Reading the Program
At most concerts, each listener receives a printed program that says what will happen.
This program may be as simple as a piece of paper or as elaborate as a book. Look for the
“program page” that lists the music to be played. (If the program is a booklet, this page is
usually in the middle somewhere. Some booklets include programs for several concerts.)
Since classical music comes from different times and places, the titles on the program
page will often be in foreign languages. You might encounter different ways of titling
the same piece, and even different spellings for a composer’s name. (Classical music
originated before the age of standardization, back when a word might have three different
spellings on the same page!)
A piece might have a main title followed by a list of its sections, rather like a book’s
name followed by its chapters.
Different kinds of titles
|Naming the piece:
||On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Quartet for the End of Time
|Naming the type of piece:
||Symphony No. 6
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Sextet in B-flat
|Naming the expressive character:
||Adagio misterioso (slow & mysterious)
||Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
Orchestral programs usually list the players and the instruments they play. Sometimes the
list doesn’t exactly match the players. There may be last-minute substitutions, or, for large
pieces, extra players may have been hired. An orchestra’s string players may be listed in
alphabetical order, not by where they sit.
I heard that the composer Darius
Milhaud and his wife pronounced
his last name in two different ways.
One said mee-OH, and the other
said mee-LOH. Now when I hear
an argument about the right way to
pronounce some word, it’s hard for
me to take it too seriously.
It can be fun to match the list to the instruments and people you see on the stage. Many
concertgoers enjoy learning to recognize different musicians and what they play.
Programs often include information about the featured performers. This is where you find
out where else they have appeared, what recordings they have made, and what honors
they have received. Don’t expect to find many personal revelations; such biographies are
usually written to impress you with the performer’s professional accomplishments. Many
performers also have their own web sites, where you can learn more about them.
Some programs include short essays about the music,
about the composer, or about the historical context.
Some program notes describe what will happen
in the music; some analyze the music or present
If information helps you enjoy music more, consider
arriving at the concert early enough to read the
program notes before the performance. Some
organizations make their program notes available
in advance of the concert, mailing them to ticket
holders or posting them online. But beware: Although many program-note writers provide
lively and insightful essays, some program notes might obstruct your enjoyment. If you
don’t find the program notes helpful, just ignore them!
Pronunciation (don’t worry)
Classical music concerts are full
of professional jargon, esoteric
terminology, and foreign words.
Don’t worry about how to say
everything. Some of these words are
pronounced differently in different
Program Guide Key
- There are three pieces in the concert.
- The first piece doesn’t have any separate sections listed, so it will probably be one continuous piece of music.
- The second piece is divided into three sections, or “movements.” Probably they will be separate and easy to count (so you’ll know know when to clap at the very end), but occasionally a composer pulls a trick and connects two movements without any silence in between.
These movement titles are the composer’s indications of the speed and character of each movement. The titles might be in any language, but most often they are in Italian, the first international language of music.
- Five movements.
- “Op.” or “Opus” means “Work.” This is either the composer’s 63rd published composition, or the 63rd piece that he wrote.
- This is a catalog number. After Mozart died, a man named Köchel catalogued his compositions and gave each one a number, roughly in the order they were composed. A few other composers’ works have catalog numbers, usually with initials indicating who organized the catalog.
- “Walking tempo but slow”
- “Rondo [see glossary] at the speed of a Minuet”
- The name of the soloist in this piece.
- For modern works, sometimes the year of composition is given instead of an opus number or catalog number.
- The first movement starts out “Slow,” but changes to “Lively.”
- “Walking tempo”
- “Scherzo” is a kind of movement [see glossary.] This Scherzo is to be played
“Lively and furious.”
- “Finale: very lively”