The Program Notes You Won’t See at My Recital

I’d love to write program notes for people who’d love to read them. I’d love to offer a digital version you can read on your phone (I don’t care if you have your phone out at my recital). I’d love to bring in extra recycling bins for everyone to dump the physical copies that will probably go unread.

Just last week I was reminded of my least favorite question: “How do you have time to read a book?” It’s the most judgmental question you can ask a person. You’re saying, “How dare you use your time wisely when I would rather complain about how busy I am.” Everyone is busy. You make time for things you want to do. I want to read.

Because of this, instead of program notes, I would much rather have a recommended reading list to occupy you during my recital. The rules are simple: books are listed under their corresponding flute piece, with a short summary describing why it was selected. Use this summary to choose one book to bring to the performance, either from the list or let it inspire your browse through the library.

Program notes are my favorite part of a performance. I want to know the performer when I read their notes. This performance is heavily inspired by literature, which is a personal tool I cannot add to my own notes. Use this hour to open a book if it’s something you joke about never getting to do.

Partita in A minor for flute solo, BWV 1013, J. S. Bach

The Partita is four movements of dance music. The styles are traditionally refined, but Bach adds just enough scandal in the harmonies to make it interesting. For this, look for American classic literature: This Side of Paradise, the pseudo-autobiographical novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about well-to-do young men who get away with more than they should because they are men; or Lost Lady by Willa Cather, a shorter novel about a socialite woman who gets away with nothing because she is a woman, no matter how charming and attractive.

Sonata “Undine” for flute and piano, Op. 167, Carl Reinecke

“Undine” refers to a German romantic fairytale of a water sprite who marries a knight to gain a soul. Several reiterations of this story exist (most notably “The Little Mermaid”) in other cultures, many of them with a sad ending. Reinecke was inspired by the tale, but the sonata is not strictly narrative. I turned to the four Books of Earthsea when searching for imagery. The first, A Wizard of Earthsea, is headstrong and invincible. Magic in Earthsea is held by those who know “the true names of things,” the language of the Making. The protagonist, Ged, is as reckless as the playful melody of the first movement. He isn’t faced with the truth of his power until the second movement, which is repetitive and tumultuous. It is broken by a humbling, romantic melody, and returns quietly to vivace. The final movement is represented by the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, which was originally intended to conclude the trilogy. The romantic melody of the second movement returns, almost as an afterthought. Similarly, the final book, Tehanu, was written decades later when Le Guin, then middle aged, could tell Ged’s story in the next stage of his life. I have written above this passage a line from the third book: “I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”

Syrinx, Claude Debussy

In Greek mythology, Syrinx was a follower of Artemis known for her chastity. She is pursued by the god Pan, and asks for help from the water spirits when he corners her and threatens her virtue. They turn her into hollow water reeds that whistle hauntingly when the god angrily breathes across them. Pan cuts them down, fashions the first set of pan pipes, and plays this melody. It is mournful, yet not overly sad; it is multi-faceted and finds new colors each way you turn it. The poetry of W. S. Merwin is similarly meditative and nostalgic. Open any page of Vixen.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten, George Crumb

Crumb chose flute and percussion as the voice of nature and quiet intensity. When I was learning this piece, Dr. Chaffee assigned Julie Otsuka’s books for the latter qualities. A Buddha in the Attic describes the lives of female Japanese immigrants in California in the years before and during WWII. The book describes actions only with simple language, never elaborating or assuming a character’s reasons. Crumb writes in the program note: “The ancient sense of brotherhood with all life-forms … has gradually and relentlessly eroded, and consequently we find ourselves monarchs of a dying world.”

The middle of the piece quotes eighth century Chinese poet Ssu-K’ung Shu: “The moon goes down. There are shivering / birds and withering grasses.” This is whispered into the flute, eerily evoking images of speech through the trees. Crumb laments the “illegitimacy” of mankind in the natural world, our invasion of a community we are killing. This is personified in Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi book, The Word for World Is Forest, where humans harvest resources from an alien planet and its humanoid inhabitants quietly retaliate.


Edit: This is almost the exact handout printed for my recital in April 2018, with additions to the composers’ biographies and two suggested titles. They were indeed the program notes you saw at my recital.

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