On Teaching

March 2, 2019

Repetition II

During the week after I finished writing my previous column, I had several experiences, each of which had some bearing on what I wrote about, so I will describe these before continuing and expanding the discussion from last month. One of them was a delightfully well-timed refutation of something that I wrote last month, the others more in sync with my thoughts.

First, a student asked me to review some of the music of Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer with him. We started with the Musicalischer Parnassus, a collection of nine suites published in 1738. I was reminded by reading through the collection that the prelude to the first of those suites follows almost exactly the same harmonic progression as the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it is in triple time. Thus it sounds a lot like my tripled version of that passage from last month: probably more so than the Bruhns excerpt that came to my mind when I contemplated my altered version of the Bach. The relevant measures of the Fischer are found in Example 1.

It is widely accepted that Bach knew Fischer’s music and was influenced by him. Fischer, about whose life not much is known, was probably nearly thirty years Bach’s senior. However, the collection that contains this passage was not published until twenty years or so after Bach wrote the WTC prelude that seems to echo it. Did Bach know this piece in manuscript? Did Fischer know the WTC, which of course was not actually published until decades later? Probably not. This is probably coincidence, and this passage is possibly just another interesting example of the use of repetition to create an aesthetic effect.

Next, I was coaching some musicians on a chamber music project, and I was surprised to be told that they had decided to make cuts to one of the pieces they were to play at an upcoming concert. Specifically, they were going to leave a movement or two out of the very long piece. However, in the longest movement, they were snipping out bits: a few measures here, a few measures there, based on a sense that the movement was too long and repetitive. This caught my attention since I had just written in my February column that, “. . . we essentially never find ourselves wanting to omit any part of a piece that isn’t a repeat. I have never had a student ask me about a through-composed piece ‘should I or should I not play mm. 9–16?’ or anything like that.” And indeed I cannot remember any previous instance of this.

A hypothetical discussion of the ramifications of this choice by these musicians would probably start by invoking respect for the composer and go on to talk about the shape and arc of the piece. It might emphasize “right” and “wrong,” or just attempt to characterize the nature of the changes brought about by this sort of editing. Some people would say that if they didn’t like this piece as is, they should play something else. I did not engage in very much of that discussion with these performers, at least not then. The choices had been made, practiced, and rehearsed. And I am not sure what I would say, beyond just that I was surprised and that I tip my hat to the Fates for delivering this to me at that exact moment.

I have heard debate from time to time about whether or not a performer should take the repeat in the long first movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major. Performers and musicologists talk about the length and raise questions about balance. But since there is a fairly long first ending as part of the section that we either do or do not decide to repeat, part of the discussion is about the material in that first ending. I have heard people use it as a reason to take the repeat—so that one does not entirely omit material that the composer wrote. But I have also heard it given as a reason not to take the repeat—on the grounds that the first ending material is boring, not up to the standard of the rest of the piece. This again touches on the question of when we do and when we do not give ourselves permission to second-guess a composer.

Then a student of mine, a former player of a melody instrument, just now getting into keyboard playing, spontaneously asked why so much keyboard music has repeats: is it just because they want to make the pieces longer? I touched on that a bit in the February column as well. It is an idea that we tend to resist, since in a way it could be taken to be disparaging or belittling of the work of composers. That does not mean that it is not true. And whatever the intent, the effect of repeats on length is real. I found it interesting that the question came up naturally for someone whose take on this repertoire was fresh and unspoiled.

The last of these chance occurrences was about the Widor “Toccata” from Symphony V. I wonder how different this piece would seem if the first measure were repeated exactly as is before the (actual) second measure. That second measure starts out as a repeat of the first, but crucially changes on the final beat.

Further questions regarding repetition

One question that I find fascinating in repeat situations is whether the two instances of the same material, one after another, are a statement of something and then a restatement of it, or are a question and an answer. This question itself will not always or often have an answer. However, in some cases for us as players, and for our students, observing our own feelings about this, one case at a time, might be revealing.

It might seem counterintuitive that the exact same notes could be both the question and the answer. However, this is not impossible even with words:



or even more extended:



“For certain?”

“For certain.”

Each of these question and answer groups works. Furthermore, each word or phrase has its own particular feeling. The “really” answer in the second grouping feels different to me from that in the first, because it is not being asked to express finality.

In the realm of music without words, the question and answer attribute is more abstract, more elusive. Attributing this to a passage almost certainly cannot ever be right or wrong or subject to proof, or even perhaps to analysis. But because it cannot ever be wrong, it can always be potentially useful. If thinking of a repetition situation as a question and answer, or as a statement and restatement, perhaps in a different mood or by a different “person,” seems useful or seems to enliven the experience of playing the passage, then it is a fruitful and correct way of looking at it.

With words, the vast majority of attempts to use the same word or phrase as a question and its answer will fail:

“Would you like some toast?”

“Would you like some toast.”

and so on.

The possibility that a repeat will seem like a question and answer can never be subject to failure as such; it can just seem like an interesting idea or not. This brings us to one of the fascinating things about repetition, both signed repeats and the repetition or recurrence of any material, whatever the structure. The fact that we can accept the amount of repetition in music that we do accept invites us to think about the ways in which music resembles or does not resemble those forms of expression that use words or concrete visually based images.

In a work of theater—play, movie, television episode—if a structure in which something happened and then was literally repeated, then something else happened and was also literally repeated, and so on, were to be used, it would be at best some sort of special effect. It is not necessarily the case that this has never been done. But it is not routine or remotely common. It would be possible to go to dozens of plays and movies per year for a lifetime—and watch an almost infinite amount of television—without ever once encountering this form.

But in music it is routine. Why is this so? It should not be that the repetition is inoffensive—acceptable—because it is meaningless. If it were meaningless, then we would not have a vast repertoire in which a substantial amount of repetition has been perceived as valuable by a vast audience over many centuries. (At least that is a fair assumption or a reasonable hope.) But the meaningfulness is abstract, and that seems to be the big difference. The extent to which repetition in music engages our “why are they doing that again?” reflex is limited.

Perhaps because the repetition is abstract, it can also evoke a response to the very idea of repetition itself. That idea is powerful. As much as we like newness, we also like familiarity, and repetition gives a sense of connection to the past and future. It is possible that sometimes, at least when we hear the repeat of a passage, we react as we do when we see an old friend or go back to our favorite restaurant. Repetition may suggest something like resurrection or reincarnation, or hint at some of the things that we wonder about and crave having to do with eternity and infinity. This is especially true of recurrence in composition, as in rondo technique or recapitulation. Certainly these images are overblown and should not be taken too literally or even too seriously. But I am pretty sure that some of these sorts of feelings are there much of the time. It is part of the picture of what repetition can feel like or mean.

In music that has words and is in verses, we expect the music to repeat, but not the words. We can sing any number of verses in a row of a hymn and happily accept that the musical notes will be the same for every verse. However, if the words were exactly the same for each verse it would seem bizarre. A phrase in words might recur. But any sameness of that sort has to be dealt out very differently with words than with music.

The term “repetitive” is, in everyday usage, almost a synonym for “boring.” You never hear someone say “that was a wonderful book: really repetitive” or “that movie was the most repetitive I have seen in a long time. I loved it!” So that suggests that we need to feel a bit of caution about whether repetition, whatever its power, can lead to boredom. This is to some extent the domain of the composer. If we think that a composer’s use of repetition in a particular piece creates boredom, we might just not want to play that piece. But nonetheless as players, we need both to make sure that we do what is necessary to make repeated material interesting and to refrain from overreacting.

I believe that a lot of students tend to overreact to the fear that repeated or recurrent material will be boring. This can manifest itself in wanting to add ornamentation or change stops. There is a kind of fruitful paradox, that if you always change ornaments or change stops on repeats, that in itself becomes repetitive and potentially boring. So everyone should be motivated to limit those sorts of gestures or to think carefully and in an individually tailored manner about when they are the most valuable.

If a repeat—or material that comes back or resembles other material—seems intrinsically boring to you, is there a way of framing it aesthetically, philosophically, or through imagery, that brings it to life? Is there a way of playing it with more energy, or less energy, like a response, like an echo, like a reaffirmation, like something thoughtfully reconsidered? A serious engagement with ideas such as these should probably precede choices about out-and-out changes. Any changes in the notes (ornamentation) or the sound (registration) or performance values (articulation, phrasing, use of timing devices, rubato, and so on) will be based on taking the passage as seriously as it warrants, not on halfway giving up on it in advance.

A very practical though mysterious aspect of playing repeated passages or identical material is that the same exact notes can seem easier or more difficult to play depending on whether you are playing them for the first or second time. Sometimes, in a long piece in which something comes back after a long interval, this can be explained by stamina and concentration issues. This is something that I have to remember to think about consciously when I am playing the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548, for example. In each movement there is an extended true da capo. And when the opening material comes back it manifestly does not feel the same. I need to remember consciously to give it an extra dose of concentration to compensate for the effects of playing non-stop for a long time. Also the return of familiar material in a case like that creates the danger of a letdown: “oh, it’s just that old passage again; I did that fine ten minutes ago.”

One way to avoid that letdown is to focus on the possible rhetorical differences alluded to above. Try to remember, whether it is an instant repeat or a return after a good deal of other musical wandering, that by virtue of its not being the initial statement it is a different thing that is going on and needs attention and interest. On a very practical note, if the fingering and pedaling of two passages that are identical in notes can also be identical, that should save time and work and lead to greater security. This is something that seems like it could go without saying, but that is also worth remembering consciously.As I said last month, a lot of this is speculation or ideas that I find interesting to try on for size. I would encourage students to think for themselves as much as possible about what it means to take an interesting and important musical idea and just plain do it again. The ways in which I have framed some of my thoughts about it might be useful to some people, but all the more so if they invite people to come up with their own.

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