Among the many odd conventions classical musicians take for granted is the organization of large works into individual movements. The word movement itself is an odd one if you think about it, and the practice of withholding applause between movements always seems to come up as something that mystifies the uninitiated. There is a sort of an analogy to the way in which plays are divided into acts and novels into chapters, but most plays and novels have a more explicit narrative connection that makes these subsections more obviously interdependent than is generally the case with musical movements. Sure, a composer can connect various movements by means of key, motif, transitions, attacas, etc., but such connections tend to be notable as exceptions to the rule, and they still don't mean the movements in question can't stand alone.
But, at least within the oh-so-serious classical music culture that has developed in the last hundred years, there's a pretty strong bias against presenting single movements as freestanding. Of course, there are plenty of special contexts (group recitals, examinations, auditions, competitions, Pops concerts, celebratory occasions, elevators, etc.) in which exceptions are made, but they kind of prove the rule. How often does a major orchestra or a Carnegie Hall recitalist feature a disconnected movement in a regular program? (Individual movements from suites or other more loosely connected sets of pieces don't count.) There may be plenty of good reasons for this self-consciously organic way of thinking, but it's certainly not that individual sonata/concerto/symphony movements can't stand on their own.
I thought of this while attending a piano student's senior recital on Sunday afternoon. This was a non-required recital, which meant there was considerably more programming freedom than the typical degree recital would allow. Included were three substantial movements from larger works, and I was surprised at how satisfying it was to hear them this way. Maybe I was surprised because I hear disconnected movements all the time in weekly performance classes, general student recitals, and the like - and such contexts can induce a kind of listening whiplash that accentuates the fragmenting. In this case, each movement was given a chance to make its own complete statement, partly because each fit nicely into a well-planned program, with the Intermission helping to frame the events.
I have to admit I was skeptical about the decision to end the first half of the recital with the "slow" 2nd movement of Schubert's E-flat Piano Trio, but this was the movement that the student and her chamber group had ready to play. I should mention that this trio is one of my all-time favorite pieces; I love the 1st and 4th movements, and I especially love the way the main theme of this 2nd movement returns in the 4th. Thus, I already had a bit of bias against playing just a single movement. Furthermore, "slow" movements are so often defined by the way in which they provide contrast to surrounding fast movements. Taking this out of context and using it to end a recital half (ending with something slow?) seemed like a compromise of necessity more than anything.
So, of course, it turned out that I loved it! It happens to be a very substantial "slow" movement, with a dramatic climax, and although I knew that, I'm not sure I'd ever thought about how "feature-length" it can feel. In the full trio, the weary, even devastating ending of the 2nd movement is quickly followed by a light-hearted country dance scherzo and then a long-ish finale - here, we got to walk quietly out into the Intermission with that heartrending cello theme still floating in the air. Let's face it, Schubert's "heavenly length" has its advantages and disadvantages, but I can genuinely say I found new things to love about this movement hearing it this way, even though I'd just coached the performers in it a few days before!
After intermission, our pianist came back out to play another "slow movement," the 3rd movement ("The Alcotts") of Charles Ives legendary "Concord" Sonata. This is actually the second time I've had a student learn this "work"; it's not easy, by any means, but it's not nearly as ferocious a challenge as the other three movements, especially movements 1 and 2. In fact, I'm not sure I'll ever be up to the task of learning the entire sonata myself, though I like to dream, but "The Alcotts" is such special music and so unique that it would be a great shame to fence it off from pianists not ready to tackle "Emerson" and "Hawthorne." So, I already knew this piece can stand on its own; but hearing in on a late Autumn New England afternoon, with a picture-window view of woods and pond (we have a really lovely recital hall!) behind the pianist was...well, this is why we bother with music in the first place.It worked deeply and beautifully. And, yes, as with the Schubert, there are motives (the Beethoven 5th theme, especially) and ideas that connect "The Alcotts" to its sibling movements, but whereas one usually hears it as a kind of relief after the wildness of "Hawthorne," one could appreciate how wide-ranging, full-hearted, and complete these few pages are. Here's Ives himself playing:
Now I'm not saying that every movement of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. needs to be set free in this way, but I think there's a lesson here about the value of hearing the familiar in a new context. There's also the reminder that musical narratives are, generally speaking, much more flexible than theatrical/literary narratives. Coincidentally, both the Schubert and Ives movements have found lives in some unusual pop culture contexts. Here's a Bruce Hornsby song that begins with a nod to the Ives and I only just encountered this highly unexpected use of the Schubert. Well then. (Oh, I guess the Schubert also made its way into Barry Lyndon.)
There are some notable examples of single movements which have taken on lives of their own. There's the whole elegy subcategory represented by Barber's Adagio (originally a movement from his String Quartet - note that the Adagio partly was freed by the fact that the composer only orchestrated this movement, giving it a sort of "blessing"), Elgar's Nimrod, and Mahler's Adagietto. There's a scherzo by Litolff which is virtually all the poor composer is known for, although the practice of extracting it from its Concerto Symphonique No. 4 hearkens back to a day when the playing of excerpted movements was more common.
My student's recital concluded with the grand first movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto. Here we have a work originally conceived as a single-movement Fantasy, so the fact that one would almost never hear it alone on a standard orchestra program isn't because Schumann wouldn't have imagined it that way - it's because his later decision to add two movements effectively put a "reverse blessing" on the practice. Honestly, as much as I adore this entire concerto, I've never felt the 2nd movement quite measured up, and the finale, while exhilarating, is also not quite as perfect as the 1st. So, another big success on what turned out to be a thoroughly effective and "complete" program. Perhaps some day we'll live in a world where movements can move freely about the earth, less constrained by the curatorial mindset that wants to insist always on complete sets. (Think of the creative programming potential!) Fragments are nice, too.
UPDATE: Just remembered (via overhearing a student conversation) Brahms' fabulous Scherzo from the quirky collaborative F-A-E Sonata. Because Brahms didn't write the other movements of that larger work, performers have generally felt free to play the Brahms as a freestanding piece - something that they would probably never do with a single movement from a Brahms sonata/trio/quartet.