Who writes the Minnesota Orchestra’s program notes in our monthly Showcase magazine—and what goes into writing them? One of our favorite collaborators is Montreal-based writer Robert Markow, who answered a few questions for our “Meet the Annotator” Q&A series.
How did you first get into the music field?
I actually started out as a performer, playing second horn in the Montreal Symphony. I stayed only a few years, then jumped the stage and found life much easier on the other side. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but music was in my blood, so I got a degree in musicology at Montreal’s McGill University to see where that might lead. Since my professional training on the horn was at the highest level, that meant critical listening was at the heart of my work, and I eventually found my way into music criticism.
How did you get into writing program notes?
Alongside my work as a music critic and journalist, I began writing program notes for the Montreal Symphony. One thing led to another, and I eventually became the only person living in Canada who makes a decent income just from writing program notes for orchestras, festivals and concert organizations across North America.
What is required to be a successful program note writer?
Good question. There’s no such thing as a college degree in writing program notes. You need good writing skills, of course, and a solid background in music history for starters. Ideally you also know something about world history, art, theater, dance, film, literature, architecture and religions. Passing familiarity with German, French and Italian is also highly useful.
Meticulous attention to detail is another essential. Names of composers and performers are so easily misspelled. I myself misspelled the famous Juilliard School for years until someone corrected me. Keeping up with the latest research is important too. For example, when was Prokofiev born? The composer himself claimed April 23, so why not believe him? Well, he was wrong! Going by his birth certificate, only recently discovered, the true date is April 27. One can’t be expected to know everything, but it helps!
What’s your process when writing program notes?
It’s fairly simple: assemble all the information I can find about a composer and the work being performed, mull it over for a time, decide what’s most important vis-à-vis the space I have been given to work with, then write. I always ask myself: “What does the listener most need to know about this composer and/or the piece in order to maximize his or her listening experience?”
I almost always include in my notes some kind of “road map”—how the piece is organized, what the main themes or ideas are, and how to recognize them. Otherwise the listener is left with the equivalent of just a “sonic bath”—a succession of sounds that wash over the ears but mean little. I also like to engage readers when possible—challenge them with a question, throw them a red herring, set up an obvious explanation and then prove it false, etc. For example, when I wrote about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, I started by challenging readers to name any composers besides Prokofiev who have written a symphony in that rarely-used key. (There aren’t any!—not famous ones anyway.)
What are some challenges that a program note writer encounters?
The most difficult works to write about are obscure compositions by dead composers, especially those outside the main orbit of central European or North American music history—for example, the Croatian composer Dora Pejačevič or the Japanese Yashushi Akutagawa. If I’m lucky, a scholar has written an entire book on the composer. In some cases, the composer’s native country will have a good music information center that can help.
New music is usually fairly easy to cover, since today’s composers almost always submit a paragraph or two about their work to the performing organization, and can be contacted directly if a follow-up is needed. Granted, not every composer is as comfortable communicating in words as in music, and there have been rare cases when what the composer provides is not useful for general audiences, or when the composer prefers to let the music speak for itself.
Challenges of another sort arise when different sources claim different things. Which one to believe? Generally speaking, the newer the source, the more likely it is to be trustworthy.
How important is listening to the music and examining the score?
Both are essential. How can you describe the music, or even know what to say about it, without knowing how it sounds? I once read a program note claiming that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony opens with a solo for four trumpets in unison. Obviously this writer had not listened to the piece. It takes only one or two giant gaffes like that to lose your readers’ credibility for good.
Are there composers and time periods that you most enjoy writing about?
My favorite is the late Romantic period—Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner—and certain early 20th century figures like Shostakovich, Bartók and Rachmaninoff. Modern music is a sticking point with many concertgoers, but there is some excellent new music out there. A few of today’s composers I favor are the Finn Kalevi Aho, the American Richard Danielpour, and Qigang Chen in China.
What else besides music interests you?
I love color, so tending a large flower garden in the summer takes my mind off music for a while. I read a lot, watch a lot of movies, attend informal wine-tastings with friends, and travel often to Asian countries in pursuit of musical excellence. We hear so little in the U.S. about what’s happening in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, etc., but both the quantity and quality of all the performing arts there are absolutely amazing. I read somewhere that some 200 new theaters have opened in Asia just during the past 30 years.
How has the business changed since you began writing 40 years ago?
The internet has made the program annotator’s work vastly easier when dealing with obscure material and new music. Previously I spent a lot of time sending faxes and calling publishers in search of information that is now all online, or available via email correspondence.
After writing for over 40 years, do you ever think of retiring?
Why? I love what I’m doing. I might as well continue getting paid for it!