Writing Concert Program Notes:
A Guide for UWW Students
by Prof. J. Michael Allsen
(revised March 2019)
I've been a program annotator for over 35 years—primarily for the
Madison Symphony Orchestra, but also for many other orchestras and
festivals. Nobody told me how to do this, and I have more or
less learned "on the gig." Nearly all of us will end up
writing notes at some point, however, so I have provided a few
general guidelines. Where appropriate, I've linked some of
my own notes or other websites as examples.
1) Give the audience a sense of the work's history. Traditionally, notes include the facts of a work's creation: the dates of composition and first performance, and where and by whom it was first performed. Some details of composer biography are usually appropriate. If you're dealing with a "big name" composer, you probably don't need to deal with who they are, but rather focus on the composition of that particular piece (see, for example, the note on Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5). If it is a composer who is likely to be unfamiliar to most of the audience, however, it is perfectly appropriate to include a brief biography (see, for example, my note on a work by the American composer Jennifer Higdon). Most contemporary composers will maintain their own website, including a bio. Just a word of advice about composer bios however: most contemporary American composers include long lists of awards, commissions, and groups that have performed their works—interesting to me, but too much information for your your readers. I'm always very selective about which information I draw from composer websites. Compare, for example, the brief Higdon bio paragraph in the note linked above with her official biography.
2) Give the audience a sense of what to expect while hearing the piece. My own analyses have become much less detailed in the last 30 years. I still use technical designations for various forms—sonata form, rondo, passacaglia, etc.—but I try to be careful to define the term for my readers, or to make it apparent in the ensuing paragraph what the elements of the form are. I think that most audience members can distinguish minor and major keys, but noting that something is modulating from F Major to C Major will be meaningless (or even offputting) to most of your readers. I therefore seldom mention specific keys and key relationships in my notes, as interesting as they might be to me as a musician. As an annotator, I generally try to experience the piece as an interested audience member would: thus I am much more likely to listen to a recording a few times than to study a score. Like a good "tour guide," you lay out the overall form of the piece, describe the character of various parts, and point out interesting features along the way. In some cases, the composer him/herself has given written notes on the piece. The easy way out is simply to quote those, but many annotators will incorporate composer comments into their own writing. See, for example the note on Bernstein's Symphony No.2 ("The Age of Anxiety"), where the last two paragraphs weave together the composer's comments and my own description of the music. Many contemporary composers will include analyses on their websites, but always think about whether or not this material is going to be useful for your readers. Simply put, composers are not always the best describers of their own music!
There is no set length for program notes...aside from the ones I'm assigning you to write for my class! I know that I almost always end up writing more than my orchestras want to publish: by the time I'm finished, my notes for a kind of typical symphony (overture + concerto + symphony or other large orchestral work) are often 2500-3000 words. I usually edit them to about around 2000 words for the printed program, which seems to be relatively standard. This is probably still quite a bit longer than you need for a recital or a chamber music program, or a public school music concert. Generally a page or two in the program (say 400-1000 words) is adequate.
This is not a research paper: program notes should avoid stiff
and formal "academic" language. It is not necessary to cite
authors unless you are using a direct quote, though if I am
summarizing a great deal of material from a single book or
article, I tend to give the author an informal citation in my
Keep in mind that you're writing for a group of interested and generally well-educated people (who may not know much about musical terminology) rather that for a bunch of musicians. I try to strike a fairly friendly, conversational tone, and leave all of the musicological jargon and pomposity at home. When I refer back to notes I wrote 30+ years ago, I am often struck by how darn "important" I was trying to sound...and how unappealing that is to read!
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians - Your source of first resort. Grove is the standard English-language dictionary of music, with thoroughly authoritative, and fairly up-to-date articles written by recognized experts. Most university and larger public libraries have a copy and/or access this by way of Oxford Music Online, Andersen Library has the 29-volume paper version, but also has the online version, which you can access from any oncampus machine, or offcampus using your UWW password and username. [Note to non-UWW readers: Oxford Music Online is a subscription service, so don't expect to find it in a general online search: you generally have to be working in a library or associated with a campus that has a subscription.] For more obscure composers, this is usually the easiest and most complete source of information. For well-known composers (Mozart, Brahms, etc.) it can be a quick check on dates of composition and first performance, as well as a valuable source for the biographical background on a piece.
David Daniels, Orchestral Music: A Handbook - The standard listing of major orchestral works, and part of the working tools of of any orchestra librarian. The latest printed edition—the fifth edition of this venerable reference work—was published in 2015, and it is also available in an online format, accessible by subscription only. This is not a complete listing of orchestral works, but covers most works that are published and generally available, with instrumentation, duration, and sometimes with movement-listings. The Daniels book can come in handy in several ways—e.g., figuring out which of multiple versions of a single piece you're writing about.
Composer biographies - Just cruise the ML410's in the Andersen Library! In general, the newer the better. There are also books specifically on the works of major composers. I like the old BBC pocket-size guides and there are also more substantial Cambridge guides to specific works.
Liner notes - You'll of course want to listen to the piece, so take a look at the CD liner notes if you can—generally somewhat more authoritative than notes you may find at random in an online search.
Notes on the score - Some scores will include quite bit of information about the piece: sometimes a program note by the composer, or an indication of who commissioned the work and when it was first performed. Concert Band repertoire is particularly generous in this respect—with the educational market in mind, band composers often provide quite extensive descriptions.
Published collections of program notes - Many of the finest program annotators have published collections of their notes, often covering a host of "standard" compositions. Check out the MT125's in both the reference collection and the main stacks upstairs. A few selected sources of notes for orchestral music in the standard repertoire are:
- Donald Francis Tovey's six-volume Essays in Musical Analysis. [MT90 .T6 E8 1959 ] A real classic in this form. Tovey's program notes, in most cases written over a century ago, probably wouldn't fly with today's audiences: his literary style is pure turn-of-the-20th-century Edwardian English, and he presumes a depth of musical knowledge that most audiences today do not have. But his outlines of form are always a good place to start. Tovey is also a great source of pithy quotes: one famous example is the last movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which he describes as a "polonaise for polar bears!"
- Edward Downes, The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony. Downes, longtime annotator of the New York Philharmonic, published 20 years' worth of his notes in 1976. I appreciate Downes's cogent, no-nonsense style, and broad coverage.
- Michael Steinberg, The Symphony: A Listener's Guide. The Concerto: A Listener's Guide. Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Steinberg, longtime annotator of the San Francisco Symphony (also New York & Boston) is one of my favorite annotators to read. His notes are exhaustively researched, often incorporating some of the latest musicological work, and always well-written and enjoyable. These three books collect his notes in three broad genres.
- D. Kern Holoman, Evenings with the Orchestra. Holoman wrote most of these notes for the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra and the University of California - Davis. Thoroughly well-written and intelligent. Holoman is occasionally opinionated but always useful.
- All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music. Huge collection (something like 800 pieces) of program notes and other essays...in teeny, tiny print! The quality of the individual notes varies considerably, but they are generally well-researched and fact-checked. Most of the of the AMG notes are also available online.
Online searches - Important: Though I do quite a bit of my program notes research online these days, I always consult New Grove or another authoritative source whenever possible as a "fact check." Several strategies and resources I've found handy:
- Many orchestras or annotators make program notes available online. Finding them can be hit-or-miss, but I usually have good luck with a Google search for "Composer - Significant Word from the Title - program note" Hint: for someone like Mozart, you're obviously not going to want to search for "symphony" but instead by K number or key.].
- I will admit to using Wikipedia fairly often—especially to check information on non-musical historical background. There are increasing numbers of Wikipedia articles dedicated to single pieces. Handy, but just like the rest of the web, check your facts carefully. And why would you depend on Wikipedia if you have access to Grove?
- You may also run across extensive sites devoted to a single composer. Some of these are "fan" sites—fun reading, but sometimes not particularly useful stuff. In other cases, you can find information that is generally authoritative. A great example is the wonderful Bach Cantatas Website. Many contemporary composers have their own websites, or have them maintained for them by publishers: see for example, the useful site for the composer Eric Ewazen.
Those things hanging on either side of your head - You are a trained musician writing for an audience that is almost certainly less aware of the nuances of a composition than you are. If you are writing about a piece that you are performing or conducting, you can seldom go wrong by discussing what you hear as interesting or significant about a composition