Encore, Encore! On Music and Unpredictability

I attended a remarkable performance at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last night, and after a partial standing ovation, I was surprised to discover that we would be treated to an “encore” of sorts. Naturally, as is now the custom, it was not a repeat of anything we had just heard, but a different piece entirely. I recalled other acts I’ve seen where an encore was welcome and the pieces increasingly popular (for example, with George Michael, who did three, each contaning songs better and more well-known than the last). There were others where encores were notably absent, and the audience felt almost as though they hadn’t had their money’s worth from the evening.

I assumed it was a growing trend, this repeated encore thing, perhaps showing my bias of believing my contemporaries far sillier than our ancestors in putting up with and propagating it. Some research, however, has proven me to be wrong on this score. According to Oxford music historian Michael Burden, giving “encore” performances in fact dates to the early eighteenth century Italian opera circuit in London, when audiences would call for a repeat of an aria by a particularly good prima donna or primo uomo – sometimes right after the initial performance of the piece itself. This means audiences, who had already heard the main theme twice (as per the common ABA da capo format of such music) would ask for it again, and sometimes multiple times, with increasing ornamentation each time from the singer. It all got to be a bit much for some opera-goers, fatigued by performances that were already getting to be increasingly long, sometimes to one o’clock in the morning. (No doubt this was especially hard on those who only attended the opera for fashion’s sake.) It also became too much for many singers, who would often become exhausted and even have to take an extended break to rest their voices. Yet those who did not capitulate would be punished, sometimes for years, in the form of hissing amongst audience members and derision in the fashionable papers.

Thus, a tradition was invented. It appears we are now able to exercise some restraint in our calls for “encores,” and yet we still expect them. It is part of the performance, the elaborate dance between the musicians on stage and the audience. We are all performers now – we play our parts as appreciative audiences with the requisite ovation, even perhaps the standing sort – over the course of an evening. It can be tiresome, all this pageantry, when one might simply prefer to attend a concert, hear the lovely music, pay due appreciation, and depart. (And please feel free to debate with me in the comments section whether you believe standing ovations to be too common and expected – as I do – or audiences too stingy if they fail to leap to their feet – as I’ve heard.)

But the pageantry is now one of the only defining features of live music, encores included. The music is usually not new to us, as it was to eighteenth-century opera-goers. We can hear it whenever we like. So why attend a concert in person when we all have access to world-class recordings of any imaginable piece we would want to hear at the click of a button? Why bother with the expense, the inconvenience of travelling to and fro, the irritation of listening to hacking coughers rattling lozenge wrappers in the seats behind us, when we can simply enjoy the same music in surround sound with sub-woofer enhancements from the comfort of our own homes?

It’s the unpredictability, the multi-sensory experience, the feel of being in the audience. Pick-and-choose music downloading programs like iTunes (and of course Napster, LimeWire, and the like) have brought the recording industry to its knees. They’ve also hampered the ability of artists to choose how their music will be enjoyed (i.e. in the form of track layout on albums, etc.). But it is the appeal of live music, with its surprises, unpredictability and interactivity, that will ensure the continuation of the music industry. Differentiation will come in the form of the unexpected, even if we as audiences expect some kind of extras to make attending worth our while. We will ask musicians to push the limits of how we experience music. After all, as Burden points out, the whole idea of an encore is “not simply to hear it again, but by definition, … to hear it differently.”

We might as well expect more of them. Encore.

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2 Responses to Encore, Encore! On Music and Unpredictability

  1. Camille says:

    Since the “Encore” phrase comes from the French language, I figured a glimpse of French habits when it comes to audiences could be enlightening…

    With all our due un-classiness, it is quite common when attending a classical music concert in Paris to witness people getting up and leaving the room just as the final chord resounds.
    Notwithstanding the mess, noise and fuss that of course, accompanies this big waltz.

    Similarly, it is quite widespread for an orchestra to hastily pack its stuff ( bows, reeds and all) and desert the stage before the audience can even start playing the double-clap rythm that characterizes the call for “Encore”.

    In the end, if you one day enjoy an “Encore” at the Salle Pleyel in Paris ( definitely forget it in the Opera house), you can be sure of two things: you’ve just experienced a really amazing time of music. you can award a fellowship prize to this orchestra.

    sometimes, it happens….

    a post from an old UofT choir mate of Kathryn (
    (congrats for the blog!)

  2. Kathryn Exon Smith says:

    Thanks, Camille! Interesting – I wonder if the desire for encores is something that is really just common in the English-speaking world…?

    Perhaps an encore (or two) is also a partial reward for those who wait around and have to deal with the traffic that comes with exiting the theatre/venue at the same time as everyone else!

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