise and trust individual writers.
  • House style – commissioned programme notes mean the orchestra has some kind of control over the style of writing, meaning the notes can be pitched how the orchestra would wish.
  • If, like me, the writer is also a performer, it is another way of building personal links between musician and listener.
  • Practicalities – if someone chooses to read programme notes on their phone or tablet during the performance, it’s horribly distracting for those around them.

So remember that by buying a programme, you are buying a “personalised” approach to that evening’s concert, which can only enhance your experience of the music.

Translating the Classics

As a musician-translator, one of the real joys for me is translating CD booklets. My reasons for this are:

– As a translator I like being able to engage with a longer text in my specialist area
– As a musician it maintains my knowledge of music history
– As someone who is passionate about audience engagement it gives me great pleasure to share German recordings with a wider audience.

Recently I’ve been translating booklets for CDs of Mozart and Beethoven. The market for these composers is quite saturated, so it’s relatively rare that I get to translate texts on them. Equally, I don’t get to do pre-concert talks on them so often as the late 19th century onwards tends to be more my cup of tea.

It’s good, then, to be able to refresh my knowledge of the Classical period, in both English and German, as well as getting some fresh perspectives on the music from some of Germany’s best scholars and musicians.

As a viola player myself I have an intimate knowledge of the subject area, especially in chamber music, which helps me to find “der treffende Ausdruck”, or ” the most appropriate expression”.

If you want to see my work, visit TACET records and buy a CD!

Mastersingers of Nuremburg programme note

Written for RSNO, season opening concert 2014-15:

Overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

“Its splendour seems truly magnificent […] and the burghers’ dwellings seem to have been built for princes. Indeed, the kings of Scotland would be glad to be housed as luxuriously as the ordinary citizens of Nuremberg.” It is this vision of 16th century medieval Nuremberg that Wagner seeks to convey in The Mastersingers Overture.

Unusually for Wagner, who generally drew on mythological material, this opera is based on the real-life guild of Mastersingers whose rules and contests were depicted in Wagnenseil’s Nuremberg Chronicles of 1697. He even went so far as to use real historical figures such as the cobbler Hans Sachs and the marker Beckmesser.

When Wagner began work in earnest on the The Mastersingers of Nuremberg in 1862, the first two operas of The Ring cycle were complete and he had recently composed Tristan and Isolde. Around this time, he was influenced by the philosopher Schopenhauer, who believed music to be the superior art form. One of the themes of The Mastersingers is music as a craft and perhaps Wagner needed to reflect on how a more opulent musical style might support dramatic action prior to writing the final two great operas of The Ring cycle.

In The Mastersingers, the young knight, Walther is in love with Eva. Hearing that she is to marry the winner of a song contest the following day, he seeks to enter the guild of Mastersingers. Beckmesser, also in love with Eva, rejects his application, but Sachs is impressed by the young man’s art and undertakes to tutor him in the ways of the guild. Beckmesser secretly learns Walther’s song but lacks his artistic flair. Walther duly wins the contest and the opera closes in celebration of the enduring nature of German art.

The Overture to The Mastersingers was first performed in 1862, six years before the opera’s premiere and was immediately hailed as one of Wagner’s best works. It opens with the pompous music of the guild, including brass fanfares that expand into a luxurious full orchestral passage. The quieter middle section recalls the rich harmonies of Tristan and Isolde, as we hear the love themes of Walther and Eva played by the strings. Gradually the mood becomes more frivolous as the apprentices and townsfolk appear with an irreverent version of the opening theme in the woodwind, taken up by the strings. After a short climax, Wagner cleverly combines the opening theme, Walther’s prize song and the apprentices’ music. The excitement builds once more and the music ends in a blaze of glory.