Performing classical music often involves doing the same thing more than once. Five minutes or more into a movement, the performers may find that the composer has instructed them to go back to the beginning, or perhaps to some intermediate point, so as to play the same music all over again. Some of these repeats, for example in dance-like music of a relatively simple nature, are pretty much always done as the composer indicates. Other repeats are eschewed from time to time, especially in longer and more complex music. Musicians and music lovers debate the merits of honoring or disregarding certain repeats with a passion that may seem incomprehensible to the uninitiated.
Back when I was a teenager, I read a review comparing many recordings of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica. The reviewer reluctantly could not endorse some otherwise excellent recordings because they did not take the repeat Beethoven indicated for the opening part of the first movement, the section known as the “exposition.” The reviewer explained that the structure of the movement was thrown out of proportion without this repeat, and this ruined the experience of listening to it for him. I was young and impressionable, and thrilled by the idea that anyone could be so sensitive to structure and proportions. I didn’t yet realize that for critics to talk about how a performance enhanced or distorted a work’s “structure” was a hoary cliché.
I became utterly insufferable. If anybody ever suggested we skip a repeat in a performance I took part in, I would protest loudly that this destroyed the whole “structure,” and positively ruined the work for me. People didn’t much care for playing with me at this time. Not only was I a pain, but, truth be told, performers are often not terribly fond of having to play large chunks of music for a second time.
I remember playing Brahms’ Third Symphony many years ago, not long after I had joined the Chicago Symphony. The conductor was young, and easily intimidated by the mighty CSO. He politely suggested that we take the repeat Brahms placed at the end of the exposition of the first movement. There was a howl of protest, as much a test of the conductor’s mettle as a real complaint. The young guy backed down, and we left the repeat out. The review in a local paper that week was scathing. The conductor had no business in front of a great orchestra, and the concert was a terrible chore to have to listen to. And worst of all, he hadn’t taken the repeat in the Brahms! It was just like the old Borsht Belt shtick: The food at the restaurant was terrible, and the portions were so small!
On another occasion, this same critic took greater pride in his sensitivity to structure than his acumen may have justified. The piece this time was Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, again with the Chicago Symphony. The program notes mentioned that the conductor in this performance had decided to forgo the first movement repeat. Naturally, the review was full of the inevitable lamentations about how the structure of the movement had been destroyed, and the experience of listening to the work ruined beyond repair. There was only one problem. The conductor had changed his mind during the week of rehearsals, and we actually did take the repeat. The critic, his self-proclaimed sensitivity to Mahler’s structural genius notwithstanding, hadn’t noticed.
There are, however, a few repeats in the repertoire that I do miss when they are not taken. I think one of my favorites is in the first movement of Brahms’ Second String Quintet. It isn’t so much that I love playing the music for a second time. What makes this repeat so magical is a brief transitional passage Brahms wrote to get back to the opening of the movement from the point at which you make the repeat, the so-called first ending, in the vernacular. I think it is some of the most exhilarating music in the whole piece, and you must skip it if you forgo the repeat.
And there are, I must admit, times when I do feel the structure of a movement is out of proportion without the repeat. The exposition of the first movement of Mahler’s First Symphony is extremely concise, almost reminiscent of Haydn. It seems particularly short because it is preceded by a mysterious introduction that invokes a primordial world and then is followed by a rather extended and strangely static development. The movement concludes with an astonishing recapitulation of the material we first hear in the brief exposition, which goes into regions of terror and exultation hardly suggested by the opening. If you don’t play the exposition twice, it really does seem too short, as if it belongs to a different, far less substantial piece.
There are also repeats that I positively dread. Two of them are in one of my favorite works, Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. This prodigious and gorgeous score is utterly exhausting to play. It is roughly an hour long, and makes outrageous physical and emotional demands on the performer. The third movement, marked “Scherzo” (Italian for “joke”), is in reality a rustic German dance — a rather long rustic German dance. In the middle section my instrument, the viola, plays the same rhythm over and over again, quite strongly, and on the lower strings, which requires the right arm to be elevated in a way that is not very comfortable to sustain for so long. We repeat this rhythm more than 90 times, which doesn’t count the two repeats Schubert stipulates. The first repeat is fairly short, but the second adds another 50 repetitions. Not even I love Schubert quite that much.
The last movement I think sets a record: It is 1,150 measures long. It is frenetic, almost insane music, and it requires superhuman energy to do it justice. Almost 390 bars into it, Schubert requests that you go back to the beginning and start all over again. I remember playing this piece in a suburban Chicago orchestra some years ago. We had a rehearsal in the late afternoon before the evening concert. The conductor had us play the entire symphony with all repeats all the way through, just a couple of hours before the performance. The conductor is a very nice man, and has always been very kind to me. I wanted to strangle him.
However, I also recall a glorious all-Mozart program with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony. He announced at the first rehearsal that he would prefer not to take the first movement repeat in one of the symphonies. There was a protest. Maestro Barenboim was informed that we don’t play this music nearly as much as we wished we did, and we almost never play it at the level at which he conducts it. We didn’t want to miss out on any of it. He acquiesced, and we took the repeat. I reflected on just how lucky I am. In how many other professions do people so love their work that they urge their boss to let them perform exactly the same task twice?
Composer-arranger-instructor Max Raimi has been a member of the CSO’s viola section since 1984.
PHOTO: Detail of the LP cover of a recording of Beethoven’s Eroica, by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, originally released in 1958 on RCA Victor Red Seal.