The excuse for concert and recital intervals is not so clear, though to question their necessity seems absurd. Perhaps in the days when concerts lasted several hours, the need for breaks was plainly apparent, but there is a clear impression that recreation, eating and drinking, gaming and general conversation was the social purpose of the 'concert'.
The musical performance itself was not even an excuse to postpone the greeting of friends or moving around in search of refreshments. Indeed, some may have found the music making an intrusion upon the development of social diversion. Only the brief offering of a celebrity artist might bring them back to their seats or card tables behind their boxes for a while.
When the notorious showman Louis Jullien brought his eccentric ideas for what he called 'promenade concerts' from Paris to London in 1840 -- long before Henry Wood was born -- the relaxed informality and the musically superficial quality of his polkas, valses and quadrilles, punctuated with odd movements from Beethoven and Mendelssohn and a few instrumental solos and songs had more the atmosphere of a party during which formal intervals were rather unnecessary.
A century later, despite monumentally proportioned symphonies, the interval had become a prescribed fixture, a more substantial physical break than the brief opportunity to cough and adjust one's position in the seat between the movements. It involved queues for drinks and cloakrooms, laughter and loud conversation, a welcome release of cramped energy before a return to the disciplined rows of silent seats on the other side of the barrier that protects the performers from the spectators.
But it is surely not a problem of time that demands an interval after barely fifty minutes of entertainment, for we all watch film and television for far greater time spans. Maybe the performers are easily exhausted now and require intermission stimulants to enable them to continue. Whatever the reason for them, intervals impose a break to cohesive listening and one that seems to suggest there to be a need to enliven the tedium of a concert, a brief respite that may make the evening's proceedings worth while.
The twenty to thirty minute hiatus can provide the critic with time to write part of a review that must be completed by the end of the evening. The interval in an amateur event might be twice as long and in some opera performances allow enough time to have dinner and completely forget the plot -- but without the company of friends or the need for other relief, it is a barren, unproductive and useless twenty per cent of the ticket price.
It is surprising that in times often described as too busy to cook or walk or listen or talk, we do not seek to abolish concert intervals.
Copyright © 24 April 2007 Patric Standford,
From: Keith Barnard
I have read the article by Patric Standford and the comments by Alistair Hinton -- both of which are extremely interesting and erudite, in their highly qualified views and conclusions on the subject of concert and recital intervals. As a composer myself -- of longer compositions -- I can well sympathise with audiences, and therefore put forward the view that generally speaking, there should be intervals -- where there are compositions of certain extreme lengths.
The performance of the Opus Clav by Sorabji -- in the brilliant 1988 John Ogdon live performance -- was absolutely breathtaking in every way, but there is also no doubting the wisdom of having two intervals -- that work being of such gigantic proportions, the audience needed, and still need, the necessary assimilations between the movements of that amazing Magnum Opus. Having fewer intervals in very large scale multi-compositions will, in my view, make it harder for the audience to assimilate the full impact of the music and will ultimately be counter-productive.
Having single movement works however, is a different matter. In June of 1996 I played a very long work of mine for solo piano -- The secret tones of the divine spheres -- which lasted for some two hours and thirty five minutes. The smallish audience seemed to sit quite still and assimilate the music and my own concentration did not falter at all.
This is fine for a piano work, in one continuous movement, but what of, say, an organ work -- in several movements? The performance of my organ composition -- The purest silence of the divine -- set in four movements, will definitely be performed in two parts -- the first consistimg of the first two movements, and the second the concluding two movements. To have a two hour work for such a very powerful instrument such as the organ, without an interval, would be extremely inadvisable. This would apply to the very powerful organ scores of Sorabji as well of course.
My performances of my own piano music overseas have taken the form of sixty-five minute recitals, without an interval, which has been far more conducive than splitting the concert into two parts. An interval -- or intervals -- are highly preferable overall, in my view, but there again -- what should take place in the interval itself? Ceaseless, useless chatter, or deep reflection on the music? It is very important how the members of the audience spend the interval time, irrespective of its duration.
There should be adequate preparation by the audience for any gruelling composition performance -- a period of meditation and calm contemplation before they even enter the hall or recital room. With these points in mind, audiences will be better equipped to sit through -- with some ease -- very long, taxing musical pieces.
So, in conclusion, the matter of intervals should be discussed taking into account how an audience prepares for music such as that by Mahler, Sorabji, Allgén and Brian.
From: I Stubbs
It is not only the classical world which 'suffers' from the interval. I was amazed to find a few years ago that the visceral performance of rock concerts were now subdued by an interval.