Saturday, 16 June 2012

Exposition Repeats

“All exposition repeats are observed”, Mortimer Frank commented in a recent review (International Record Review) of the Wihan Quartet in two Schubert string quartets. He might have added: “alas”. It seems to be a point of honour with current critics to insist that the repeats “specified by the composer” be observed – without asking why the composer specified the repeats. Sometimes, of course, it was because the form of the work required the repetition of certain passages or sections. But more often, it was because composers before the middle of the nineteenth century were conscious that their work would be heard just once by practically everybody. It was therefore necessary to ensure that the one-time audience had a chance to absorb the principal thematic material before the material was developed further. Thus: an exposition repeat was specified.

Fast-forward a hundred and fifty years to someone who buys a recording of a work from the Classical period, and it is likely that the listener is going to hear Beethoven's fifth symphony, or Schubert's “Death and the Maiden” quartet, upteen times in a lifetime – particularly if he or she has bought a recording of it. The need to have the exposition material repeated is therefore no longer there. Fanatics who want to hear the exposition twice, can always press the “replay” button on their players just as, in the old days of 78s, you could simply move the needle back to the start and listen again. Perhaps critics could have less of a knee-jerk reaction to repeat marks and analyse which ones are there for good, logical reasons, and which ones were there for the benefit of one-time listeners in previous ages. Personally, I am not pleased when performers regularly “go back to the beginning” in works with which I am completely familiar.

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