Seconds…?

There’s some fairly extended and — if you’re up for a challenge! — even self-aware listening required of you today. And, as for me, I’m aware that this won’t interest everyone. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the experience of concentrating on three performances of the same music for a total of 60 minutes or so will seem exhausting and even unpleasant … so let me start with something so utterly ghastly that the pain yet to come will feel like a mere bagatelle in comparison…

You ready? Here we go…

Yup, it’s the atrocious Eric Carmen again, and another of his smash-and-grab raids on the melodic richness of a Rachmaninoff slow movement. You may remember that I exhibited one of his bizarre thefts the other month, on the occasion of the anniversary of the original work’s premiere — and you’d be right in thinking that I’ve done exactly the same today.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Rachmaninoff_1900.jpg

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) in the early 1900s…

Yes: according to the history books, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony (composed 1906-7) was premiered on 8 February 1908 (‘Old Style’ calendar). And there’s something about the form of its first movement that I’d like to share with people tonight.

Don’t worry: there are no forbidding technicalities. It’s simply a question of a large-scale repeat: the immediate re-presentation of several minutes’ worth of music that’s first heard at the point where the first movement’s slow introduction finally gives way to faster material. If you want to know the ‘Sunday name’ for the stretch of music I’m talking about, modern musicology refers to it as an ‘exposition section’ — and the repeat of this stretch is called, perfectly reasonably, the ‘exposition repeat’.

This repeat is prescribed by the composer and written in the score — not as a succession of pages ‘copied out for a second time’ (that would be a terribly wasteful and expensive use of paper: a publisher wouldn’t stand for it!), but, rather, as a pair of big, dark vertical lines with some little dots by them: these ‘repeat marks’ face one way at the start of the section to be repeated, and face the other way at the end — and each player’s job, once they’ve reached the end of that marked section for the first time, is to turn straight back to its beginning and do the whole thing again

If you’ve never seen what this looks like in, say, the conductor’s full score, I can show you the bit in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony where the repeated section begins…

rach2expstart

… and the bit where the repeated section ends. (Here you’ll also see the ‘1st-time’ and ‘2nd-time’ bars that show how the music is constructed so that it first leads back to the start of the repeated section, and, second time through, leads ‘forward’ to whatever happens next.)…

rach2expend

It is, in fact, a beautifully practical system, and it’s been working with wonderful efficiency to indicate the presence of repeats for several centuries now. Well, except for one little problem: people keep leaving them out.

Yes, down the years composers have written thousands — hundreds of thousands — of these ‘repeat marks’ in works of all types — and players and conductors by the hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — have just ignored them entirely; played the section once only; and gone home earlier than they should have done.

What this means in the case of our second music example, above, is that such people ignore the ‘1st-time bars’ and the ‘repeat mark’ altogether — and proceed straight to the ‘2nd-time bars’ and whatever follows them. So you and I don’t hear the exposition a second time, and the composer’s structure and proportions are seriously distorted. If you ask me, this mutilation shouldn’t happen, at all, ever, for any reason. But it happens all over, even today — and especially in symphonies by musicologically marginalised people like Rachmaninoff, where conductors and critics alike love to pretend that the composer hadn’t a clue about ‘structure’ and therefore wrote repeat marks that are best ignored, especially since you get home earlier.

Well, here’s something that I am going to offer as a rough-and-ready test. It’s not at all scientific (for various reasons that I’ll go into on another occasion, if anyone asks me to) — but it will allow people to have an experience that they may never consciously have had before: the experience of hearing the same movement in contrasting performances that don’t and do include the composer’s notated exposition repeat.

Here are three — yes, three: I mentioned them at the start! — performances of the symphony’s first movement alone. First up is one in which the composer’s repeat is ignored. After that comes one in which it is observed. And after that comes another in which the repeat … is either played or it isn’t: I’m not letting on — because your job is to take what you get and decide for yourself what you feel about it.

Feel free to let me know how you feel after all three performances. (Send me a private message, if you prefer: don’t feel the need to do it in public…)

That’s all…

MD

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