Brain-dead

A curiosity — or else a perennial annoyance — about the liner notes for the Haydn boxed set that includes the surprising “Surprise” Symphony I blogged about. (First post, second post.)

Well, really a case of brain-dead habits.

The performance is unusual, to say the least. The orchestra making no sound when the loud surprise chord is supposed to come, and then, the next time through, shouting instead of playing the chord.

And is there even a word about this in the liner notes? No. They’re just the usual (and maybe in this case more than usually turgid) musicological exegesis. When, right before our ears, something not usual is going on. Wouldn’t we want to know something about it? Mark Minkowski is the conductor. What were his thoughts about playing the surprise that way? Has he done it before? Will he do it again? Does he have other surprising plans for any standard repertoire piece? What did the musicians think?

But then classical CD liner notes are mostly brain-dead. Almost never do they talk about the performance. Only the piece. As if the only purpose and only meaning of the performance was to reveal the glories of the piece, and (implicitly) as if any difference from one performance to another — and any ideas the musicians had — mattered very little.

Which — metaphorically, at least — begins to show why the many recordings of all the standard pieces seem to blend into a blur. Especially for all the newcomers we hope to attract.

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  1. David Ezer says

    Speaking of program notes, something occurred to me this weekend.

    Do you remember the scene in (the film) Amadeus, where Mozart is describing the both the act I opening, and then the act II sextet from Figaro to the Emperor? It’s here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPkiLseVfBE&feature=related.

    THAT’s a program note.

    Salieri’s description of the Gran partita – that too, is a hell of program note. Can’t find the clip, but you may remember the description: “On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God.”

    I first saw this movie in the theater. I was 11 or 12. And for whatever anyone wants to say about its dramatic flaws or historical liberties, there was throughout this film a pitch-perfect (for me anyway) sense of how music can affect you.

    The passion they brought to describing and showing the effect of the music stayed with me forever. Exigesis is fine, for scholarly journals. Descriptions of intricacies of form are fine, if the audience is trained. But I’ve yet to see something like Shaffer’s description of the gran partita…

  2. Yvonne says

    I’m glad you included the “mostly”, because in fact there are those of us out there who do in fact seek to write program notes that connect with and refer to the performance (or recording).

    It’s my personal goal, for example, to write/publish program notes that

    (a) would need to be edited in some way before they could be used for any other ensemble or presenter, and

    (b) are written to be read in the context of actual performance (e.g. drawing attention to things/people/events you might actually be seeing on the stage as well as to what you’d be hearing). And I also try, whenever I can, to include words and insights from the performers.

    (I’ll also admit that I publish 50+ programs a year and so am not always as successful in this as I’d like. Yes, sometimes I publish “generic” notes from my collection with virtually no customisation. But these are my goals nonetheless.)

    Of course, the Surprise Symphony belongs to a tricky category. I don’t argue that the notes should have been turgid (not at all!), but it’s just possible that the performers wanted your first hearing to be a genuine surprise. So perhaps there was a deliberate decision not to verbalise and discuss what they did, but instead to let it delight your ears. After all, I bet Haydn didn’t hand out program notes discussing his thoughts on including the original surprise, although he may well have chatted about it over a beer afterwards.

    I had an experience like this early on in my annotating life. An Australian orchestra was performing Biber’s Nightwatchman Serenade, which includes a bass at the end singing the actual Nightwatchman verses. The bass had another solo on the program, and the plan was to introduce him as a surprise in the Biber, entering from the back of the hall and strolling through the aisles. My brief was to write a note which would provide all the relevant information you’d expect (including the text), but which would cunningly disguise the participation of the bass. (To help with this we didn’t list him as a soloist for the individual works, just for the concert as a whole.) Reading the note beforehand you wouldn’t necessarily think you’d be hearing any singing in the Biber. Reading it afterwards you’d interpret certain things differently. I was quite pleased with the result. But more than that, I was excited by the element of theatre that the programmer had introduced into the concert. In fact, this was one of several experiences that really made me want to become a programmer myself.

  3. says

    Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C Major ends with another great Haydn joke. In the recap of the 4th movement he puts the two little theme-lets together in counterpoint so that the whole recap lasts just 12 measures. There follows a big trumpet and drums fanfare that sounds like the end, and then 4 measures of silence, inviting audience applause. But of course, that’s not the end at all.

    So a few years ago, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is playing this piece, and at the big silence, the conductor actually turns, makes a short bow, and walks offstage to applause, only to be retrieved by the concertmaster, who points to the music. Then the conductor does a comic surprise take and they all finish the piece together. The audience, needless to say, ate it up.

    I agree that performers could take more liberties with classical music scores, but I also think that the performances could be theatrical and arresting if musicians would only *think* and interpret beyond the notes.

    Very nice, that performance joke. Wish there was a video. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    I agree. Just thinking, and then bringing your thoughts about a piece to life, purely in the performance, would be welcome, all by itself.

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