Big stuff

One of my deadlines to meet this past week has been the completion of a lengthy essay – more like a book chapter, actually – for this summer’s Salzburg Festival. Between 15 and 22 August, Teodor Currentzis and musicAeterna (of the Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre in Perm) will give period instrument performances of the complete Beethoven symphony cycle, in five concerts of wall-to-wall Ludwig. They are all, already, sold out.

I was talking to a friend recently about the ‘scariest’ bits of my job. Do I get the heebie-jeebies when I know I’ve got an audience to face of more than a certain number? Or if I’m sharing the stage with someone really famous? What about personalities in the audience who I might spot? If a radio broadcast is live, rather than pre-recorded? (As indeed it will be – live, that is – next Saturday on Record Review.) The queries are always related to the part of my activities that involve public speaking, and I can see why. But writing can be equally intimidating, and there are two particular circumstances under which is might terrify: if the composer is going to be in the room but has not contributed to the note (that is, if you are effectively telling the person who wrote the thing what you think it’s about); and if the pieces you’re writing about are pieces that everybody knows.

But it’s ok!, you might be thinking. If everybody knows the pieces, then they’re not expecting anything ground-breaking or new, you can write whatever you fancy. Take your own angle. This is true, up to a point. If you’re freed from the obligation of having to start with ‘audience, meet this composer you’ve never heard of,’ and progressing from there, you have more words to play with and more freedom to ponder. In a huge note like this one, the brief was to provide a shortish note per symphony, but also a much longer note that took them as a cycle and teased out specific topics that might be relevant to all of them. What would you choose? And what would you choose if you also felt obligated to read a good chunk of the vast Beethoven literature – and I mean v a s t – to pin down your facts and general currents of opinion. What if you read the book by the renegade by accident, and take it for the viewpoint of the majority? What if you’ve missed something really fundamental, and end up writing nonsense because you’ve completely misunderstood the situation? What if some of the writers you’ve misquoted, or even decided to ignore, are at the performance, scowling over their programme books? You don’t have to be standing in front of people for them to be able to pass judgement on you, after all. Any composer, Beethoven included, could tell you that. And I mean, it’s Beethoven. It’s like being asked to summarise the things you find most interesting, unusual, astonishing, about Leonardo da Vinci. Where do you even begin?

LP of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

Weirdly, if I had to draw a graph of anxiety levels around getting a piece of work like this done, it would probably look like a normal distribution curve, though with a slightly bumpy left-hand side. I’m asked to write the note: bump. I consider just what that actually means in terms of research, content, how important it is to make this excellent, the people who might read it: bigger bump. I park that and plan what I need to read and when. When I start reading and listening, the curve gradually begins to ascend. You don’t really know how ignorant you are until you start finding things out. By the time I’ve read almost as many things as time allows, and I’m acutely aware of the sensation of digging my way into a mountain with a blunted teaspoon, we’re nearly at the top of the curve. Then I start writing. Immediately, having started pops the anxiety bubble. I do know how to write. Sentences and structured thoughts are something I can figure out, and even if they take an amount of reorganisation and editing, I can usually get to where I want to go in the end. I write, and write, and listen, and write, and wander off, and re-read, and edit, and write… and within a few days, it’s a draft. Then I ignore it. Ideally for at least 24 hours. (This is not difficult when you have a variety of other deadlines looming to distract you.) When I feel that anxiety curve has levelled out entirely, and the brain has reached ‘well I’ve basically done that though, haven’t I?’, I re-read it. Now it might as well have been written by someone else. So the final edits and fixes are much easier.

There is one final thing, though, that does relate to public speaking, which is still an important part (for me, anyway – and I think it can be useful for a lot of people) of my writing process. When it’s done and proofed, I read it out loud. Not like a speech exactly, because this is not a thing that is written to be orated. But I have to say the words. All of them. (Benevolent soft toys can form a useful audience for this procedure. Some of mine are now superbly well-educated on nineteenth-century symphonic and chamber repertoire.) It is the ultimate mistake-spotting activity. And we programme note writers have the great delight of such miss-a-letter-our-and-you’re-done-for words as ‘recital’ and ‘public’ to contend with.

So with a sigh of relief, and after all of that, I sent my Beethoven note to the programme editor at Salzburg a few days ago. Is it any good? I guess you’ll just have to go to Salzburg to find out whether you like it or not. But crucially, writing can be just as high-pressure, and as ‘scary’, as talking in public. It’s not an easy ride, and writing programme notes is not like a sort of cheap conveyor belt version of essay writing, as some of my undergraduates seem to think it is. We’re doing the best we can to give you something interesting and new, something well-researched and perhaps a little bit provocative, to draw you in, even if the repertoire is so familiar that could sing along to the concert. Here’s hoping it helps.

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