Do I Repeat Myself? Very Well – I Repeat Myself

Do I Repeat Myself? Very Well – I Repeat Myself by Bernard Jacobson

A few days ago, in praising a splendid performance of the Brahms First Symphony that Michael Stern gave with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, I nevertheless animadverted—as I often do—upon the disregard of composers’ repeat marks, and observed, “I do not think that musicians in statu pupillari should be imbibing the lesson that a composer’s directions may be ignored with impunity.” I kept my comments on the subject brief, because I did not wish to overburden an otherwise highly enthusiastic review with too much that was negative. But it may be worthwhile to instance a few things I have heard said or done that bear on the observance or disregard of repeat marks.

It was actually at Curtis, nearly 20 years ago—I think it was in 1997, the year of the Schubert bicentennial—that the school’s then dean, Robert Fitzpatrick, introducing a performance by Curtis students of that composer’s C-major String Quintet, and spotting me in the audience, pointedly addressed me with “No, Mr. Jacobson—we will not be making the first-movement repeat.” Perhaps he meant the remark as just a bit of light-hearted fun—but I was sufficiently taken aback that I did not have the presence of mind to ask in reply, “Why is there a note of pride in your voice, Mr. Dean, when you are telling us that you are about to disregard the composer’s explicit instructions?”

A few years earlier, when Wolfgang Sawallisch had been appointed to succeed Riccardo Muti as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra but had not yet taken up the post, he asked me about some comments of mine on the subject that he had come across, and specifically about the case of the Brahms First Symphony. And when I made the same point as in my recent review, to the effect that omitting the first-movement exposition repeat seriously reduces the impact of the sudden pianissimo a few moments into the development section, he said, “Oh, you’re absolutely right, it’s essential for the form, but I would never do it”—a willingness to accept damaging compromise that I find totally incomprehensible in a performer.

I am certainly willing to acknowledge that there are a few scraps of evidence suggesting that, even in high-classical times, such repeats, both in sonata-form movements and in the da capos of minuets or scherzos, were very occasionally regarded as optional. But the overwhelming weight of opinions expressed on the subject makes it clear that great composers, from Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, did not suddenly become careless or absent-minded when they added such directions to scores that in every other respect are models of meticulous attention to detail.

One especially curious and illuminating case has to do, again, with Schubert. Alfred Brendel is a musician of unimpeachable dedication to the cause of responsible and stylistically aware performance. He paid me the compliment, among the acknowledgments in one of his books of essays, of including “Bernard Jacobson, whose views on repeats helped to clarify my own”—which may just have been his characteristically polite way of saying “Bernard Jacobson, whose views on repeats are idiotic.” For he told me years ago that he simply could not bring himself to take the exposition repeat in the first movement of Schubert’s great B-flat-major Sonata, D. 960, because the nine first-time measures that lead back to the repeat stand in so violent a contrast to the prevailing serenity of the rest of the movement.

But, Brendel notwithstanding, can we be seriously expected to believe that Schubert wrote those measures in his sleep, and did not realize when he woke up that they were a mistake? Is it conceivable that he was unaware of the very real clash of tone the disputed measures create, and that he did not intend precisely that dramatic upheaval? The point of the passage was made clear in an especially insightful performance of the same work that Ignat Solzhenitsyn gave—at Curtis, again!—when he was barely into his twenties: after the volcanic disruption of those first-time measures, it was impossible to listen to the pianist’s second traversal of the exposition without harboring a nagging fear that the explosion would come again. When it didn’t, the resulting gentle transition into the quiet opening of the development section took on a greatly enhanced sense of relief.

What composers actually said and wrote, as distinct from what this or that performer may wish they had said or written, must surely be decisive. And when you consider that Beethoven took the trouble to write out, in the score of the finale of his last string quartet, Si repete la seconda parte al suo piacere, the inescapable conclusion, a fortiori, must surely be that, in the absence of any such specific instruction, repeating the section in question cannot be regarded as a matter for a performer’s pleasure or otherwise to decide. In fact, you can find that very point—that repeats are obligatory “in the absence of any such specific instruction” to the contrary—spelled out in the 1802 edition of Daniel Gottlob Türk’s treatise, Klavierschule.

Let us posit, in conclusion, that there may be at least three persons involved in the making of a decision on such a matter—the composer, the performer, and, after the fact, the critic: as it might be, for example, Schubert; a thoroughly competent Curtis student string player; and Bernard Jacobson. Which one of those three, do you think, is the most important musician, and which should thus be accorded the biggest voice about the form of a composition?

Bernard Jacobson

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