Listen & Do #1: Theme Programs

FirefoxScreenSnapz001This Oregon Symphony program is an example of a “theme” program which is constructed with intelligence and meaning, and contains consistently great music, sequenced in a way that is startling and tells a story. While the overbearing theme is about “War”, by placing the three pieces in the first half as a continuum without breaks, it forms a seamless narrative: the Ives asks the timeless questions about meaning, the Adams recounts the suffering of war victims, and the Britten opens with a brutal lament and ends with the peace of Requiem eternam. Performing these works without breaks (or applause) in effect unites the three works into a kind of single work in three movements. This first half sets up the anxiety and emotional violence of Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4, written in mid 1930’s as the storm clouds gathered over Europe.

How this works
You can listen to a short excerpt of each piece below for a flavor of the works. To hear the entire program, listen to the live broadcast from Carnegie Hall at the bottom of this post. There is also a list of the program below the recordings. There’s a NYT review of this program and finally, there’s a stream of an interview with Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar talking about this program.

Charles Ives Unanswered Question
The sound is so quiet, so fragile, you have to lean in to hear it. The sound is almost imperceptible and it focuses the ear on straining to hear the texture. Once Ives has your complete attention he introduces short fragments, scraps, phrases, that seem to hover over the background.

John Adams The Wound Dresser
Adams picks up where Ives left off. This is a 1989 setting of verses from a Civil War poem by Walt Whitman.

Benjamin Britten Sinfonia di Requiem
This piece was a commission composed in 1940 to commemorate a Japanese celebration, and Britten, who was a pacifist, made it a work that decries the toll of war. It starts violently and ends in a kind of deep resignation.

Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4
Enough of Britten’s resignation. Vaughan Williams wrote this symphony on the eve of World War II, and it is angry – rude even – with jabs and fits and rage. While the first half of this program contemplates and regrets war, this second half is the rising up of a cry against it.

Listen to the entire concert:

The Oregon Symphony
Karlos Kalmar, conductor

“Music for a Time of War”

CHARLES IVES The Unanswered Question
JOHN ADAMS The Wound-Dresser
BENJAMIN BRITTEN Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 4 in F minor


Program notes | WQXR interview with conductor Carlos Kalmar about this program

New York Times review of this concert

More Information?
Want to add more information about any of the performers, composers or recordings related to this program? Add it to the S4MU wiki page.

Class Discussion Here
Do “theme” programs work? Often programs have spiffy titles, such as “Catchy Classics” or bad puns like “Bach To Baroque.” Sometimes trying to jam music into a program to make a theme work makes the whole thing fake. On the other hand, if a program is well constructed, it ought to leave you with something – an idea, a feeling, a new way of seeing (or hearing) things. And isn’t that the same as a theme? Perhaps a theme is just a construct for an idea, and the theme is only as good as the idea. Do themes make you more or less interested in a program? Or does it matter?  Add your voice below.


  1. Whether themes make me more or less interested in the program depends on the theme. If it’s a theme with a question I care about or can relate to, having a theme may make me listen to a new piece of music or a piece that I haven’t particularly liked in the past in a new way. If it’s a theme in which I’m not very interested then putting music I already enjoy in the theme may mean that I only listen to that piece and dislike the way it’s being connected to other pieces. In other words, when it’s a thematic program, the program is indeed only as good as the idea/theme chosen.

  2. There are two types of programing: pandering and artistic, my opinion. The first is just using famous pieces to attract, the second is to make a statement. A program and a theme may or may not be one in the same, but they do try to accomplish something. Maestro Kalmer made a point that you do need to leave an impact on people when they come to a programmed concert. Sometimes, I admit, I may come for a specific conductor or guest artist, but I keep interested after they are done by enjoying the ideas of the program. The themed concerts, like all Richard Strauss, may be a bit overdone, but still worth seeing.

  3. I have a radio show on classical music. I allways look for a theme when planning the next week show. This class is making me rethink how to program. “The program is as good as the theme” indeed.

  4. I’m curious about the choice to start with The Unanswered Question. A lot of the piece was almost not perceptible (maybe it is my sound system? But I guess a lot of radio listeners have the same problem). Given that this concert was to be broadcast, was it a good choice?

    • Really good point joreeel. If one is taking into consideration the location, that location also includes online and broadcast. And it is very hard to hear in recording or broadcast, so I fear the effect is lost on most people. In the hall, however, it works marvelously (even if there were a lot of coughers that night). I guess for me, the idea of this program was so compelling, it was worth it. Another argument for the power of being present in the live performance.

      One other thing – I think as our ability to reach more and more people outside the concert hall improves, we have to increasingly think about the context of how we reach them. Last year the Spring For Music website had more than 250,000 visitors involved in different ways of engaging with us. How do you measure that engagement? Many more people interact with us digitally than can fit into Carnegie Hall. So is Carnegie Hall the only true experience, or even the ultimate experience? Or is it only one expression of an artistic idea?

      • I attended this program for two performances in Portland and, yes, The Unanswered Question is more effective live than in this live recording. The performances were, as I recall, cough-free but were instead plagued by what I refer to as “F*cking Crackly Water Bottles.” My symphony attendance has attenuated over the last few years as audience members engage more and more frequently and noisily with a variety of beverage containers.

  5. Rebecca says:

    Sometimes I enjoy a theme and sometimes I don’t. When a theme seems interesting or intriguing to me that will often cause me to become more excited about listening to the concert. I will sometimes purchase tickets to a concert simply because the theme sounds like something that I would enjoy.

    On the other hand, when a theme is poorly done or doesn’t sound interesting to me, that could cause me to avoid the concert or to not purchase tickets at all.

  6. With a theme, there is also more “chance” to discover a new piece, something I would not have come across otherwise.

  7. And now a word from the Philistenes…
    I listen to a lot of Classical music, and also some Alternative Rock. I would guess that the number of recordings of classical music authored before 1913 dwarfs the number of recordings since that date.
    Can that be said of ANY other style or type of music, where newness repels audiences rather than attracts them? If I saw what was on this program, I wouldn’t buy a ticket.

    The Rite of Spring was revolutionary. It put the entire business of Classical music on the shelf, turning what was a popular and accessible form of music into incomprehensible, hard-to-sell “art”. I’m in business, and have no artistic training, but I know from living in this world that only academically oriented people would program this type of music. It’s about impressing peers, not gathering audiences!

    There are modern composers that have produced interesting and accessible art, e.g. Dohnanyi. Why do I have to hear Schoenberg’s works performed at the NY Philharmonic, when I know there is a modern repertoire that is not atonal and doesn’t need to invent a scale that nobody else uses.

    If Mozart were alive today, I’m pretty sure that with his commercial bent he would be doing something other than Classical music.

  8. “A great program makes connections that you may not have thought of before.”

    -Anne Midgette

    I never really considered programming to have much more weight or purpose other than to draw connections between the chosen music. What a wonderful story this program tells. It doesn’t seem to be just a theme but rather a journey that an audience can take that allows them to consider the multifaceted face of war. I wonder if this program could have been taken a step further with involving stories of veterans and the impact of war on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This could be a unique opportunity to pay tribute to our veterans aside from the standard pops medleys.

  9. Anthony L says:

    I think if a theme is forced it doesn’t feel right to the ear, at least mine. It can’t be contrived. However a theme, like a simple melody, fading into and out of different movements is devine. With some element of surprise, this is pleasing to the ear.

  10. Scott H says:

    If a theme is well chosen then it provides a path for the listener to try to follow. The theme provides the context, the sign posts, that can help make me learn how to make the connections. Its only when I am following the theme, that I can really appreciate when the music takes a left turn.

    • Exactly my thoughts. To condense every piece into a single point, to bring all ideas back to a single theme, makes art much more powerful in my mind. A program that lacks a theme would be chaotic and hard to appreciate, unless maybe the point there is supposed to represent chaos and disorganization, which is a theme itself. No theme to a program seems sloppy, unless the point is to be sloppy which, in art, can be done and can be beautiful.

  11. I like theme programs. I think they work. Because they establish some sort of context–some lens through which to hear what you’re listening to. While this lens isn’t necessary, it can then help to make you more receptive to new pieces you’ve never heard before. OR: this thematic framework could cast familiar pieces in a new light, given what you hear before and after them in sequence.

    Ultimately I think themes help break people from their choices and introduce them to something unexpected but welcome.

    • tremicknas says:

      “While this lens isn’t necessary, it can then help to make you more receptive to new pieces you’ve never heard before.”

      I think that’s a really valid point – we see so much apprehension about and often a blatant disinterest in hearing “new” music, but with the right context and sense that it is part of the story (or the meal), one might appreciate something that is seemingly intimidating or unapproachable.

      That said, programming and themes can feel overbearing or too didactic if not designed with care. I don’t always want someone else to prescribe my experience or direct my listening so specifically.

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