Back to the Beginning (3)

Not that anyone cares, of course; but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the pianist Stephen Hough. We don’t know each other, and we’ve never even met; but we do sort of ‘go way back’ — in that Hough was the pianist at the first piano recital I ever went to, long ago and in some year like — yikes! — 1979. This was in the Eleanor Rathbone Theatre of Liverpool University (and on a stage that, years later, I got to know very well at the time of my M. Mus.). He can’t have been more than about 18 years old (a little bit older than me) — but he was nevertheless able to rattle through some of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage and all of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition without discernible effort…

I bring this up because of a helpful and thought-provoking tweet that the kid from Heswall posted in reply to a tweet from me — the kid from Seacombe! — a couple of nights ago. (It was Lower Heswall, though, wasn’t it, Stephen…?) As regular followers of this blog will be aware, I’ve been working on an article about that old controversy over whether the ‘exposition repeat’ of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique‘ Sonata, Op. 13 (1797-8) is meant to take in the preceding slow introduction as well as the Allegro — or is meant to contain the Allegro alone.

MOcoverforblog(To me, this 70-year-old row, apparently kicked off in the 1940s by Rudolf Serkin — whose own performance of this ‘version’ can actually be heard on YouTube — yields to a combination of textual scholarship, historical musicology, and two-dimensional structural analysis; but if you want to know more, you’ll have to buy, beg or borrow the January issue of Musical Opinion Quarterly in about 8 days’ time.)

Anyway, the point is that for about half a year I’ve been quizzing people — off and on (I do have other things to do) — about what they think of the various ‘versions’ (‘long’ repeat, as it were, vs. ‘short’ repeat, vs. no repeat at all…), and finally got round to tweeting to @houghhough to see what he thought. Here’s his two-part reply (with regard to which I should quickly explain that by ‘the op 13 repeat’ he means what I’ve called the ‘long’ repeat — i.e. with the introduction included):


I was grateful for his response — partly because it was kind of someone who’s now a world-famous musician to reply to a tweet from the pestering nonentity that I have steadfastly remained; but mainly because of the amount of perception he’d crammed into a couple of hundred characters. For, as it happens, it took me a jolly chewy paragraph in my article to draw attention to ‘the subtle psychology of the shortened reappearances’ that Hough refers to here. (Yes, I’m always happy to agree with someone who agrees with me!) No less important, however, is something that I didn’t say: the truth is that ‘repeating the slow introduction with the Allegro’ really does ‘make the 1st mov[ement] into a slower mov[ement] thus robbing the 2nd mov[ement] of its structural place’ — in fact, it ‘re-balances’ the sonata in a way that is very odd, and not very interesting with it. In terms of the alternation of tempi, it turns the structure’s profile from ‘Slow — Fast — Slow — Fast — Slow — Fast’ into ‘Slow — Fast — Slow — Fast — Slow — Fast — Slow — Fast’; while in terms of the proportional ratio of ‘slow music’ to ‘fast music’, we see a remarkable ‘magnification’ of the time spent ‘away from’ the Allegro tempo.

To help clarify that last point, let me re-present one of the performances I’ve linked to before — with the addition of a graphic that represents the relevant structural features of that performance. Give the video a click, and see if you agree with what I’m saying:


I daresay that everyone will have seen that I’ve tried to line up the ‘verticals’ of my graphic with the time-points of that performance — and that, as a result, we could all see that the inclusion of the introduction within the repeat helped Zimerman’s performance spend literally half its length in a Grave tempo.

Now, I’d be the last person to pretend — or even slyly imply — that ‘raw data’ like that means anything without analysis: there’s no automatic reason why a sonata movement can’t spend  half its length in a slow tempo — or, to put it another way, why it can’t be well over ‘half way through’ before it’s even out of the exposition… But the reality here is something that I think we can all appreciate with the help of Hough’s tweets. Think of it from the performer’s point of view: you’ve been on stage for 11 minutes — and in that time you’ve played 5 1/2 minutes of deathly slow music. And now — what? — you’ve got to play a 73-bar slow second movement that is Beethoven’s most famous Adagio cantabile — and make the audience feel spontaneously grateful to hear it? Well, good luck with that one, dear pianist, whoever you are!

Needless (I hope) to say, my case against the ‘long’ repeat rests on a whole raft of criteria that go beyond formally conscious ‘stopwatch criticism’ — which is what I’m offering here. But even so, I’m glad to acknowledge that Stephen Hough makes a point that I hadn’t properly appreciated: that adding a repeat of the introduction has consequences that reach beyond the boundaries of the movement itself.

Thanks, Stephen!


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