Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Concert Audience: Then and Now

In an email response to yesterday's post, a friend alerted me to this New York Times article from earlier this year, and after reading the whole thing, I thought it was interesting enough to merit its own post. It certainly put a new spin on history for me, because I had been under the impression that classical concerts had always been formal, sit-still-and-listen affairs. But evidently, that was far from the truth:
Concertgoers like you and me have become part police officer, part public offender. We prosecute the shuffled foot or rattled program, the errant whisper or misplaced cough. We tense at the end of a movement, fearful that one of the unwashed will begin to clap, bringing shame on us all. How serious we look, and how absurd we are.

When Chopin played his E minor Piano Concerto in Warsaw in 1830, other pieces were inserted between the first two movements.
“Silence is not what we artists want,” Kenneth Hamilton quotes Beethoven in “After the Golden Age,” a detailed reflection on concert behavior in the 19th and early 20th centuries published recently by Oxford University Press. “We want applause.”

George Bernard Shaw, wearing his music critic’s hat, wrote that the silence at a London performance of Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony represented not rapt attention but audience distaste. Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and virtuosos like them would have been offended had listeners not clapped between movements, although in Beethoven’s case the point is moot, given that hardly anybody played more than one movement of a Beethoven sonata at a time.
This is fascinating stuff. (How did I not learn this in music history class? Was I not paying attention that day, or did the professors skip over that area because they considered the subject too lowbrow?) Hamilton's book, from which the author of this article drew most of his material, sounds fascinating; I'll have to check it out. Here's more:
In condemning modern recitals as canned, without spontaneity, literal and deadened by solemnity, Mr. Hamilton sometimes overstates the case. In the best of circumstances silence during a good performance becomes something palpable, not just an absence of noise. Involved audiences can shout approval without making a sound.

In describing the hypocrisies of “golden age” pursuers and other nostalgia freaks, on the other hand, he has a point. If music is to go back to original instruments and original performance practices, it has to acknowledge original audiences too.

Elias Canetti’s 1960 book “Crowds and Power” offers the best metaphor for modern concerts: the Roman Catholic Mass. Worshipers accept instructions from an executive operating from a raised platform at the front. They speak when spoken to and otherwise shut up. Mr. Hamilton attributes a lot of this recently acquired holiness to the recording age, but I think it has more to do with Germanic art’s taking itself deadly seriously. Every Mozart sonata is like Wagner’s “Parsifal,” and listeners should get down on their knees.
This comparison (which I hadn't read before I posted) dovetails nicely with my Sunday school analogy from yesterday's post.

And it's interesting how a lot of us thought that "serious" concerts were always like Mass, when that wasn't the case at all:
Audience participation was taken for granted in the 1840s. The pianist Alexander Dreyschock was criticized for playing “so loud that it made it difficult for the ladies to talk,” Mr. Hamilton writes. Today’s listeners, still eager to make themselves known, have been reduced to subversive acts in a fascistic society. When they are not interested, they cough.
Certainly, there are some elements of modern concert etiquette that deserve to stay, no matter what the occasion--waiting until the breaks between pieces to enter the hall (instead of doing so whenever one pleases, and not even trying to keep the giant metal door from slamming behind oneself), not taking flash photography unless explicitly allowed to do so, leaving the crying baby with a sitter, turning off cell phones, and so on. But perhaps the continued atmosphere of extreme formality deserves some spirited debate.

Read the whole article; it's fascinating. And it begs the question: Which way is the "best" way to stage a concert? I think there's room for both the quiet-audience and engaged-audience routes. Think church here: In some congregations, everyone wears coat-and-tie or a dress, and traditional hymns are sung from a hymnal, with the help of an organ and a choir. In others, people wear shorts if they want, there's a rock band on stage, and there might not even be pews. The "best" way is the one that appeals to the audience, and there's a market for both these approaches (and other ways that haven't even been discussed here).

If you missed yesterday's post, feel free to jump-start the debate over there.

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