Sunday, October 16, 2022

Recital vs. concert

In connection with yesterday’s post about ego and anxiety in solo vs. ensemble performance, it’s interesting to note the contrasting connotations and derivations of the terms concert and recital. 

While people sometimes use “concert” to describe a solo performance, it more properly refers to a group effort. The etymology is a little obscure: it could derive from con+cantare, to sing together, or from con+certare, which means to contend with—the latter a bit odd until you realize that “contend” might be used collaboratively as well as oppositionally (as in the dual meanings of “to fight with”). In any case, it clearly has to do with more than one person.

“Recital”, if you think about it, is not an obvious term for a musical performance. It was coined by Franz Liszt, who also pioneered the concept of the solo show. Prior to Liszt, even a concert that featured a star pianist would comprise multiple acts: it might include a symphony, arias from currently popular operas with orchestral accompaniment, and a concerto in addition to  solo keyboard numbers. Liszt at first called his one-man shows “soliloquys”; then in 1840, he billed two London performances as “Liszt’s Pianoforte Recitals”—suggesting, in true Romantic fashion, the idea that the performer of wordless instrumental music is a kind of poet.

Liszt was also Western music’s second-ever “rock star” (modeling himself after the trailblazing violin virtuoso Paganini), attracting thousands to his concerts and inspiring an unprecedented degree of mass adulation that the poet and music critic Heinrich Heine dubbed “Lisztomania”. 

Describing his new invention to a friend, Liszt invoked the absolute monarchy of Louis IV and quipped “Le concert, c’est moi.” Obviously tongue in cheek—but still, from its inception, the recital has been bound up with the egomaniacal cult of the performer. 

I find it somehow heartening to realize that as a modern recitalist attempting to dampen my ego, I am not only bucking human nature but also pushing back against an almost 200-year-old tradition.

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