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PROGRAMME NOTES, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 27th November 1954

After his “Folk-song of the Paralytics,” the young composer-pianist played the “Pas of the Barefooted Nuns” to a bevy of billowing beldames. “Whilst listening to music Lady Listless would allow her aspirations to pass unrestrainedly across her face. They passed now, like a flight of birds.” She compared the music to the Sugar-Plum Fairies’ Dance from Casse-Noisette. Mrs Asp exclaimed “The finale was distinctly curious, just like the falling of a silver tray.” Firbank’s description catches nicely the typical irrelevant nonsense uttered by persons wishing to seem intelligent. Lady Listless could not hear music without daydreams; when she spoke of it, she made cross-reference to other music.

How often we hear such phrases as “That chord is reminiscent of the opening of Tristan” or “It puts me in mind of ‘Here comes Tootsy,’ in ’05, you remember”! It is a method of distracting the senses from the task of actually listening—a dilution of pleasure. There are some people who cannot eat tepid cabbage without recalling all the previous occasions when served with the same delicacy by Aunt Maud, Aunt Enidina, and poor Cousin Begonia (before she went into a home). Such recollections dull the palate and the diner feasts meanwhile on the sound of his own voice.

Such, to my mind, is the purpose and effect of all programme-notes at concerts, and of the intriguing little chats in, say, the Radio Times. And perhaps very wisely done, too! Often it is preferable indeed to have some preoccupation to while away the boredom between the tunes—if there are tunes, in these days of “contemporary music.”

I sometimes wonder how much less effect a striking modulation has upon an audience when they have been instructed to look out for it. Every time the simplest modulation occurs, someone is bound to ask himself “was that it?” and finally to decide on a particular one, missing en passant the real moment pointed out by the commentator. Looking through some old programmes, I discover many interesting items of information, which can hardly be said to add to the genuine enjoyment of the music quâ music (any more than a biography of a painter adds to the visual enjoyment of his paintings). Perhaps such notes are designed to make the programme seem worth sixpence.

In one instance we learn “moments of chromatic colour stand out very strongly in their context.” (And where else could they?) Such moments are either obvious and consequently unnecessary to stress, or else they do not stand out, in which case the programme-note is mendacious.

Again we may find that a “simple modal tonality is used—of the kind associated with Strompfburger.” Well, who wants to be distracted by thinking we might equally well be listening to Strompfburger? Who was he, anyhow?

A charming condescension is shown in “All these pieces are on a small scale, but they are wonderfully subtle and polished; and it is clear from them that their composer must soon find their form too small and cramped to accommodate his restless genius.” Soon, indeed! The composer in question died a good three hundred years ago. And why, if the pieces are subtle and polished, should it be clear that the composer would be dissatisfied with that genre? People usually like doing what they are good at, again and again. (Vide Scarlatti and the Sonata, Couperin and the Suite, Schubert and the Song.)

Occasionally an acid comment appears like a delicious desert amid a jungle of oases. “The committee wish to express grateful thanks to Miss Bloggs for interest, advice and encouragement—also to all who have helped with the production” (my italics). Evidently Miss Bloggs was not a help. I remember that in spite of all interest, advice and encouragement, the chorus stubbornly managed to look like a parade of parboiled dumplings.

A historical note will often get one through the first three arias without recourse to dozing. “This was Pewicz’s seventh oratorio on this subject, written after a visit to the Rotunda at Basingstoke in May, 1732. The libretto, like that of “Gomorrah,” is taken from a play by Racine, who supplied the model, based deliberately on Greek Tragedy.” Such a paragraph excuses any undramatic or stilted quality in the work or the production. We must respect it, of course, because it is based on “Greek Tragedy.” Awe-inspiring!

“The words are treated with great sensitiveness,” we may read. Luckily we have them printed in full in the programme, for otherwise the singers will have rendered them inaudible.

Sometimes the audience can be greatly soothed by being informed of an ordeal from which they are to be narrowly saved. “Canzonets were one of the most popular kinds of vocal music in Italy in the last third of the sixteenth century. During this period nearly two thousand of them were published.” Reassuringly enough, the programme tells us only five are to be performed.

Self-evident truths seem to be a stock-in-trade, and musical landmarks are pointed out with paternal insistence. We soon become familiar with “the vigorous central section” (like hard-centred chocolates), with the “great rhythmic excitement” (which in the event, we missed—principally because the orchestra missed it too), “the voices singing for the most part in block harmony” (different from a tenement symphony) and “the finale bringing the work to a close in a blaze of D major” (somehow we never expected a work to be brought to a close by a finale!—especially in D major, the key of the whole piece. What a thrilling surprise!).

Humour is generally sneezed at in a programme-note, but very rarely it shines through to make a change from the more ponderous affirmations of the “wit,” “genius,” “polish,” the “antiquity,” and a dozen idle attributes of the work. For instance, we are always told that the Wasps Overture begins with a “stinging” pizzicato. We remain ignorant, however, of the antiseptic balm of the subsequent bars. There is no such sting in the Flight of the Bumble-bee, because naturally the composer knew that bumble-bees cannot sting, and especially not on a marriage-flight.

The “splicing” of the strings is a sine qua non of the Wedding March. There is no “salt” to be found in the Nutcracker Suite—only saccharine. There is bound to be “braying” brass in the Donkey’s Serenade. While the Wand of Youth is mysteriously unspecified. Is it a maypole—or an umbrella?

The interesting names of works are a goldmine for the note-writer. He can dismiss them, explain them, or play upon them to his heart’s content, like an organist on his favourite Baroque Tremulant. The results are about as appealing.

The “Moonlight” Sonata is, of course, a favourite, and almost qualifies by now to advertise a sunlit soap. We should not be surprised to find that Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” Symphony is to be played by the band of the local Fire Brigade—in asbestos overalls, and that Davies equipment is on sale with each programme. What would be more natural?

Nevertheless, there are some names that are not satisfactorily accounted for. In the Carnival of Animals, there is no indication of what beasts are intended to be playing during the item entitled “Pianistes.” At Bach organ recitals we are not told the true origin of the Dorian Toccata—really the Dorian Gray Toccata since it comes to a bad end after irritating everybody.

Again, there is that apocryphal story we should like to be more widely known: After the first performance, the Rector of the Thomasschule asked Bach which was the thin end of the “Wedge Fugue.” And we also would like to know.

I remember vividly two concerts at which a misprint in the programme was all for the good. Haydn’s “Cock” Symphony was announced, and a mystified audience waited with bated breath for the oboe to raise even a tiny crow—but alas, in vain. There was the usual clucking and bubbling among the horns, which seem invariably broody, but nothing more explicit. The audience went home very properly puzzled. More satisfactory was the performance of the Cantata “A safe stronghold our Cod is still.” Nearly all those present agreed how suitable the work was for that Friday, and enjoyed the music with reverential fervour and perhaps a distant inkling of thick white sauce.

It will be clear from the foregoing remarks that programme-notes in their pestilential variety, their pestilential condescension and pestilential distraction can only be regarded as pestilential. In future let us be more discriminating. Let us by all means keep the programme note as a valuable source of intellectual cocktail-party conversation (for nobody can resist the pleasures of one-up-ness)—but let us have the programmes (and the notes) sold not at the beginning of a concert, but at the end as the audience is leaving. In this way, perhaps, we shall be free to listen to music genuinely and undisturbed.

Peter Tranchell