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Thinking About Encores


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 Fantastique, and Ravel’s Daphnis II): “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “La Marseillaise,” and the first movement (March) from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, plus 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’Albert, consisting of the last five sonatas of Beethoven (opp. 101, 106, Hammerklavier, 109, 110, 111; total 146 minutes); d’Albert added the Appassionata (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 Nuages gris 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 W. W. 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 complete 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.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I heard Garrick Ohlsson play that bagatelle as an encore. It was surely the shortest encore I ever heard. I knew the piece but most of the audience were very perplexed

    Comment by Paul Biss — October 26, 2022 at 8:12 pm

  2. If Mr.Paul Biss and I heard the same performance by Garrick Ohlsson (Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood),
    our soloist’s announcement was something like, “Now, after the longest work in the repertory ( it was after all Beethoven Sonata in Bflat op.106, well over 40 min in length) I shall play the shortest one.
    It seemed that the announcement, sitting at the piano, waiting for the audience to quiet down, took longer than playing that shortest of Beethoven’s Bagatelles from op.119.

    Comment by Roman Markowicz — October 27, 2022 at 8:29 am

  3. He didn’t announce it and that contributed to the audience behind completely bewildered

    Comment by Paul Biss — October 30, 2022 at 11:53 am

  4. Ned Rorem’s “I am rose” is one of the shortest ‘complete’ works I can think of – actually satisfying as a work unto itself.

    This recording clocks it at a leisurely 28 seconds, but it can easily be shorter:

    In the early days of iTunes, when any track could be sampled for thirty seconds, there were four different recordings of this song available, all for the cost of $0.99, but all of which could be heard entirely for free as samples. I made a little something out of that once upon a time, a sort of tempo canon:

    Comment by Michael Monroe — November 3, 2022 at 9:29 pm

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