Thinking About Encores – The Boston Musical Intelligencer

Jonathan Biss’s quiet, lovely encore at last Wednesday’s Boston Phil event, a true Moment musical, was no. 1 of Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, op. 126. “Chips of marble from the workshop,” Hutcheson calls the three sets of bagatelles, and sometimes they are even substantial chunks. But many of these make ideal encore pieces. I even wondered, casually, if an encore could be fashioned out of no. 10 of Beethoven’s 11 New Bagatelles, op. 119? This must be one of the shortest actual compositions by anybody that actually ends in a double bar: eight bars repeated, with a four-bar coda. It’s marked Allegramente and lasts approximately 16 seconds — I timed it. Nothing even by Anton Webern is that succinct. I’m not saying that anyone should try to play this as an actual encore, but no doubt at some point someone will. (Perhaps adding Cage’s 4’33” in the process.) No. 11 of the Opus 119 set is a few bars longer, still less than a page, but it must be memorable; Max Reger made an enormous orchestral piece out of it, his Variations and Fugue, op. 86.

I’ve heard a variety of different encores, especially at piano recitals. Often these will be short pieces likely to be very familiar, and I have heard Schumann’s “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen several times; sometimes they will be lesser-known. I heard Maurizio Pollini, in the Great Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, playing a program that was half Schumann and half 20Th century, including Schoenberg’s Opus 25 Suite. For an encore he played Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, op. 19, as a set, but they are all very short, the total lasting about three minutes. (Someone in the seat behind me exclaimed, “Haben Sie eine Ahnung, was war das?!”) In 1969 one of my students took up my suggestion that she include, for an encore after her piano recital, Ravel’s Waltz à la manière de Borodine. It lasts a little more than a minute, and a fellow professor, sitting next to me in the hall, was totally delighted: “What a perfect encore!”

Sometimes the encore is supposed to be lighthearted, or even humorous, to offset the serious heaviness of a large concluding work preceding. I remember at an AMS national meeting when a chamber group specializing in Med-Ren music offered an encore called “The Golden Goose,” written for their group by a professor who claimed not to like Med-Ren. It was for viol, lute, and voice, in a pointillistic atonal style à la Webern, but it sounded well and was warmly applauded by the musicologist audience that had just been hearing Machaut and Dufay.

My recollection may be incomplete, but when the Lamoureux Orchestra, under Igor Markevitch, came to Symphony Hall in 1960, I think I remember three orchestral encores (after a concert that included a Gounod symphony, Berlioz’s Fantasticand Ravel’s Daphnis II): “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “La Marseillaise,” and the first movement (March) from Bizet’s L’Arlésienneplus a short English-language greeting of thanks from the conductor.

The encore idea basically suggests short moments. But not always. After a fine recital in Sanders Theater by Marc-André Hamelin, I heard him play the first movement of Schubert’s last Sonata in B-flat major, D 960, for an encore — 15 minutes or even longer. There’s also a story that may be apocryphal: that Artur Schnabel, after playing a recital in Philadelphia’s Wanamaker’s Department Store, and annoyed by the audience’s rustling programs and candy wrappers, decided on an epic encore, Beethoven’s complete Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, with repeats — about 56 minutes. That even outdoes a heroic recital (I would guess about 120 years ago) that Hutcheson tells of attending, by Eugen d’A Majorlbert, consisting of the last five sonatas of Beethoven (opp. 101, 106, Hammer piano, 109, 110, 111; total 146 minutes); d’Albert added the Passionate (28 minutes) for an encore.

Russell Sherman had the idea in 2001 of playing an entire recital of encores, some 17 pieces, from Mozart’s weirdly chromatic Minuet K. 355a and Beethoven’s op. 33 no. 1 (see my reminiscence HERE ) to much bigger items, including Chopin’s A-flat Major Ballade and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 17 — but then he also favored Liszt (I’d have rather heard Nuage’s pig for an encore). One wag, who did not get what he wished for, demanded Beethoven op. 111 as an encore to the encores. The complete program (including artistic director David Deveau’s essay) from the Rockport Chamber Music Festival is HERE.

His eclectic program set me to recalling one of my own publications: “Mostly Short Pieces: An Anthology for Harmonic Analysis,” published by WW Norton in 1992, 416 pages, comb-bound, containing 117 items by 50+ composers, but now out of print. The pedagogical intent was to make available pieces for harmony and orchestration courses that could be studied completely in one class meeting, or for one daily assignment. The collection never sold well, but a number of teachers wrote to me that they had found it very useful. And this in turn points to the essential value of the brief encore: to concentrate the concertgoer’s entire attention for a minute or two, encompassing a complete moment of musical thought — and there is surely a learning value in that.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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