I read the following in last night’s program booklet:
“Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and the Romantic eras in Western art music, he remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers. His best known compositions include 9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets. He also composed other chamber music, choral works (including the celebrated Missa Solemnis), and songs.”
Oh yeah, that Beethoven.
Is it just me, or is this too basic? For those who already know Beethoven, it’s all but useless, maybe even a little insulting. For the uninitiated, it seems to me, it must be close to meaningless. If you don’t know who Beethoven is, then you don’t know what “Classical” and “Romantic” means, you don’t know what a concerto is, or why someone who composed 16 string quartets should be famous. Is it hard to write a string quartet or something? And is someone of that uninitiated ilk (not that there’s anything wrong with it) likely to be at the concert reading said program note?
Imagine a similar note at a Rolling Stones concert:
“Mick Jagger (1915-) is a famous British singer and frontman of the Rolling Stones. A crucial figure in the triumph of pop culture over everything, he remains one of the most famous and influential musicians of all the Rolling Stones. He is best known for singing “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and other Stones hits, for wiggling his fanny during live performances and for his prodigious lips. He has also written 16 string quartets.”
My own opinion on writing program notes is that the writer should skip the biography of the composer (except when said composer is widely unknown) and concentrate on the biography (so to speak) of the piece that is about to be performed. And keep it brief, if possible.