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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Moments of weakness


Even loved ones can have their irritations. It is as true with music as it is in all other close relationships. That moment of weakness in a piece of music, the seemingly ill judged inflection or feature, perhaps lasting only a moment, can with repeated hearing create an anticipation of embarrassment, annoyance, wrath or exasperation that distracts out of all proportion. A cherished companion with one or two irritating habits does not cease to be respected, but the habits may none the less put one's teeth on edge!

The closing moments of some pieces seem to be have led to notable misjudgements. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony ends in rather too zealous a fashion, insistent to the point of irritation, a model for Sibelius in ending his Fifth, both ill judged. The final pizzicato chord at the end of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro is another uncomfortable decision, an unnecessary smack around the ear for the dutiful listener. Mahler has trouble with endings too. His Third and Eighth Symphonies hammer away in a fury of unwillingness to leave, and the end of his Fifth seems to gallop on like a fleet of horses in a 1950s Hollywood Western long after its purpose has been made quite clear and there is nothing more to say.

Repetition is an invaluable compositional device, fashionably though unwisely resisted among early 20th century modernists. Some however add nothing to the musical discussions. Schumann often worries his musical subjects beyond their deadline. The slow movement of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto labours its object like an elderly sage reminiscing, as does Elgar in the finale of both his concertos, and Tchaikovsky in the Nutcracker's Flower Waltz.

Tchaikovsky is inclined to over indulge banal folk tunes like 'In the field there stands a birch' in the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and Dvorák devises a particularly annoying sequence, falling by semitones (letter H), in the finale of his Eighth Symphony. A triangle in the third movement of Brahms' magnificent Fourth Symphony is like an annoying telephone that appears again as an equally ill-judged intrusion of twenty-two bars in Dvorák's Cello Concerto.

Even in more complex harmonic textures there can be intrusions that do not ease with familiarity. The anticipation of just two chords in the solo part of Berg's exquisite Violin Concerto (Second movement, bars 156-7) creates a longing to exercise the authority of an editor and cut!


Copyright © 21 February 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Jan Templiner, Hamburg, Germany

While I do quite agree with what I think to be your aim with this article (I'll explain later more on this) I did very much miss its 'intention', perhaps you could say conclusion. What did you want to say with it? And why?

I understood that you want to point out that even the great works we love and cherish aren't flawless. I for one am happy to read this as I think it is a very essential thought. Applied to our listening habits, it immensely changes our perception for the music.

However, I found your article lacking a certain 'roundness' which eventually made me wonder whether I understood you at all. Perhaps this was intended as to mirror the qualities of music you ponder upon, but I found that trait rather dissatisfying. Nonetheless, thank you for writing it.

From: Robert Jordahl, USA

Mostly right on target. Now I can imagine your reaction to the excesses of Glass and some of the other Minimalists!




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