Never use the “C” word

“Cycle,” I mean….

I’ve noticed lately that any kind of cycle of works by a single composer is bound to unleash bellyaching from one direction or another.

When they’re well played, I love cycles. I like to experience a composer’s evolution through a series of performances.

Not everyone does, though. I remember a one-concert cycle some of my teachers gave at the UW in the early 90s. It as a performance of Beethoven’s 3 string trios from opus 9 on a single concert. I thought is was fantastic (I’d seen the same thing done with the opus 59 quartets.).

However, the afternoon of that concert, I remember running into another faculty member. I asked if they were going that night and she said “oh god no. What a horrible program. Concerts like that embody everything that people, including me, hate about classical music! I can’t imagine anything more boring.”


We talked a few minutes, and it quickly became clear that what she really didn’t like was the poster saying “Beethoven- Three String Trios, opus 9….” Had they done those same three trios and called it “Beethoven Rocks the Freakin’ House! Hell Yeah!” she would have approved. Anyway, she missed a damn fine concert.

You see, for many people, the key to enjoying a cycle is to not know they are hearing one. We’re finishing a Beethoven cycle this coming season in Pendleton (that’s all of the symphonies and major overtures- we still have the Triple Concerto and the 1st Piano Concerto to do). Throughout that long project, I’ve heard nobody speak of “Beethoven fatigue” or the “unending” Beethoven cycle.

However, between the OES’s first and second instalments of the Mahler Cycle (that is, having played exactly one work of Mahler so far), I had one musician speak to me at rather great length about “Mahler fatigue,” and “perhaps we need a break from the Mahler Cycle.” Fortunately, this is a minority view, but I have noticed that no matter how many people love a composer’s works, if you announce a cycle, there will always be someone who starts whinging after one piece. The Beethoven Cycle was never announced- we knew we were doing it, but never marketed it as such. On the other hand, once the Kinsman Foundation had underwritten our Mahler project, it seemed like we had to call attention to our efforts to spread the gospel of Redneck Mahler.

Last year, the BBC Philharmonic did an excellent Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle, but by the time I saw them do 1 and 5 on the same program, audiences were staying home in droves, it seemed. Tchaikovsky! What- is he too popular for the cycle treatment? Maybe he’s so popular that cycle heads like me and my friends who would go to a Schnittke cycle won’t go because it is beneath them? I thought that was a wonderful program- enjoyable from beginning to end, it also really made the point that 1 is a miraculous piece and deserves to be as much a staple of the rep as 5. They just did a Brahms Symphony/Schumann Concerto cycle- I wonder how it did? Another UK orchestra is just finishing a Mahler cycle which, if you read the papers, sounds like a catastrophe of historic proportions. Would it have gotten the same reaction if they’d just snuck along and done Mahler after Mahler? There is a Mahler cycle going on Cardiff at the rate of one a year, but they’re not telling anyone.

This week, our Schumann cycle is continuing apace in Surrey. We’ve done some short works, the Piano Concerto, the Cello Concerto and the 3rd Symphony so far, and right on schedule, we’re starting to hear the first few delicately phrased questions about “just how many Schumann symphonies are there?” (answer- one times two plus three and another 3/4, plus one almost that doesn’t quite count, but we’re only doing 4 and possibly the 3/4)+ Note- we’ve played exactly one Schumann symphony so far. Now, musicians can say what they like- this is challenging music for any orchestra, so they’ve earned the right to vent a little Schumann fatigue. No hard feelings. *

However, I keep thinking that if I’d just kept my bloody mouth shut and programmed one Schumann work after another until the project was done, THEN announced that we had just completed a Schumann cycle, everyone would be happy as could be.

Still- there’s nothing I’d rather do than hunker down and prepare all 6 Bartok quartets in one go, or conduct all the Brahms Symphonies in a weekend, or play all the Bach Cello Suites for the dog on a lazy Tuesday. If only I can avoid telling the damn dog what he’s in for….


* One of my colleagues in the orchestra completely confused me the other night when she said the other day that she loves performing our Schumanns, but absolutely hates rehearsing them. I’ve spent the last 2 rehearsals constantly asking myself- “is this what she hates? Is it the long notes? The short notes? What about that? What about this? I just stopped- did she hate that? Or was it when I didn’t stop before? What is different about rehearsing this than Mozart 41? Am I talking more? Am I talking less? Is the music more tiring to play? Is it any music more tiring than Mozart that is a pain to rehearse, or just Schumann?” Or is it just Schumann in a cycle…..

+ Okay: one times two is the two versions (original and revised- lots of people, including Brahms, prefer the original version in the same way that many film critics prefer the tedious Manhunter to Silence of the Lambs, in spite of the fact that Manhunter is a 2nd rate film, its obscurity gives it street cred that Silence’ popularity costs it. I like the original 4th, but Schumann knew best and the revision is an improvement) of what we call the 4th symphony, really the second, plus three is no’s 1, 2 and 3 (actually 1, 3 and 4), plus 3/4 is the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, a marvel of a piece and almost a symphony, plus one that almost doesn’t count is the G minor Zwickau symphony, which has never quite made it into the canon.

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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.

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7 comments on “Never use the “C” word”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    I should have mentioned- everyone loves a cycle when it is over- suddenly the dourest nay-sayers are full of praise for the project and happily talking of discoveries and revelations. (unless it is a R*bbra cycle, which I still haven’t heard too much good about, although I missed it completely)

  2. ComposerBastard

    I dont mind cycles as long as 1) the composer is dead so I dont have to put up with composer hot air interviews 2) the composer is rarely heard in a cycle.

    Schumann is a good choice!~!!!@!@!@

  3. Robert Berger

    I would love it if some onje gave a cycle of all 9 Dvorak symphonies, plus a
    generorous selection of his many terrific concert overtures and tone poems, possibly
    doing the magnificent Requiem, which is in no way inferior to those of Verdi
    and Berlioz. 2004 was the centennial of the death of Dvorak, and nobody did this
    anywhere I know of, except possibly the Czech republic. It could have been a
    musical feast. What a missed opportunity !

  4. Chuck Gunsaullus

    I conducted a Brahms cycle over the course of one season with a very good community orchestra a few years ago which went over very well. Of course, this was spread out over 4 concerts but it did include the Haydn Variations and Academic Festival so there was plenty of the great bearded one.
    I also was privilaged to be able to attend a Bartok cycle given by the Emerson back in the 80s which was a lot of work for both the performers (obviously) and the audience. Great stuff. One should choose carefully to make it work though.

  5. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Schumann orchestration and Mozart tempi….

  6. Ed Carwithen

    Of course Mahler being one of my favorites (among my other 57 faves!), I really enjoyed working on the first two. I can hardly wait until we get to no. 5. My God; the horns you will have to import!!!
    I don’t know that once a year of a composer should be onerous. It allows the listener to begin to “get” a particular composer. Especially a composer who is not standard fare such as Tschaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart et al.

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Interestingly- many months after this post, I heard a mysterious and rather fab piece on the radio. Turns out it was Rubbra- wonderful, and from the same cycle I’d heard so much whinging about. See- you never know where these things will take you.

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