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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.

Arthur Butterworth


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