To Repeat or Not in Symphonic Form

April 18, 2013 | Tags:

Recently the topic of whether to take repeat or not in symphonic form was discussed on the conductor’s list-serve from the League of American Orchestras. The original question arose with Brahms symphonies. Here is my reply. While some of this looks technical, it is really mostly about trying to find out how the music breathes and occupies time and space. I hope you find it interesting.

My approach on whether or not to take a repeat is something of a case-by-case assessment. In the case, for instance, of Brahms 2nd, there is a big question posed by introductory sounding material which ushers in what is seemingly the movement proper. Yet, when you take the repeat, that introductory material is repeated also because the repeat sign goes all the way to the first bar. Hmmm, it must be part of the real “allegro” movement, or Brahms is repeating an introduction (very unusual for our supposed reactionary classicist). Then at the recapitulation, the “introductory material” is presented concurrently (in counterpoint) with what we thought was the beginning of exposition proper. So taking the repeat is very much a part of the gradual elucidation of the form/material and its implications, and its luminous wonderful ambiguities. Then, too, in the first ending is an insistence on the descending scale, which will be so prominent throughout the symphony, and have its eventual apotheosis in the final bars of the finale. After that investigation, I cannot, for myself, possibly leave out the repeat.

Further thought on this also leads me to keep the repeat. In the Fourth Symphony, which I believe is the only first movement Brahms Symphony without a repeat sign, we are a third of the way (or so) into the development before we discover that we are NOT in the throes of a repeat (because of literal repetition). This creates its own beautiful tension and smearing of forms that Brahms was so fond of. That effect is all the clearer if we DO take the repeats in the earlier symphonies of Brahms. Thus in the 4th, we have a conflation of sonata form, and curiously, a sonata-rondo form (AB{AC=dev}ABcoda {=A})….so nice of him to provide us with a last-movementish form here in the first movement, since he will rob us of that chance with his devastating chaconne in the finale. Brahms is even thoughtful enough to straddle the A material over from the development into the recapitulation and create a symmetry with the start of the development. These moments of evolution of idea are minimized if I am not used to the notion of the repeats in the earlier symphonies.

Here’s another thought: at least considering taking the repeat in any particular symphony can lead us to very interesting deliberations on that topic we never seem to discuss anymore as conductors: pacing. Yet, Wagner’s book on conducting, if my memory is correct, discusses almost nothing else! If we relax a tempo for the second subject (for instance), what happens at the repeat? These will be case by case answers, but at least considering the idea of repeating will inform that very interesting journey of how we structure the movement in time. In the end, it seems I usually (though–I don’t think–always) find reason to repeat. In any case, the question of repeats is, for me, a great and interesting part of the dialogue with the score: what is the piece asking of me as I try to realize it most convincingly as I can for that performance.