On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 10: Julian Jacobson

Today’s post is the final one before concert pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson’s big day! He will be performing all 32 Beethoven sonatas on Saturday at St John’s Church Waterloo in London. Julian will be repeating this performance in Uruguay six days later on his 75th birthday. In this post, he discusses the issue of playing repeats.

Find out more here.

 On repeats….and ??repeat performances??

As the day approaches I have to take some decisions about repeats. In fact it would be impossible to do all the repeats without the day stretching on longer than the church can accommodate, or than people would have the patience to remain. But it is a question all performers of the classics are confronted with on an ongoing basis.

Sviatoslav Richter excoriated any pianist (or other musician) who didn’t do all the repeats. On the other hand the story is told of Brahms who was asked why, in later life, he didn’t observe the first movement repeat in his own 2nd Symphony: he replied that in former days when his idiom was still new and difficult he felt people needed the repeat so they would understand the musical argument better, but later on when the piece and his style were familiar he could afford to go straight on without repeating. So composers in fact might be quite happy without first movement repeats, or even prefer it. Repeats seem appropriate in the earlier Beethoven sonatas where there is still a certain Mozartian formality but in the later ones they feel increasingly inappropriate or at least unnecessary. Hans von Bülow thought one should NOT take the big repeat in the finale of the Appassionata, and op 90 is the first sonata without any repeats at all. In a sense the matter of literal repeats is the Achilles’ heel of classical style, one for which there is no real parallel in the other arts. Concerto form gets around the problem magnificently with the “double exposition” principle, so the material is heard twice by the listener but not in the same way and with different instrumentation and tone colours.

For all the talk about how classical musicians must get away from strict adherence to the printed page and recover the spirit of improvisation and the practice of embellishment, I don’t think anyone has ever seriously suggested adding embellishments on the repeats of Beethoven’s expositions. At the outside one could add a very few ornaments in the early sonatas. But the mere  thought of ornamenting the exposition repeat of, say, op 111 is ridiculous.

The next question is if one should consciously play exposition repeats differently – softer, louder, different phrasing etc. My feeling is “no”: if the pianist is playing with any degree of freedom and spontaneity it won’t come out the same anyway, and any attempt to pin down variations in the interpretation will end up sounding artificial and manufactured.

Variation movements are perhaps a different matter: not only is it traditional to repeat each half of the theme and each variation but Beethoven often writes some telling detail to differentiate the first time bar from the second time where the music goes on. Some variation sets are written with some of the halves strictly repeated while in other variations each half is differently composed on its structural “repeat” (see Appassionata 2nd movement), so the whole structure would collapse if one omitted the repeats. As for scherzos and minuets with trios, it seems that players would actually have taken both repeats when the main movement returns (giving the form AA BB CC DD AA BB), but in practice this is almost never done now except in a pint-sized movement like the Scherzo of the “Spring” Sonata.

As for whether I will do a repeat performance of the marathon- the answer for now is a firm NO! (Apart from my immediate repeat six days later in Uruguay). Immensely fulfilling as it has been, I’m looking forward to resuming normal life and a normal musical diet, with many pieces I still want to learn as well as writing, composing and teaching projects. But one must never say never!



Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.