In response to:

'Schubert's Last Sonatas': An Exchange from the March 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I am a great admirer of Alfred Brendel as a pianist and a thinker about music. But it would, I think, be misleading to allow his remarks about repeats in the classical repertory [Letters, NYR, March 16] to stand without comment.

In a magisterial article [NYR, February 2], Mr. Brendel expressed skepticism that the repeats of the first sections (the “expositions”) of Schubert’s late piano sonatas could have been intended literally. The idea that these repeats were vestigial manifestations of an archaic mentality and therefore merely pro forma, has been widely (although by no means universally) believed since at least the second half of the 19th century. In a letter [NYR, March 16], Professor Walker Frisch suggests that, because Schubert provided “several bars of music specifically written out…to lead back to the beginning,” he must have meant his repeats to be observed. Like Professor Frisch, I think that Schubert meant his repeats; but not because of the presence of those extra bars, for if, as Mr. Brendel suggests, the repeats were pro forma, then the extra bars would have been as well.

If he is to give convincing renditions of Schubert’s late sonatas, Mr. Brendel must make decisions about repeats which work for him, and in which he can believe fervently. In deciding against certain repeats, he is thus doing what he should and must do to achieve his artistic goals. Scholars like me (or Walter Frisch) must think of many approaches, collecting evidence for and against each approach and reminding ourselves as we proceed that things are seldom as straightforward as we might like. From the point of view of what works for Mr. Brendel and his fans, his notion that the repeats are best omitted cannot be disputed. From other points of view, however, his notion must be recognized as an opinion or an hypothesis rather than conclusive evidence.

For example, nowhere in his discussion of repeats does Mr. Brendel mention their intimate connection with tempos. The modern piano he plays is a larger, louder, heavier, more sustaining instrument than Schubert’s was. The enlargement of voices, instruments and concert halls has led to slower tempos and greater emphasis on the particular beauties that can arise from powerful, sustained tone in such tempos. In the hands of a great pianist, this approach can create stunning results; but by sacrificing concision to discursiveness, it discourages repeats. (Schubert’s sonatas were in any case probably not conceived as “concert” music in the modern sense, but were destined for the more intimate atmosphere and drier acoustic of Biedermeier parlors; the recording studio creates yet another set of aesthetic demands.)

There has been another shift of emphasis since the time of the Viennese classics, from music conceptualized in more purely formal terms to music considered as if it were narrative. This shift, which is not an either/or proposition, but a matter of degree, goes along with a redefinition of sonata-form movements to stress their ternary rather than binary aspects.1 If such movements are two-part “architecture,” repeats clarify the form; if they are three-part “narrative,” repeats are redundant, as they seem to represent backtracking in the “plot.”

As one of those responsible for the reinstatement in recent years of the repeats in the da capos of classical minuets, I must say what is behind this development. No evidence exists to suggest that the omission of those repeats occurred with any regularity before the early 19th century.2 Tempo again plays a part: all too many performances of 18th-century minuets are still three heavy beats to a bar, instead of one (as they should be).3

Although there is no evidence that the repeats indicated in sonata-form movements by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were not meant at face value, I see nothing wrong with omitting them if time is short, the evening growing late, the performer or the audience seeming tired. Composers like Mozart and Haydn, who made their livings by composing and performing frequently and to order, understood and accepted the realities of adapting the music to the occasion. A modern performer too must reserve his prerogatives to omit repeats if exigencies of the moment or aesthetic judgment requires it. But such omissions ought not to be rationalized by distorting historical realities: composers wrote sonata-form movements with no repeats, one repeat or both repeats, according to the context. Repeats are repeats, not question marks. They are there because the composers intended them, not because of some imaginary constraint of “convention.”

One of the most interesting arguments in favor of Brendel’s position is that we already know Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony or Schubert’s late sonatas. Repetition, desirable to familiarize listeners with music when it was new, becomes unnecessary after music has attained its classic status. But who are “we”? Weary performers or jaded audiences tired of playing or hearing the same “masterpieces” over and over, or fresh-faced listeners trying to apprehend them for the first or second time? Whatever the case, unlike Mr. Brendel, I do not find the “Jupiter” with all its repeats “an endurance test,” and I have heard it that way dozens of times. (And I must admit that, in convincing performances, I’ve never found Schubert’s “heavenly length” too long either.)

Perhaps Mr. Brendel should cease issuing ex cathedra pronouncements that this or that approach is somehow inherently sublime or the opposite and, returning to the first person, simply let us have his stimulating opinions and how he arrived at them.

Neal Zaslaw
Professor of Music, Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Alfred Brendel replies:

Ex cathedra? I have offered my views on repeats, and provided arguments for them. To me, these arguments seem valid enough. But on repeats, as on anything else, I’d best not repeat myself.

This Issue

April 27, 1989