B5- Take the repeat!

Time limits are mitigating against me writing too much this week about B5 preparations with the Surrey Mozart Players, but I am getting excited about the concert and hoping that I’m able to be there for it (more on that next week). There is good news for the orchestra- the concert is sold out (that’s 3 sold-out programs in a row for the SMP), and the rest of the Guildford Spring Music Festival, of which this will be the final concert, has been going really well, so we should have an electric atmosphere.

Earlier this week, I wrote a bit about the band and the edition we’re using. Today, I’ll try to share a few thoughts about how we’re deploying our resources in this performance.

As it happens, I’ll be doing something new (for me) on Saturday, which is to take the controversial repeat of the entire Scherzo and Trio. For most of the last 100 + years, conductors have done the movement as it is published in the old edition, which is in ABA’ form. In the 1970’s musicologist Peter Gulke pointed out that in its original form, Beethoven had written the it in ABABA form (the autograph manuscript is clearly in ABABA)- repeating all the way back to the beginning after the Trio and playing the entire first two sections again before going on to the ghostly return. I suppose my first reaction on hearing a conductor take this extra repeat was a bit of shock- I figured he was being a bit bloody minded and was reading too many articles. Working in the past with Del Mar’s edition also reinforced this conclusion- Del Mar states unequivocally that Beethoven firmly rejected the repeat in later versions of the piece.

However, after the last performance I did with LCO in January, I began to doubt myself and Del Mar. 

 I think that a great deal of my doubt comes from my experience doing the other Beethoven symphonies over the last 10 years. After all scherzos of the 4th, 6th and 7th symphonies are all ABABA, and compared to those, the scherzo of the 5th can feel strangely truncated. Also, I began to feel that the short version of the 3rd movement doesn’t make the return to C minor after the 2nd movement sufficiently strong enough to make the C major of the last movement feel like the massive transformation and release that it should. In its ABA version, after finishing the 2nd mvt in relatively comfortable A-flat major, one only hears about 90 seconds of C minor, then we’re in C major already for the trio, then the brief return to C minor for the transition to the last movement.

Scholars are divided on this question- Del Mar feels the ABA’ is conclusively correct, Brown feels that ABA is probably correct, Gulke feels strongly that ABABA’ is correct. Beethoven clearly was of two minds about it, but did compose the work originally as ABABA’.

I think that using the ABABA version this week will give the symphony more balance, instead of the Scherzo feeling like an episode, which it sometimes can, it should feel more like a full movement of equal weight to the other three. It will also be of the same proportions as Beethoven’s other Scherzi from this period of his career.

To me, the real reason to doubt ABABA is not which editions and copies have what scratched out in whose hand, but it is the return of the Scherzo in the Finale, which invalidates comparisons with the norms in the other symphonies. Once LvB brings back the Scherzo in the last movement, all bets are off.

Still, I’ve decided to try it. There is a good interview with Ivan Fischer on YouTube right now talking about a similar experiment he did with the order of the inner movements of Mahler 6.  Although I think it is dangerous to try to use one’s own taste to solve a scholarly question, there seem to be some issues that are best solved musically. With experience, I’m hoping to get a better sense of either –

1-       Why Beethoven wrote it ABABA as he originally did, and why I should be skeptical of the reasons for the later change, or- 

2-       Why he may have changed it, and whether his reasons for the change were musical or practical. Was he pressured into the cut? Did he feel the scope of the piece was too massive for Viennese audiences? Or did he think that ABABA was a mistake?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “B5- Take the repeat!”

  1. Michael Monroe

    Pretty interesting. I agree that “the return of the Scherzo in the Finale invalidates comaprisons with the norms in the other symphonies.” Even before that, the direct link to the Finale does the same thing. At any rate, I see no reason why we should want or expect the 3rd movement to be equal in weight to the other three. This is a problem I often have with classical forms, the tendency for movements to string along just to fulfill their quota – but then I’ve got 21st-century ADD issues. Still, I’ve always assumed that, given the other unifying features of this symphony, Beethoven wanted to tighten up the form and avoid the quota business.

    Nevertheless, it sounds like a worthwhile experiment, even if only to let audiences hear this in a new way. Of course, one potential advantage would be to give the audience a chance to hear the normal Scherzo twice so that it’s transformation is more apparent, although a work this familiar needs that sort of double exposure less than most.

  2. Foster Beyers

    My teacher, Victor Yampolsky, at Northwestern University, absolutly agrees with you on this issue!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Michael-

    Thanks, as always, for the comment. Not sure I agree with you that the link with the finale invalidates comparisons with the other symphonies, as the 6th has a direct attacca from the 3rd to 4th to 5th movement (and the two are like mirror images of each other- the consecutive op numbers simply remind us that the two very different pieces are deeply related). As you pointed out, this version makes the transformation of the A section more dramatic because we’ve gone farther towards establiching a norm through repetition.

    Still, I’m trying to tread lightly and see how I feel after the performance.

    Hi also to Foster- that’s interesting about Victor.


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