Recently my wife and I attended a Boston Handel and Haydn Society performance of Beethoven’s 4th symphony. Anyone who has been to such a concert in the U.S. will recognize the atmosphere: hushed elderly folks folding themselves into tiny balcony seats, the rustle of programs, mock-classical sculptures of the muses and Apollo gesticulating in butter-colored light from alcoves above the crowd. The vibe was of an elevated politeness that fit uncomfortably on a populace used to taking a predominantly casual attitude toward art. The house was crowded, and after five minutes of the oddly beautiful ambience of the tuning orchestra, the graying and tails-clad conductor gave us a few quips about Beethoven’s life and work before striking up the first movement of what the program called “a rollicking party bus of a piece, brilliantly entertaining but often neglected, given its placement between the more popular 3rd and 5th symphonies.”
The analogy struck me as hilariously out of place, a kind of reaching parallel between the layered, highbrow art before me with gratuitous twenty-something party culture which somehow seemed to reduce to dignity of both. I felt the program’s language was in violation of symphony culture rules, unspoken but universally understood: audiences must clap at the end of whole pieces, not between movements, should dress like southern churchgoers, curb any bodily needs that cause movement or make noise, and above all should take the music “seriously,” clothing themselves in a silent, emotionally-sensitive passivity that can respond to the music’s subtleties deeply, but only internally.
Yet it occurred to me that by taking offense on the 4th symphony’s behalf, I was robbing myself of the ability to accept what might be a legitimate, intended emotional register. Why was the notion that Beethoven intended to induce a “rollicking” feeling in me so absurd-sounding? Would it actually be a “truer” experience of the music if the audience clapped, head-banged, and tossed empty beer cans around like the crowd in a typical rock concert?
Many of us have read stories of historical symphony, opera, and ballet audiences that were very rollicking indeed, perhaps most famously the early twentieth-century crowd at the opening performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, who, the documentation tells us, responded to the jarring primality of the music at first with unrest, then with argument among themselves, and finally with rioting, jumping over the seats of Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to sock each other in the face, overpowering the police and eventually forcing Stravinsky to run for his life. That example is extreme, but what sea change in music culture transformed classical audiences from potential powder kegs to wet blankets, and is the change a positive one? The history is complicated, and scholarly opinions vary widely about whether we should try to adjust our attitude back to the rowdy, casual take on classical music that was once the industry standard.
Alex Ross, staff writer for The New Yorker and probably the present generation’s best-known popular classical music critic, is firmly critical of the monastic attitude American audiences adopt toward symphonies. He has written at least two articles that deal exclusively with the subject of audience behavior, “Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report,” an online essay appended in 2005 to the website associated with his seminal book The Rest is Noise, and “Why So Serious?” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2008. The essays are similarly flavored, and as a pair represent his take on the contemporary state of affairs. In “Applause” Ross opens by reminding us that history is on his side:
“Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause.”
As an example he cites the letters of Mozart, who, when riotous clapping and shouting broke out during the final Allegro of one of his compositions, was so delighted that he “went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royale—bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged—and went home.” Even zanier, Ross tells us in “Why So Serious?,” was the typical nineteenth-century piano recital, where crowds and composers together exercised behavior that was “by modern standards, completely nuts.” Here he points to Liszt’s habit of taking requests during his concert by drawing little notes from the audience out of an urn. Apparently, Liszt was all the happier when the crowd defied format and sent him innuendos, false requests, or any message that gave him the chance to launch a witty repartee (One read, “Is it better to marry or remain single?” to which Liszt retorted, “Whatever course one chooses, one is sure to regret it.”)
My friend Brian Gillikin, himself a composer and postgraduate scholar in the field, was able to indicate the historical moment when Western audiences began to change their behavior. In the late nineteenth century, the Romantics began to compose music with generally more dramatic volume ranges, so that while some passages were “so loud that no audience noise could ever compete,” others were extremely quiet and subtle, and therefore easily disturbed by so much as a cough. It was therefore partly the demands of the composers that lead to a “quieting down” of their audiences—shifts in compositional habits meant that a little informal background noise could cause a listener to miss significant elements of the art.
Other factors contributed as well, including changes in crowd demographic and in the size of concert venues, away from the snug parlors of the wealthy and towards large specially-built public halls. Aware of these complexities as he is, Alex Ross still concludes that our contemporary attitude is in need of rehabilitation. He argues that the current state of affairs alienates artist from listener, when it is precisely that relationship which creates the appeal of a live performance: “we are [now] spectators at a spectacle that is not ours,” he writes, “…our only power is that of consumers in general, to buy or not to buy. Is it any surprise that a lot of people aren’t buying?”
Yet as things stand, while a piece might be styled a rollicking party bus by the conductor, those of us in the audience will suffer consequences if we try contributing to that atmosphere. It would take a significant, adventurous effort on the part of performers and listeners together to change this, and the shift would involve real aesthetic sacrifices. Another musical friend eloquently pointed out to me that silence is the composer’s canvas, and blank space is understood by artists in all genres to have expressive value.
As Mr. Gillikin put it, clapping between movements might now be thought uncouth because it “…can often destroy the meaningful silence the [contemporary] composer intends between movements,” and I tend to agree. When I consider hearing a performance of a piece like Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” which begins with more than a full minute of smoldering undertones in the strings, the thought of being surrounded by chatty, informal members of Ross’s “reformed” audience is repulsive. Perhaps our rehabilitation should involve our musical education instead of our musical attitude: it would take crowds who fully understood the intensions of the composer to know when silence might be golden, and when uncouth, and a truly great audience to know when to throw a punch. With a little attentiveness, perhaps we can reach that place again.