Monday, February 01, 2016

Symphonic Impromptu

An awkward repeat is like a bad second date. A discussion among social media friends recently dove into the repeat of the exposition in the first movement of Brahms's Fourth.  Most performances* are said to skip the repeat and we appeared to go along with the consensus that, as written, the effect was clumsy, even deadening (try it for yourself with a piano transcription) and this omission was less of a sin than the sin of committing a repeated exposition.  Now, the awkward effect here, of jumping without tonal preparation from the Eb Major of the end of the exposition back into the c minor of its beginning, is and was awkward only within the context of the piece's own idiom.  Jumps like it — indeed even tonally more exotic jumps — happened readily in other repertoire (for the stage, in particular) and just a generation or so later would become rather ordinary in much concert music (remember my assertion earlier here than concert music was not, traditionally, the platform for innovation that theatre music was), and the tonal relationship here, of relative Major to minor is not a distant one, but here, within the setting of a work of such classical qualities, associations, and aspirations, it was a jump not taken. Brahms, who managed both smooth and sudden changes of all sorts in his music, but also knew how to balance his propriety with his adventures, certainly knew better, but still he wrote that repeat marking. Did he write it wanting it taken, nevertheless and damn the clutziness? Did he want it taken as an option? Or was that marking just a bit of vistigial notational business, a functionless tail wagging the dog's historical consciousness in this landmark-in-the-making?  (Not being a musicologist by trade or inclination, I can safely admit that I am foggy about an historical issue in notation and performance practice: at some point, the routine of taking repeat signs to mean actually — albeit perhaps with ornament or embellishment — repeating the material between ||:s and :||s, the ||:s and :||s actually became formal markers nodding to the tradition of repeating a structural unit before going on (or, in some cases, ending or even going back even further) and this point was certainly preceded by a long period of treating repeats as options (indeed the optional repeat was an essential tool in making music for dance, particularly social dances in which momentary decisions by hosts, musicians, dance masters or the dancers dancers themselves might requiring going forward, going back, or stopping on a dime (insert the locally and historically appropriate coinage) but at some juncture it simply became okay with everyone to write a repeat sign you didn't really mean to be taken as such and you could be rest assured that everyone would ignore said marking with all the bliss that conscientious ignorance gives us.  Nothing to see here, move along.  But then again: twenty or twenty-five years later, who'd jump at that jump anyway?  Brahms's little bit of unprepared tonal motion went from too awkward to use the repeat to not awkward enough to use it.  And that's a decent example of how tonal motion works (or doesn't) both within a piece of music and without it.

* I have to fess up that this "most performances" business is based on the word I've heard on the street and a quick search through several sources online, It is a traditional factoid or even dictum that I learned in school, but have never actually seen it back up by anything resembling actually statistics.  I'll go along with the notion that it's been true for commericial recordings.  But it could very well be that a majority of performances are taking the damn repeat and the larger musical community hasn't actually registered it, treating these double-dippings into the exposition as private eccentricities in local performances. But, for the moment, let's accept the (apparent) consensus and move on. Preferably from the exposition straight into the development.

1 comment:

Dr Purva Pius said...
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