Stephen John­son gets to grips with clas­si­cal mu­sic’s tech­ni­cal terms

BBC Music Magazine - - THE FULL SCORE -

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.

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