Guest Post by Lincoln Ballard: On Double Performances in Music

October 7, 2010 at 7:10 am 5 comments

As a rhetorical strategy, repetition is one of the best defenses against music’s fleeting, temporal nature.  Composers intuitively know that fact and infuse their works with all sorts of repetitive devices, from the microcosmic level of rhythms and motives to full restatements of entire sections.  Performers have their own decisions to make with regard to repetition, from quotidian choices such as whether or not to heed a repeat sign or dal segno (although even this issue can flare up into controversy) to the extreme case of repeating a complete work during the same program — an act that can either enlighten audiences or test their patience.  I thought it would be interesting to survey some performers who risked double performances (hereafter, “DPs”), explore the hit-and-miss reception they received, and consider what place DPs have in contemporary concerts.

I first encountered the phenomenon by studying the London premiere of Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poem of Fire.  This work charted new territory with its opaque harmonic language, program about the genesis of the cosmos, and futuristic scoring for clavier à lumières, or color organ.   In light of its novelty, British conductor Sir Henry J. Wood (1869-1944) boldly performed Prometheus twice on 1 February 1913 (without the color organ) in order to aid audience comprehension.  Brilliant PR stunt or foolhardy gamble?  Critic E. A. Baughan reported that in between performances over half of the audience left because “their musical morals had been outrageously assaulted” and that the second hearing only slightly eased the burden put upon the remaining listeners.  Wood’s supporters hailed the concert as a triumph, but other witnesses were skeptical.  Even Scriabin enthusiast Arthur Eaglefield-Hull grumbled, “surely some less brutal policy than playing the work twice over at one concert could have been found.  Who would want to hear, say, the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven through twice running?”

To Hull’s chagrin, Hans von Bülow – husband to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima (before she left him for Wagner) – had intrepidly climbed that sonic mountain twice in a concert of 19 December 1880 in Meiningen.  But Bülow had his doubters.  In his book on performing the Beethoven symphonies, conductor Felix Weingartner (1890-1942) questioned whether it was possible to “experience the sensations of this twice repeated titanic struggle from darkness to light and from pain to joy, then to cover the sunlight which is just breaking through with stormy clouds again, in order to enjoy the victory da capo immediately after?”  Weingartner’s reservations were confirmed by listeners of Bülow’s DP of the Ninth Symphony who simply reached sensory overload: “Numerous witnesses have told me with regret that they were unable to follow intelligently the second time and that the second performance did not attain the same level as the first.”

So does that mean that DPs of Beethoven’s epic late works are bound to disappoint?  Not necessarily.  Thayer’s Life of Beethoven reported on a 23 March 1825 performance of the E-flat String Quartet Op. 127 in which violinist Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), who was close to the composer, persuaded his ensemble to play the piece twice in succession as reparation for an earlier flop and poor reviews.  After diligently prepping the work under Beethoven’s watchful eyes, the resulting DP proved a success.  A reviewer for Bäuerle’s Theaterzeitung reported that during the repeat performance, “the misty veil disappeared and the splendid work of art radiated its dazzling glory.”

Böhm’s experiment was not the only occasion when a DP clarified a piece.  Other notable examples include Mahler conducting his Fourth Symphony in late October 1904 in Holland for a small but appreciative audience, and a 2008 Julliard concert featuring Elliott Carter’s Asko Concerto twice in one evening.  I assume that when a DP is well received, audiences first acquaint themselves with the work’s formal and harmonic peculiarities and allow their emotions to guide them through the second time.  Another observation we might make is that listeners tend to avoid overindulging on canonized works (unless they’re brief), and that lesser known or unknown works benefit most from DPs. For better or for worse, DPs show different perspectives on a work, as back-to-back performances of a piece is much like signing your name twice in a row — while similar, it’s virtually impossible to replicate every stroke and curve of the pen.

DPs come in many guises are not always a concession to the audience.  Sometimes performers just want a second crack at a piece after a lackluster performance (as I heard Jerome Rose do once with Liszt’s B minor Sonata, and as every performer has wanted to do at one time or another).  Nor do DPs always honor the composer’s wishes.  In a letter of 7 June 1913 to his Maecenas Mitrofan Belaief, Scriabin had protested, “I say to you frankly that double performances of Prometheus are not to my liking.  It is impossible to give equal inspiration twice over.”  Admittedly, composers can be misleading or simply change their minds.  Beethoven initially took offense to the suggestion that Op. 127 was challenging enough to benefit from repeat performances, but Böhm’s demonstration convinced him of the effectiveness of this approach and Beethoven subsequently approved of a DP for his Op. 132 Quartet.  An underlying consideration in all of this is how we respond to music intellectually and emotionally, huge topics that lie beyond my scope today.  For further reading on the socio-cultural and philosophical implications of musical repetition, readers can consult informative essays by Richard Middleton, Peter Kivy, and John Rahn.[1]

It’s good to see that the practice of DPs is still alive today, and I would welcome a return to the days when audiences voiced their appreciation for a work by requesting an immediate second hearing — something I’ve never witnessed in any classical concert.  It would be reassuring to know that performers and audiences alike hold the key to initiate a repeat performance and that both parties are willing to take that risk to offer a deeper appreciation for a challenging piece.  I for one would stick around to listen.

[1] Middleton, ‘“Play it Again Sam’: Some Notes on the Productivity of Repetition in Popular Music,” Popular Music 3 (1983): 235-270; Kivy, “The Fine Art of Repetition,” in The Fine Art of Repetition (Cambridge: CUP, 1993); and Rahn, “Repetition,” Contemporary Music Review 7 (1993): 49-57.

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  • 1. John Hausmann  |  October 12, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Hi Lincoln, I enjoyed your post, and it provided some interesting food for thought!

    One idea that occurred to me is the difference between how we receive works in live performance versus how we receive works through recordings. Personally, when I’m learning a work, I listen to it numerous times: I experience the entire work as a whole, then break up and rearrange the movements, etc. In doing so, I knowingly substitute experiencing the work as “performed” with familiarity. When I attend a performance, I try to experience the work as a continuity. These different types of listening do create different experiences, and leave me with different impressions of the piece.

    Perhaps it is these distinctions between listening types that make audiences love or loathe DPs. I wonder if the issue is not so much content (as Beethoven’s 9th and a work by Carter, pound for pound, contain enough musical content to overwhelm even professional musicians) as context. When one goes to a concert, one usually expects to hear multiple works once, and this expectation plays out in the physicality of the listening act (focusing ones thought through a shorter piece, in preparation for the “major” work). I would be curious to know how a DP would be received if the audience knew ahead of time that they would hear the same work twice, as opposed to the opposite. Do you have any thoughts? Again, thanks for a great post!

  • 2. Lincoln Ballard  |  October 13, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Hi, John –

    Thanks for your comments and glad you enjoyed the post. In most cases, audiences attended these concerts knowing that a DP would occur. You make an excellent point, though, about how context affects reception. With Beethoven’s Op. 127, I got the sense that the work was performed for an intimate group of willing participants, whereas Prometheus at Queen’s Hall was a more traditional event with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto sandwiched in between for sonic relief. There’s also the question of demographics — padding out the audience with Beethoven’s supporters at the Op. 127 DP naturally led to a more favorable outcome than having a well-heeled, conservative London public sit through a DP of an ultra-modern work composed by a non-native.

    As for live performances vs. recordings, personal perusals of works in the comfort of one’s home have a controllability factor that is noticeably absent from live concerts. But I think that repeated listenings of a recording can have a similar effect – anyone stuck on their favorite track will tell you that they hear new things in it the more they listen, but to be an innocent bystander when someone else loops their latest earworm can amount to psychological torture. In short, you have to be in the right frame of mind to get the most out of a DP, which is why I think they work best when pre-planned instead of sprung on audiences.

  • 3. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  October 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for the post, Lincoln.
    It is nice to know that double performances continue to be a part of modern-day concerts. Subsequent hearings always reveal something new regardless of whether it is live or Memorex.
    It strikes me that finances might account for the overall demise of the double performance. That is, when a DP isn’t planned for (as in your Carter example), concerns about paying overtime to unionized musicians and staff probably overrule even the most effusive audience.

  • 4. Jake  |  October 17, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Lincoln – I just wish that, as you suggest, performers encored with immediate encores upon request by the audience. I’ve only ever witnessed one encore at a classical concert, and it was for the soloist of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He came out and played a Chopin prelude he had arranged for violin. An interesting choice, certainly. I don’t think anyone was suggesting, however, that he repeat any movements of the concerto!

    It would be more apropos for premiere performances of new works, which is traditionally when we hear about encores being requested. This is certainly something I would love to see, especially since modern compositions often necessitate multiple listenings for comprehension. I would love, after a world premiere of a new Lindberg piece at the NY Phil, to hear it again (if it’s good enough to merit an encore).

  • 5. Ralph Locke  |  October 26, 2010 at 4:58 am

    Interesting post, Lincoln! It’s made me reflect about the whole nature of listening-in-concert vs. listening-on-CD. (I’ve basically not graduated to MP3 files yet.)

    There have been some fascinating attempts through the years to build a concert around the Beethoven Ninth. One (written up at the time in Musical America) was Michael Gielen’s quasi-double performance:

    Mvts. 1-3, followed by Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw


    Mvts. 1-4

    In general, I think we could do more, in concerts, to perform works differently than as if the concert hall were simply a large CD player. That’s one reason concertos often seem the liveliest part of a typical concert: because the soloist brings more spontaneity/individuality to his/her reading than the conductor and orchestra do to the rest. Perhaps by interspersing/juxtaposing pieces and movements, we could achieve some of that same freshness–revive people’s somewhat jaded listening habits–though in a different way.

    (By the way, bravo to Drew and Ryan for keeping this wonderful blog going–and indeed keeping it fresh!–for several years now!)


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