Overtures and Encores by Arthur Butterworth
There appears to be a fashion at orchestral concerts nowadays to offer
but three works, and not infrequently, (especially when some vast, tedious
Mahler symphony is the awesome rite being indulged in), just two, or
even just this one and nothing else. This is a situation not unlike
that of the diminishing size of a bar of chocolate: a few decades ago
this was of a satisfying size for the money, but over the years for
the same sum, or even more, the size of the chocolate bar seem ever
to decrease. History reveals that concerts a hundred years age or more,
would be mammoth musical events, perhaps something like this: a Beethoven
overture, a Mozart operatic aria, a Mendelssohn piano concerto, a Haydn
symphony. After the interval another perhaps Rossini or Weber), an operatic
vocal quartet, or a couple of Schubert songs, a Chopin Nocturne, and
finally a Beethoven symphony. Probably all this never took less than
three hours, or even longer; to say nothing of the incongruous programme
planning. Some of Beethoven's own concerts were notable for their long-winded
content; not just one symphony, but two, interspersed with a concerto
as well as vocal music and maybe a movement of a string quartet; all
preceded by an overture.
Since the 1960s, or thereabouts, such concert openers, the operatic
or concert-overture has to a large extent disappeared. It is as though
such incidental ‘trifles’ are of no account, or take up too much rehearsal
time. Critics rarely have much to say about such short opening works
anyway, but this might well be due to their editors who no longer allow
the kind of space for in-depth concert reporting as in more expansively-cultured
Edwardian times when perhaps even two full-length columns would be the
prerogative of distinguished critics such as Bernard Shaw, Ernest Newman
or Neville Cardus. Nowadays such column inches are only for the national
moronic obsession with football.
However, concert organisations themselves (rather like the chocolate
manufacturers) are largely to be held responsible for the steady decline
of the concert overture. Concert promoters will evince several reasons,
some of then, as already remarked, concerning rehearsal time, but probably
always in some way related to the economics of concert-giving, and perhaps
not infrequently to the rather precious way we regard them.
This is something akin to the exclusive couturier's shop window
which displays but one fearfully expensive and almost remotely-unattainable
designer costume. On the other hand the over-full 'Last Night
of the Proms' kind of concert can be compared to a chain-store's window
at an annual sale: every available inch of space being taken up with
an incongruous collection of skirts, trousers, blouses, lingerie, gloves,
handbags, scarves and other trivia of dress.
Concert-promotion has certainly become irritating in many ways: the
presentation, like all other kinds of mass advertising, over-done and
precious in its hype of the one or two works offered (as if one had
never heard of this or that Beethoven or Brahms before, but now describing
it as ‘this sensational, well-loved symphony’ or the ‘electrifying,
yet romantic piano concerto which will send you into ecstasy on your
way home’). Similarly the tedious and utterly boring list of previous
orchestras, concerts or jet-setting places around the world that the
conductor or soloist has visited. This is not necessary; a performer
is only as good as his last performance — not the ones he might have
done ten years ago.
Amid all this hype and precious programme-planning the overture seems
ever more often to be displaced. Yet it serves an excellent function
— not just that of allowing late-comers to get to their seats before
the main work in the first half - but to set the mood and atmosphere
for what is to follow. Like a good, well-balanced — and probably expensive
meal — it needs a starter to captivate and prepare the appetite. There
are basically two kinds of overture: the operatic one which is traditionally
compounded from the main themes and motifs from the opera to follow,
and the concert-overture, usually in the nature of a one-movement symphonic
piece, complete in itself. Examples of both kinds are numerous indeed:
operatic overtures by Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Auber, Verdi' Ambroise
Thomas, Weber et al. Concert overtures by Dvořák, Brahms, Tschaikowsky,
Mendelssohn, Elgar, Shostakovich, Berlioz, Beethoven; to say nothing
of the countless twentieth century purely concert works intended as
comparatively short opening pieces to display an orchestra’s
prowess. Such works deserve their place in the complete concert.
Similarly the concert suite, often descriptive or programmatic, often
derived from opera or ballet has its place along with larger scale works
such as the symphony or concerto. The full-blown concerto has also tended
to oust the shorter solo works with orchestra; such the Two Romances
for violin of Beethoven, the Humoresques for violin of Sibelius, or
the Elgar Romance for bassoon. All this seems to say that there is only
room for major works. Slighter things (except at down-market ‘Last Night
of the Proms’ inanities) seem no longer to have a rightful place. The
analogy with a meal in an exclusive restaurant might be further extended:
Just as we would expect some kind of hors d’oeuvre — an overture — at
the beginning of a dinner or performance; and would expect the meal
to end with some well-planned dish that complements the gastronomic
overall plan of the meal, so would we expect the concert to end in a
well-designed way. Just as we would not expect after a finely—served
and sophisticated meal to be offered — just as an extra —a few fish
and chips, or a bit of toast and strawberry jam — neither ought we to
expect unplanned and unannounced trivial encores at a concert.
Encores of course, have been part of concert life from very early times.
But they are invariably ill-conceived and spoil the intended emotional
effect of a carefully designed concert programme. What does
encore really mean ? Does it literally mean: do the same
piece again; or does it mean simply just play something
again - no matter what, I have never liked encores, they are embarrassing
and miss the emotional point of what the whole pre-planned concert has
been leading up to. The first time I heard the Beethoven Violin Concerto
(in Germany in 1946) it made a tremendous, overpowering impression.
But the distinguished soloist followed it with what then seemed a trivial,
throw-away little nonentity. I turned to my German hostess and asked
what it could be. It was in fact part of a Bach partita for violin alone.
In its right context this can be a wonderful piece of baroque music,
and I have heard it many times since; but as an encore to the Beethoven
Concerto it sounded trite and totally devoid of any nobility of its
own — Just a throw-away piece of trivia. More often than not it is the
ego of the performer which "milks" the audience for more and more
applause, by not completely disappearing modestly from sight, but by
dallying in the wings so that the audience can see he is just waiting
to be invited back on to the platform.
Conductors are the very worst offenders in this respect. It seems that
at concerts in earlier times, the decision whether to allow an artist
to perform an encore was more or less strictly regulated by "someone
in authority" - at the Three Choirs Festival it was usually the
dean of the cathedral who assessed the appropriateness or otherwise
of an encore, and at the Norwich Festival (not held in the cathedral
but in the secular St Andrew’s Hall) it was usually the Lord Mayor!
(if he were attending the performance). "The Musical Times"
always seems to have had a lot to say — usually critically — about this
pernicious practice of totally uncalled-for encores.
So — let us have proper programme planning: a good overture to start
with, but NO inappropriate or un-necessary extras after a satisfying
concert, the encore should be banned.