Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music’s technical terms
THE FIRST SURVIVING record of someone shouting ‘encore’ at a concert is in the English magazine The Spectator in 1711. So the phenomenon of English music lovers shouting ‘again’ in French is at least three centuries old.
Naturally, one assumes that the practice must have originated on the other side of the Channel. Images of Louis XIV drift into mind, waving an exquisitely manicured hand and demanding that some luckless court musician repeat the virtuosic feat he has just about managed to bring off. The problem with this is that French audiences don’t shout ‘encore’: they shout ‘bis’, from the Latin for ‘twice’. If anyone ever did shout ‘encore’ at a Parisian musical soirée or concert spirituel they were no doubt quickly made to feel outré. For some unaccountable reason, the badge of connoisseurship seems to be that one knows how to shout ‘again’ in a foreign language.
So, whatever the language, why do audiences demand encores, and why do some performers clearly prepare whole armouries of them well in advance? Hands up, I find them often more irritating than enthralling. If I’ve really enjoyed a performance, I want to take it away with me, like the aftertaste of a delicious meal. To have the star player rush back onto the stage and plunge straight into some piece of flashy exhibitionism is rather like having the chef charge out of the kitchen, force open your jaws and thrust in a tongue-numbing sherbet dab.
I wonder too about the audience’s motivation: whether they aren’t sometimes guilty of casting themselves in the Louis XIV role, demonstrating their quasi-regal power by compelling the musician to exert him- or herself again, and again… and again? Granted, a well-chosen encore can be the perfect complement to an outstanding performance. It can bring one gently back down to earth after a sublime experience, or dispel unresolved tension. It can also be a sign that a new work has really succeeded, but the last time I saw that happen was when the finale of Lutos√awski’s Double Concerto was encored at the BBC Proms – which, depressingly, was back in the 1980s. There’s a fine balance here. At best, encores are a confirmation that a very special kind of communication has taken place; at worst they look rather like a refusal to accept that everything is transient, and beauty especially so. As the saying goes, if you really love something, let it go.