Classic music too serious
September 8, 2008 10:25 PM   Subscribe

Why are classical music concerts so serious? A fascinating history of how and why classic music concerts evolved to become so stuffy: silent formal audience, ridged schedule, and a canonical play-list of the same dead artists over and over - they used to be more fun and spontaneous, until the gatecrashers showed up..
posted by stbalbach (84 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
My favorite quote from the article:
“the public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best,”
This could apply not only to music but any art, such as books and painting.
posted by stbalbach at 10:28 PM on September 8, 2008


stbalbach and anyone else, towards that end, can you recommend any weekly podcasts or 2 or 3 that expose contemporary music? I don't have time for radio or TV.
posted by Gyan at 10:49 PM on September 8, 2008


IF IT'S TOO SERIOUS, YOU'RE TOO YOUNG!!!

Thanks for the article!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:54 PM on September 8, 2008


Thanks for this post. I always wonder why I can't avoid falling asleep during classical concerts.

Richard Sennett's The Fall of Public Man has some similar insights applied to theater and opera. One of the strangest is that an actor in a play, or a singer in an opera, could be basically forced by the audience to repeat his last monologue or aria, if they really liked it the first time. Continuity and the integrity of the work be damned. People yelled, talked, interacted with the play. There were chairs set up on stage for especially noble or financially generous patrons. One of those things we have lost.
posted by nasreddin at 11:07 PM on September 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


People yelled, talked, interacted with the play. There were chairs set up on stage for especially noble or financially generous patrons. One of those things we have lost.

That is my idea of hell, both as a former performer and as a new concert goer.
posted by Megami at 11:15 PM on September 8, 2008 [6 favorites]


One of those things we have lost.

Fine by me.
posted by lumensimus at 11:16 PM on September 8, 2008


This was fascinating, thanks. I really liked that the quote stbalbach referenced was from the mid-19th century.
posted by number9dream at 11:20 PM on September 8, 2008


Gyan, New Sounds on WNYC is pretty great for a wide range of new music. I don't think there are podcasts, but you can listen online Mon-Fri at 11pm eastern time.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:37 PM on September 8, 2008


Amen to this article. I love classical music, but am always disappointed by the bored, church-like reverence at classical concerts and the "drearily predictable" standing ovations for even the most mediocre performances. I'd love to get to La Scala one day, as it apparently houses the last unsedated classical audience in the world: the rowdy loggionisti. Every audience I've been in so far has been a quiet sea of white hair, quietly coughing in between movements and dutifully clapping at the end.

The problem, I think, is that many people shuffle off to these concerts out of a sense of obligation. As if they have to "do something cultural" the same way you might need an occasional vaccination. The results are predictable: go to a world-class opera house like the Met once, and watch how many people just walk out after the first act. It's a lot of people, especially from the most expensive seats in the house.

When I was living in New York, I used to go to the Met every week. I would buy a standing-room ticket for under $20, and end up moving up to the front-row seats immediately after the first act. (If you just stand by the door, people fleeing their "cultural inoculation" will flat-out hand you their tickets.1) I managed to see some of the greatest performances and performers in the world in seats hopelessly out of my price range.

It was bliss.

(1. The only time this didn't work was during Wagner's ring cycle, as that attracts hardcore Wagner nerds from around the world. Not one person abandoned their seat, leaving me no choice but to stand through 15 hours of Teutonic bombast. But it was still worth it!)
posted by Ljubljana at 11:39 PM on September 8, 2008 [14 favorites]


that should be now concert goer, not new concert goer.
posted by Megami at 11:42 PM on September 8, 2008


I love Alex Ross' writing, and this piece is terrific. I'm a performer in this concert culture, and am doing all I can to subvert it.


can you recommend any weekly podcasts or 2 or 3 that expose contemporary music?

(WARNING) This is a self-link, but I do podcasts (and a whole website) on exactly that.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:18 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ross is a bit vague on dates, but his argument seems to run as follows. The early nineteenth century was a period of creative innovation and change. Then, in the 1860s and 1870s, concerts started to be dominated by the music of dead composers. Things got stuffier and stuffier, until finally 'the concert rite emerged in its perfected form, circa 1950'. Then nothing happened for about forty years, until 'in the past decade or so the long reign of the eight-to-ten, symphony-after-intermission affair has weakened'. Now 'musicians are searching out fresh ways to play canonical scores and present themselves in public' and perhaps we are at the start of a new period of innovation and change.

To me, the main problem with this chronology is that it leaves out the most interesting part of the story, which is the way that the 'modern' composers of a hundred years ago (Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler) got accepted into the concert repertoire. This is comparable to the revolution in popular taste that saw the French Impressionists overtake the Old Masters in popularity. (A hundred years ago, even the admirers of Monet and Cezanne were saying: 'they're great painters, but of course they'll never be popular with the general public'.) I don't know how Ross would fit this into his story. His article gives the impression that concert-going habits didn't change much over the course of the twentieth century. This simply can't be true.
posted by verstegan at 12:32 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


In an participatory culture, you get everyone singing the latest around the piano. With the mass advent of the phonograph, you get to listen to Caruso kickin' it.

Swing, roundabout.
posted by Wolof at 12:46 AM on September 9, 2008


"an culture"

Jeez.

posted by Wolof at 1:03 AM on September 9, 2008


Once, when Liszt was beginning a performance of the “Kreutzer” Sonata with the violinist Lambert Massart, listeners began calling out “Robert le Diable!”—meaning that they wished to hear instead Liszt’s fantasy on themes from the Meyerbeer opera. Liszt acceded to the demand and launched into his “Robert” fantasy.

But he still refused to play "Free Bird."
posted by grouse at 1:05 AM on September 9, 2008 [5 favorites]


Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum.

Ain't that the truth. The first time I attended (you attend classical performances, you don't just go to them) a classical performance, I was fifteen and with fifteen year old friends. At the end of the first movement of (I think) Romeo and Juliet we all looked around, incredibly confused. Why was nobody clapping? One of my friends gave a tentative clap and when nobody joined in, she turned the brightest red I've ever seen.

It's just so counter-intuitive, the piece of music has ended, there is a silence, why not clap? Whatever you want to say about talking or shouting at the stage, "you must only clap here and here" is the thing that sucks most of the life out of modern orchestral performances.
posted by minifigs at 1:21 AM on September 9, 2008




My real problem with these motherfuckers is that they've damn near ruined jazz because of venue a concert hall with no pit for groundlings like me.
posted by Rubbstone at 1:47 AM on September 9, 2008


Clapping every time the musicians pause for more than a few seconds to show how much you appreciate the music is an excellent idea - it's even better when you feel bored from sitting in your chair so long and need to do something with your hands.

Never mind if you can't figure out enough of the music to know if it's over yet - taking the trouble to become familiar with the work and having some respect for the people around you only shows you're boring and stuffy, right?
posted by ghost of a past number at 2:06 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


The last classical concert I went to was decidedly unstuffy. Conductor Ilan Volkov and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra were playing with John Oswald, percussionist Chris Cutler, and harpist Zena Parkins, which meant an audience of Wire readers, avant garde classical types, and old classical duffers, many of whom had turned up in order to be appalled. The atmosphere was weird - after Oswald 'conducted' a plunderphonic piece by triggering orchestral samples, the audience was split between mad applause and furious boos, until people just started shouting at each other about what music is and should be. Or, you know, telling each other to fuck off.

Shame orchestras don't take risks alienating their core audience (and some of their own musicians!) like that more often.

LooseFilter wrote: (WARNING) This is a self-link, but I do podcasts (and a whole website) on exactly that.

This is why self-links in comments are not only allowed, but a great thing!
posted by jack_mo at 2:44 AM on September 9, 2008


One of the strangest is that an actor in a play, or a singer in an opera, could be basically forced by the audience to repeat his last monologue or aria, if they really liked it the first time.
Absolutely. There are some fantastic anecdotes about how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century audiences could commandeer the cast of a play and drive them to their own ends. One of my favourites concerns a showing of Macbeth in New Zealand in 1848. The play was to start with an audience warm-up routine—a sailor's hornpipe performed by the actor playing Macbeth. The only problem was, the audience liked the dance so much they refused to let the 'real' play start. Every time 'Macbeth' appeared on stage and started acting, they would cheer, and shout for him to dance the hornpipe instead.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:52 AM on September 9, 2008 [11 favorites]


Clapping every time the musicians pause for more than a few seconds to show how much you appreciate the music is an excellent idea - it's even better when you feel bored from sitting in your chair so long and need to do something with your hands.

Never mind if you can't figure out enough of the music to know if it's over yet - taking the trouble to become familiar with the work and having some respect for the people around you only shows you're boring and stuffy, right?


This is kind of the problem. Are you suggesting that only people who have studied classical music should decide when it's appropriate to clap? Would some people being enthusiastic and clapping during the thirty second gap between movements really affect your enjoyment of the music that much?

Codifying not just how the music should be played but how the audience must react to it or else "they haven't figured it out" properly is the reason why classical music is seen (not entirely fairly) as the preserve of snobs.
posted by minifigs at 3:03 AM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


First I was astonished that it's a New Yorker article, then when I read that they are blaming the middle class everything was back to normal.
posted by zouhair at 3:31 AM on September 9, 2008 [5 favorites]


This is kind of the problem. Are you suggesting that only people who have studied classical music should decide when it's appropriate to clap?

No, I didn't say anything about people who have studied classical music. Looking at the programme beforehand, counting how many movements you have listened to so far, or getting hold of a recording of the works beforehand do not constitute studying.

Seriously now, I really cannot realise how people can enjoy (or even follow) a symphony when listening to it at a concert for the first time. Maybe I'm just not a good listener, but I really enjoy live music of this kind more if I have had a chance to listen to it beforehand.

Would some people being enthusiastic and clapping during the thirty second gap between movements really affect your enjoyment of the music that much?

Sort of, because they are annoying for no real reason - only because they are missing a small piece of information. Most people don't clap because they are bursting with joy and cannot contain themselves until the end of the piece: They are only doing it because somebody else did.

Casting this as a fight between the masses trying to reclaim an enjoyment of music and the Clapping Authority is somewhat disingenuous: when stripped of the anti-intellectual spin, it's just crowd behavior.
posted by ghost of a past number at 4:12 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have nothing to add, I just like using the word beforehand.
posted by ghost of a past number at 4:19 AM on September 9, 2008


Perhaps classical music should be more like this.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 4:30 AM on September 9, 2008


Hey, I'm no crusader for the masses, there are plenty of things people do at gigs, plays, queues that annoy the hell out of me. I just don't really get this particular bugbear. Do you consider the silence between movements to be part of the piece? Does the fact that most of the classical canon wasn't written with this silence in mind (being slightly presumptuous there I know but you get my point) affect your opinion? I guess I'm just confused because at rock and jazz gigs people often do clap because they are bursting with joy and cannot contain themselves until the end of the piece. Is it to do with the fact that in classical music the performers rarely if ever have written the piece themselves?

No snark, I really want to understand this.
posted by minifigs at 4:32 AM on September 9, 2008


No snark, I really want to understand this.

I mean, of course, that I'm not being snarky, not that I don't want a snarky answer.
posted by minifigs at 4:34 AM on September 9, 2008


Perhaps it should be performed in subways.
posted by drezdn at 4:46 AM on September 9, 2008


Do you consider the silence between movements to be part of the piece? Does the fact that most of the classical canon wasn't written with this silence in mind (being slightly presumptuous there I know but you get my point) affect your opinion?

For me, it's because this kind of music requires some concentration to follow because of all the details, and the clapping is distracting. Funnily enough, I wouldn't mind so much if clapping every chance you get was the norm - at least it wouldn't be unexpected.

Seeing as I would know there will be clapping Beforehand
posted by ghost of a past number at 4:52 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


The best classical-ish concert I have had the pleasure of seeing live was in Halifax at the Rebecca Cohn auditorium, it was a performance by the Hip Hop artist Buck 65 with backing by the Nova Scotia symphony, who also got to perform a couple of original pieces from some of the members as well as a classic concert piece or two, in addition to doing the backing to the hip hop songs, which were extremely well-arranged. But the best part was how much fun everyone seemed to be habving, and the mix of the crowd, half season concert ticket holders dressed up to see a classical music concert and half 20-somethings in hoodies and there for a show.

CBC has it here. And a blog post about it here at CBC radio 2.
posted by Space Coyote at 4:52 AM on September 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


Oh wow Space Coyote, I love me some Buck 65. Thanks for that!
posted by notsnot at 5:26 AM on September 9, 2008


verstegan: "Ross is a bit vague on dates, but his argument seems to run as follows....This simply can't be true."

Well, the New Yorker article is basically a summary of two books that just came out so I imagine there is more detail. Journalism articles usually favor narrative and anecdote over getting it exactly right, but I'm sure the main idea is correct.

Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford) and William Weber’s The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms (Cambridge).
posted by stbalbach at 6:09 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


rigid?
posted by tmcw at 6:27 AM on September 9, 2008


I don't much much about classical music, but I'm slowly picking up a bit here and there. The one time I did attend a classical performance it was a stultifying bore (and I say this as someone who rarely goes to see live shows anymore because I don't want to put up with the crowds, woo-whooing and/or standing up for several hours straight), which was a shame.

I do wonder whether classical musicians consider albums (or concerts) like (self-link; Beatles covers) this and this a refreshing change of pace, or a sellout?
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:37 AM on September 9, 2008


I don't much know much...etc.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:38 AM on September 9, 2008


the piece of music has ended

No it hasn't. There's a pause, after which the piece of music continues. I don't think it's elitist to expect someone going to hear classical music to know the bare minimum about the pieces, like how many movements there are. And yes, it's irritating to those who do know the music to have people randomly clapping in between movements. As you yourself admitted, you weren't clapping out of uncontrollable enthusiasm (as at a rock concert), you were clapping because "there is a silence, why not clap?" That's not a very good reason.

If you went to, say, a Noh performance in Japan, would you clap whenever you felt like it, or would you take your cue from the audience who was familiar with such things? Every form of culture has its own rituals and expectations; not everything is a rock concert.

I would buy a standing-room ticket for under $20, and end up moving up to the front-row seats immediately after the first act. ... I managed to see some of the greatest performances and performers in the world in seats hopelessly out of my price range.

Same here!
posted by languagehat at 6:45 AM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Gyan, you might want to try some of Marin Alsop's podcasts. She's been scheduling a lot of contemporary music and she likes to talk about it.

I hate standing ovations for average performances. I give them when I can't stay seated. The last time was after Nadia Solerno-Sonnenburg did Shostakovich's Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last year. I don't like violin, nor do I care for Shastakovich, but, damn, that was one awesome performance!

Classical music is not boring. When it is, leave.
posted by QIbHom at 6:49 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


There were chairs set up on stage for especially noble or financially generous patrons. One of those things we have lost.

Yeah ... that would be those "financially generous patrons" ... anybody wanna buy some CDs? You can order them direct from me ...

Seriously, though, when I was doing a lot of Renaissance and Baroque music, our performances were VERY much aimed at having interaction with the audiences ... it was one of the few ways we could make the music accessible at the time.

I'm not saying I want people shouting and hooting when I play, but I make it a point to try and solicit response from them.
posted by aldus_manutius at 6:55 AM on September 9, 2008


Am I the only person on the planet who is sick of Alex Ross? The guy isn't even a musician, he's just some geek who loved classical music as a kid and now acts like the grand master of its history. He is ONLY talking about America because in most of Europe, audiences "get it". Anyone who UNDERSTANDS this music as more than just a boring concert would be able to pay more attention to it. Screw Alex Ross. The guy's a hack.
posted by ChickenringNYC at 7:08 AM on September 9, 2008


The venue and performance matter a lot.

If I'm listening to a string quartet made up of local students playing in the street for beer money, I expect and accept crowd noise. I don't expect everyone walking by to be into it, and I do expect the performers to understand this and just deal with the noise.

If this is the only time the world's best violinist is going to play this town this decade, however, and I have somehow managed to get tickets (maybe at high cost) to hear this performance in a well-designed auditorium, I am willing to sit perfectly still and quiet for an hour so everyone around me can hear the performer, not me, and I will hope that everyone around me has the same attitude. We can hear one another talking and coughing and farting and answering phones and crackling candy wrappers and jingling keys on the streets any day of the week for nothing, but we may get just this one chance to hear this wonderful performer playing this wonderful piece of music.

If the performer wants hooting and stomping, if that's part of the show, then the performer should hoot and stomp and yell "It's great to be in Toledo!" and crowd surf to make that clear. Otherwise, we should go into a classical performance assuming we are expected to sit and listen without adding our noise to the mix.
posted by pracowity at 7:24 AM on September 9, 2008


No it hasn't. There's a pause, after which the piece of music continues. I don't think it's elitist to expect someone going to hear classical music to know the bare minimum about the pieces, like how many movements there are. And yes, it's irritating to those who do know the music to have people randomly clapping in between movements. As you yourself admitted, you weren't clapping out of uncontrollable enthusiasm (as at a rock concert), you were clapping because "there is a silence, why not clap?" That's not a very good reason.

Thanks for explaining, for the record I knew how many movements were in the piece and had listened to the piece several times, I just didn't know that you weren't supposed to clap at the end. I didn't clap anyway, my friend did; I took my cue from the rest of the audience. I did want to clap though, it was really good.

Every form of culture has its own rituals and expectations; not everything is a rock concert.

But isn't the point of the link that it wasn't always this way? I know shockingly little about Noh but has there ever been chatting and interruptions at a Noh performance? ghost of a past number said that if they were expecting clapping between movements they wouldn't have a problem with it. I think it's the fact that anything unexpected or spontaneous (in this context) is a no-no is what puts a lot of people from going near classical music these days.
posted by minifigs at 7:33 AM on September 9, 2008


What pracowity said. If I want "audience interaction", I can always go to a movie.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:43 AM on September 9, 2008


I just didn't know that you weren't supposed to clap at the end.

It wasn't the end. You know that, but you keep talking as if you didn't. But:

I didn't clap anyway

Good for you! Score one for taking points from the audience.

But isn't the point of the link that it wasn't always this way?

So what? This is the 21st century, not the 17th. If I time-traveled back to Shakespeare's day, I wouldn't expect audiences to be quiet and respectful at plays, and I'm sure I'd enjoy the interactions myself. Different time, different experience. Bear in mind, too, that until around the same time audience behavior started changing, orchestras had hardly any rehearsals and routinely played out of tune (read Berlioz for some bitter commentary on this). The two phenomena may not be unconnected.
posted by languagehat at 7:48 AM on September 9, 2008


Jazz audiences are becoming the same as classical audiences: White-haired, only clapping when "appropriate", and sit through the same old shit time after time.

At big venues, often also used for classical performances, the audience "knows" to applaud after each solo, or failing that if you don't know when the solo ends, at the end of the tune. This sometimes leads to the audience applauding after the head, because a different musician starts playing. Argh!

The "rule" is to applaud when you're moved to do so. Usually this'll be after a kick-ass solo. And at the end of the song. But it's also appropriate to give encouragement whenever something great happens. It helps light the fire of creativity for the performers.

Classical music used to be this way before the life got sucked out of it. Pop music concerts are still very much influenced by the audience synergism.
posted by lothar at 8:05 AM on September 9, 2008


It wasn't the end. You know that, but you keep talking as if you didn't.

That's the thing, I thought a movement was equivalent to a song on an album. "When in Rome..." is the impression I'm getting from the people that love classical music in this thread and I get behind that fully. I'm not advocating nachos and beer hats at the symphony or anything. It just feels like something is lost when showing appreciation outside of fixed appreciation zones is so frowned upon.
posted by minifigs at 8:14 AM on September 9, 2008


It just feels like something is lost when showing appreciation outside of fixed appreciation zones is so frowned upon.

Well, sure, something is lost, but something else is gained. That's life. And lothar might want to talk to the MJQ about how insisting on silence and attention sucks the life out of jazz. There isn't one rule applicable to everything.
posted by languagehat at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2008


As a (occasional) performer, I find clapping between movements to be simply annoying. I understand that people think what they have just heard is fantastic and want to appreciate it, but it's terribly jarring to hear wild applause during that pause just as we're gathering focus to start on the next movement. Stopping for applause breaks up the relationship between one section and the next - I might as well be playing individual unrelated small pieces. But that's not what a multi-movement piece is trying for.
Applause between movements would also mean that the pacing of a piece becomes controlled by the audience rather than the performers, because we'd have to wait for the applause to die down before we could start on the next section. For me, it's not so much restricting displays of appreciation to acceptable periods as being respectful of the performers and how they want to present a piece.

However, it's generally acceptable between movements for audiences to cough, shuffle their feet, or fidget. There always seems to be much more of this sort of low-level noise after a particularly good movement - I think it's become a sort of substitute.

In any case, you shouldn't feel too bad about accidentally starting to clap during a pause. Classical music has to be able to tolerate the occasional misunderstanding in exchange for the wider audience it needs to survive.
posted by casarkos at 8:39 AM on September 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


Excellent article. I have always favoured the concert stylings of 100 - 200 years ago over current performances. Yes, this means talking. Yes, this means applauding when you like something. And yes -- the most important thing missing from today -- this means booing if you don't like something. I have attended so many horrible performances that didn't deserve the applause they got.

It would also help to have more contemporary music that didn't suck, but one thing at a time.
posted by spamguy at 9:07 AM on September 9, 2008


I have always favoured the concert stylings of 100 - 200 years ago over current performances.

It's the 2,000-Year-Old Man!
posted by languagehat at 9:21 AM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I hate standing ovations for average performances.

I feel this way about the fake ending/extended applause for an empty stage/"surprise" encore that seems to be mandatory at all rock concerts these days. Where did that come from?
posted by designbot at 9:37 AM on September 9, 2008


I've spent (far too) long thinking and reading about audience dynamics and how they clap.

In fact, they do basically clap out of "spontaneous joy", even though it's a bit formalized. A successful performance builds up tension in the audience - it is released through clapping (great picture here). (The Nelms book "Magic and Showmanship" in that previous link explains a lot of subtleties - for example, that the earlier you cut off the end of the applause with action, the more tension you can preserve for later.)

This theory explains a lot of real-world phenomena.

You'll often see as avant-garde pieces progress, if they have pauses or decrescendos of any length, members of audience will start to clap and then stop and look embarrassed. It's because they are looking for an ending to break the tension, which might well be mostly the tension of boredom.

It explains why if a band goes through one song to the next without getting applause, the applause is much greater in the end (barring errors of course) and you'll note professional bands doing this on the run-up to the break or end-of-show.

This means from a human perspective, clapping between movements is all to the good (unless they're very short). It releases tension, it lets everyone relax a little, do all that rustling and coughing stuff they'd otherwise spread out over during the actual performance.

Separate movements are like separate courses in a meal. You shouldn't just bolt from one to the other, but take a moment to savour the previous movement and anticipate the next one. "Silence" is not a good way to do this, as small, accidental sounds are magnified a million-fold in a very quiet atmosphere (as we know, silence doesn't really exist for this very reason).


Applause is basically white noise. You shouldn't find it distracting - think of it as concentrating all those distractions you would had during the music into the break.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:50 AM on September 9, 2008 [5 favorites]


Shame orchestras don't take risks alienating their core audience (and some of their own musicians!) like that more often.

Many of the orchestras (and other classical-type ensembles) in the U.S. would looove to be much more progressive in the music they play (say, post-1910, maybe?), the ways they present it, etc., but can't: they're too dependent upon big donors, who typically are rich people with very conservative tastes. Before I left to come back to grad school, I was on staff with a healthy regional orchestra in California, and when they programmed pieces by Stravinsky (from 1911) and Bartok (from 1943) the blowback from a few big donors was unbelievable, and enough to derail that particular programming trend.

The sad truth is that American orchestras are not civically supported like most European ones are, and are dependent upon donations, grants, and ticket sales to make ends meet. Which is fine, they have to compete in the marketplace like everybody else, except that the kinds of music orchestras (and other classical ensembles of course) make is often long, challenging, unfamiliar, etc., which is a hard sell. So in the U.S. they are often forced to kowtow to the tastes of those few holding the purse strings, even when that (often) runs exactly counter to the artistic desires of the musicians in the organization.

This has lead to a rather nasty Catch-22: orchestras in the U.S. generally want to branch out, try different kinds of things, develop new (younger!) audiences, but can't alienate the aging donor/subscriber base who currently keep things solvent. So they're stuck playing the canon year after year. (Which is also why many composers are writing much less for symphony orchestra and are writing for other ensembles like specialty chamber groups and wind bands. John Corigliano's most recent major work, his brilliant and exhilirating third symphony Circus Maximus (2005), is for band not orchestra. But that's a whole other story. It's also the only piece I know of that ends with a literal shotgun blast. Good stuff.)

Most younger classical musicians I know are very keen to branch out, collaborate with all kinds of musicians, present all kinds of concerts, etc., but find it very hard to do so (and pay the rent) once out of school. That's why the most successful front for new, interesting music of this kind--in the U.S.--has been smaller groups like Bang on a Can, Alarm Will Sound, Eighth Blackbird, Ethel, etc.


It just feels like something is lost when showing appreciation outside of fixed appreciation zones is so frowned upon.

I totally agree. I want my listeners to clap whenever they feel moved to, as long as it's a genuine sign of appreciation. But I'm pretty heavily involved in trying to re-invent 'the concert', so I may not* be representative of any kind of mainstream opinion. In fact, our first concert here (I just started work on my DMA) next week will give audience members the options to listen in on live commentary before and during pieces; or to bring laptops and chat with a musician throughout the event; or to sit up in the balcony with another musician who will answer questions, talk about the works, etc.; or just to sit and listen quietly. The program has Andriessen, Zappa, and Schuman (the mid-20th c. American) on it, so it's quite different. The whole season will be like that, we're collaborating with dancers and light designers, all kinds of stuff. BUT we have the luxury of not being financially dependent upon donors and ticket subscription sales, so have a sort of sphere of experimentation where we can try things like this out to see how the work or don't work.


*'may not' = 'definitely not'
posted by LooseFilter at 9:58 AM on September 9, 2008 [6 favorites]


I don't know from classical music, but one practice I would like to see come back into fashion is that of hissing at movie villains. These dastardly rogues have been given a free ride for far too long, in my opinion, and it's high time we cinema patrons banded together to take a stand against their nefarious brand of black-hearted deviltry. TAKE BACK OUR SCREENS!
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:58 AM on September 9, 2008 [5 favorites]


ridged schedule

Look out! They're Ruffles!
posted by Sys Rq at 10:06 AM on September 9, 2008


I think that LooseFilter makes some really great points here. It is true that many people are working hard to change concert culture and to move away from the idea that you go to a concert to be seen rather than to listen to the music.

Actually this means that there is an interesting divide that is beginning to occur in contemporary music recently between concert-hall composers and those almost exclusively working in different concert environments. This is largely a US phenomenon, but it is something of a sea-change in new music. A lot of this is dictated by financial considerations as LooseFilter suggests, but it is creating a tangible result.

Personally as a composer I'm interested in working in both worlds, but I do share the frustrations of others that find the concert-going experience stuffy. I do however loathe applause between movements. As languagehat says, the piece isn't over. Think of a multi-movement piece as being like a novel rather than as a set of unrelated short stories.
posted by ob at 10:23 AM on September 9, 2008


they're too dependent upon big donors, who typically are rich people with very conservative tastes.

This is an excellent point, but raises the question: why do these rich people have these particular "conservative" tastes? Sure, someone born in the late 19th century who grew up with Brahms as the latest/greatest is going to have a hard time coming to terms with newfangled nonsense like Stravinsky, but those people died off long ago; why is it that someone born in, say, the 1940s still has those tastes?
posted by languagehat at 10:48 AM on September 9, 2008


I'm not advocating nachos and beer hats at the symphony or anything.

Ha -- I can't help but laugh at this. A couple of years back, we went to a performance of miscellaneous classical music by the classical orchestra of San Juan (I'm thinking they're called just the "San Juan Pops" or something, but to tell the truth I can't remember) here in Ponce, Puerto Rico. There weren't any beer hats, it's true. But nachos? Yes. There were nachos and hot dogs and empanadillas and Coke, and it was held in the basketball arena because that's the biggest place with seating in town.

The performance was scheduled to start at 7:30. They didn't start setting up until 8 and the vocalists arrived about 8:30. They got off to a leisurely start around nine. The performance was fine -- sugarier stuff than I like (Puerto Rican taste is more late-19th, while I really prefer baroque) but excellently done nonetheless.

But ... culture shock? Yeah. Some.
posted by Michael Roberts at 11:00 AM on September 9, 2008


languagehat -- they have those tastes because they are tasteless and are paying to make sure the community sees them as tasteful. So they pay for what their fathers and uncles paid for, because that's the Serious Stuff. They don't like to pay for stuff with Too Many Notes; it confuses them and makes them think maybe they're being taken for their hard-inherited dollars.
posted by Michael Roberts at 11:04 AM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


do however loathe applause between movements. As languagehat says, the piece isn't over.

Isn't that begging the question? We all agree that clapping between movements is clapping when the piece isn't over. So what's wrong with that? People aren't clapping while the music is playing.

And it isn't the "intention of the composer" either, because as we've seen above, the composers expected people to clap and talk between movements for the most part.

I completely agree with the people above who say that this issue is about setting a code of conduct to identify the educated rather than showing love for the music.

Think of a multi-movement piece as being like a novel rather than as a set of unrelated short stories.

How often do you read a novel in one sitting?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:17 AM on September 9, 2008


why is it that someone born in, say, the 1940s still has those tastes?

Well, there's the rub, and the answer is long. Here are the elements I think are salient; some opinion, some more objective:

--at height of modernism, many composers (esp. the expressionists, ironically) became somewhat more fascinated by the composed object than the experience those compositions offered to the listener. Sort of part and parcel of the overall move to more complex music, a natural evolution of the work-concept too, but that's a flashpoint for audience alienation, historically.

--Removing the easily, intuitively recognizable context of tonality disorients most listeners profoundly, and it takes a bit of patience and effort to listen to and enjoy non-tonal (or post-tonal) music. These sorts of non-tonal and post-tonal developments starting to happen just as radio and true mass entertainments were really taking off, so that's unfortunate timing.

--elevation of personality and "Golden Age" canon to sell records in the 40s & 50s. Joseph Horowitz wrote a terrific and provocative book about that, whose thesis is that profit and not art drove the mature development of American concert life mid-century. (Which is not all that controversial, it's his take on Toscanini that really pisses some people off.)

--the influence of the marketplace cannot, in my opinion, be underestimated. It moves music from experience to product, and products have to be defined, packaged and sold. Old masters and mythical heroic personalities (not to mention tuneful, tonal music) are much easier sells (at first) than, say, well, most anything written post-tonal era.

--on preview, Michael Roberts actually hit the nail on the head. My reasons above are more about how that 19th century canon came to be elevated and seen as the High Culture Standard by previous generations.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:19 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is pretty much what Benjamin Zander's TEDTalk is about (self-link to a page with embedded video because teds site is annoying to search)
posted by softlord at 11:21 AM on September 9, 2008


I'm not advocating nachos and beer hats at the symphony or anything.

Actually, one of the most successful concerts I've had to date (in terms of progressive music-making + enthusiastic reception by a diverse audience) was in a theater that sold popcorn, candy, beer and wine, and I think that was a big part of the success. While the music was unfamiliar and quite progressive, everyone got to munch and sip, and chatting in between set pieces was encouraged by the improvised electronica that was performed during those changes.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:22 AM on September 9, 2008


How often do you read a novel in one sitting?

Of course you don't (unless you're a Booker Prize judge) but the movements should be considered chapters rather than separate pieces. The interconnection between movements (such as key relationships and motivic relationships) show that at least since Beethoven the symphony is considered a coherent statement.

As far as what composers expected, it is clear from the article that "musicians were striking a blow on behalf of the rights of the “self-willed individual,”" early in the nineteenth century by programming entire symphonies that were "defying the norms of his time, essentially imagining a new world in which the audience would await the music in an expectant hush". Of course he's talking about Beethoven's last symphony, but in the next paragraph he talks about 1807 as being a turning point. 1807 to the present day encompasses the vast majority of the orchestral repertoire with the exception of Mozart and Haydn and other classical period composers.

So we can see that since the days of Beethoven symphonies were designed to be listened to in silence as a coherent artistic statement. The "intention of the composer" thing is problematic. Did the composer really intend for their to be no applause or was that just the convention of the time? Should we applaud between movements of Haydn but not Beethoven?

Of course it's a convention but it's as much of a convention as applauding solos in jazz (and indeed stems from the same reason, the "self-willed individual") but it exists for a good reason. It seems to me to be vastly more sensible than not allowing entry to a concert for people who are not dressed in the correct way to a (I have seen this).
posted by ob at 12:20 PM on September 9, 2008


re: Beethoven: ...the public [...] listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them. (I found that whole section deeply moving.)

It seems to me to be vastly more sensible than not allowing entry to a concert for people who are not dressed in the correct way (I have seen this).

Just because something's more sensible than some other thing doesn't make either of 'em sensible. People want a chance to respond to the music; in almost all other cultures and musics, people clap at almost any point in the music when they feel it's appropriate (unless it's during a religious ritual).

No wonder people think classical music is dull.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:41 PM on September 9, 2008


I remember watching a video of an orchestra being rehearsed for accompanying a rock band for some MTV thing. Any way the director told the musicians, this will be a real rock audience. They will not be quiet, expect a roar like you have never heard in your life when the music begins.

I saw the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant Unledded Tour, which included an ensemble of Egyptian musicians and picked up a section from the local orchestra in whatever city they played in. In Minneapolis it was the Minnesota Symphony. I think the orchestra players actually got into it after overcoming the initial shock of hearing a crowd that damn loud. There was a couple string players that were dancing their feet whenever the Arabic ensemble would kick in and one violinist actually pumped his fist in the air after Page tore the roof off on "Since I've Been Loving You".
posted by Ber at 12:47 PM on September 9, 2008


Just because something's more sensible than some other thing doesn't make either of 'em sensible.

I was responding to your point that holding applause was an effort to set a code of conduct to single people out as not being part of the 'club'. I see a dress code as doing this, I don't see holding applause as the same thing.
posted by ob at 1:01 PM on September 9, 2008


languagehat -- they have those tastes because they are tasteless and are paying to make sure the community sees them as tasteful. So they pay for what their fathers and uncles paid for, because that's the Serious Stuff. They don't like to pay for stuff with Too Many Notes; it confuses them and makes them think maybe they're being taken for their hard-inherited dollars.

Yeah, I have no love for rich people either, but you're not answering the question, you're just venting. "Too many notes" originally referred to Mozart, and the Dumb Rich People like Mozart just fine. There's no reason inherent in the music for one composer to be favored and another not. Normally, tastes change from one generation to the next; granddad liked Bach, dad thought Bach was old-fashioned and was a Mozart fan; son rejects both of them in favor of newfangled Beethoven; his son will be on the bandwagon of that wild and crazy Wagner. Somehow that process ground to a halt a few generations ago, and there's a reason other than Rich People are Dumb.

Removing the easily, intuitively recognizable context of tonality disorients most listeners profoundly


Removing the easily, intuitively recognizable context of monophony disoriented most listeners profoundly, too. Then they got used to it. People normally get used to new developments in art. Why are the same people who have learned to appreciate Picasso and de Kooning unable to appreciate their musical equivalents?

it's his take on Toscanini that really pisses some people off.

Well, being provocative for the sake of publicity is a two-edged sword. Yeah, if you wrap your learned discussion of musical history in a flag of "Toscanini was a hack who's famous because he got publicized!" you'll get attention, but people who are aware of Toscanini's greatness for themselves may not take you seriously.
posted by languagehat at 1:30 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


WHY SO SIBELIUS?
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:28 PM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Then they got used to it.

But they didn't have very much other music to listen to. To me, it's a critical confluence of events that the post-tonal era got really moving at the same time as radios, etc., were becoming ubiquitous. People got a lot more musical choices at a time when concert music was becoming much more challenging.

same people who have learned to appreciate Picasso

I'm not convinced that that many people appreciate Picasso--museums have the luxury of displaying actual, physical objects, and can have thousands of years' worth on display simultaneously and in different rooms. If I walk in front of a canvas I don't like, I keep walking--I don't have to sit in front of it for 30 minutes or more until it's "over".

Also, the abstract, temporal nature of music is important in this--it's much more difficult, I think, to understand fundamental changes in the medium of sound because sound is not fixed, and one can't stand there and contemplate it, try to make sense of it. Also, unless you read music, someone like me has a hard time "pointing" to a specific idea or moment to deconstruct it. (My ideal lectures on newer music would be done with an ensemble behind me, so that I could deconstruct, isolate, and repeat at will to give listeners an entry into something new and disorienting. Not feasible, unfortunately.)

being provocative for the sake of publicity is a two-edged sword.

Well, that's speculation as to Horowitz' motives. I thought he was being honest in his opinions and judgments (which I disagree with in this instance), but I never got the sense he was being provocative for the sake of publicity. People with informed opinions can reasonably disagree, of course, especially in a subjective realm like music.
posted by LooseFilter at 3:39 PM on September 9, 2008


I periodically crab to my local PBS radio station about playing single movements of pieces. The program director I torment argues (as this article did), that it was common in Beethoven's day to play single movements of pieces. And that's true. However, despite this, Beethoven composed his pieces so that the first movement of something linked (in key or motif) to the next movement, and so on, making his compositions an organic whole in a way (say) Haydn's were not. So dismembering the piece by playing a single movement is disrespectful to Beethoven.

I feel the same way about clapping between movements. There are some pieces of music where this is inappropriate because of the composer's intent. In all my years of joyful, enthusiastic concert going, I never felt I needed to clap after every pause, or talk because Handel's audience talked through the Tafelmusik, or whatever.

What I wish the article had mentioned was the shock to the concert-goers when conductors like Mendelsohnn began playing the work of dead composers like Bach. People had *forgotten* Bach. They had no idea that a moldy old composer could be as great and worthy of their attention as a living one. We should avoid both extremes, and play a little of everything.
posted by acrasis at 3:56 PM on September 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


languagehat, I'm not saying rich people are dumb. I'm saying dumb people are often rich, and that just because the sponsors of music are rich, you shouldn't expect them to be well-bred.

Excluding the populace at large from your target audience is a strategy whose aftermath you see before you -- the populace at large found other things to listen to. The remainder "like" whatever will get them in the club door.

I've sung opera in America and sung in a great variety of choirs in Germany -- there's a difference. In Germany, Bach is our music and there's immense enthusiasm for the entire operation of going to a nice church and listening to a concert. In America, opera is for the weird and those who like to feel a cut above the rest. I'm saying this in a nice way -- in Indiana and western Ohio there aren't many of the Rich Dumb People you seem to be imputing to my comments above (har), but seriously -- it's a different ballgame, and it's not nearly as easy to keep a solid musical organization together in the States outside a major city.

In Germany, Bach choirs perform at Christmastime in the boondocks and everybody goes. They enjoy the seriousness, but they don't take it seriously. In the States, they take it seriously because it's a class marker. End of story.
posted by Michael Roberts at 4:09 PM on September 9, 2008


Actually, one of the most successful concerts I've had to date (in terms of progressive music-making + enthusiastic reception by a diverse audience) was in a theater that sold popcorn, candy, beer and wine, and I think that was a big part of the success.

Fwiw, I'm a big fan of such things. I really like gigs in non-traditional concert venues where people can drink/eat. It really changes the atmosphere. Of course this isn't normally a knees-up just a couple of drinks and a snack. However, I just got back from a project in Italy where the audience at the concert were plied with shots before and during the intermission of the concert. Seriously.
posted by ob at 4:31 PM on September 9, 2008


Michael Roberts: OK, I see better where you're coming from now. But I still think the freezing of musical taste somewhere around WWI is a mystery that needs better explanation than it's gotten. Is it just a matter of a wider variety of choice (jazz, pop, world music) plus the fact that attending concerts has become expensive? I dunno, I often think about this and haven't come up with answers that satisfy me.

Well, that's speculation as to Horowitz' motives. I thought he was being honest

Oh, I'm sure he was. I was just grumpy because I like Toscanini a lot (I never understood Beethoven's later symphonies till I heard him conduct them) and that point of view irritates the hell out of me.
posted by languagehat at 5:14 PM on September 9, 2008


LooseFilter, we're getting the new stuff (including John Corigliano, who also spoke here last year) in Baltimore. Marin Alsop has been programming a lot of recent compositions and bringing the composers in to conduct and/or speak on their pieces.

It has been awesome. I've disliked stuff I expected to like and fallen in love with stuff I expected to hate.

They also are bringing back this year having most of the seats in the house cost $20. This means I buy 10 or so concerts rather than one. Hell, I even got to sit in a box once for $20.

They are packing folks in at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore. Sure, some of that is for Carmina Burana and the New World Symphony, but some of that is for Corigliano, Tan Dun and others.

In other words, I don't think audiences are quite as conservative as some think. The big donors may well be.
posted by QIbHom at 5:28 PM on September 9, 2008


I don't think audiences are quite as conservative as some think.

I agree completely, and am in fact counting on it for the future of my career. Marin Alsop is wonderful--I've been to the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz for 8 years running, it's one of my favorite concert events every year. Baltimore is lucky to have her.


I was just grumpy because I like Toscanini a lot

I hear you, totally understandable. Which, I think, accounts for some of the surprising vitriol in the Amazon reviews of that book.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:41 PM on September 9, 2008


Hmm, lh, I see your point -- but I'm not sure "musical taste" froze, so much as the "classical genre" became one of many, and as a result of its sudden and unanticipated minority, became ... fetishized, to a certain extent. If you see what I mean.
posted by Michael Roberts at 5:57 PM on September 9, 2008


Yeah, I know what you mean, but that's what needs explaining: why that particular form of art became fetishized in that particular way. Maybe it is just a combination of the factors mentioned so far, but it just seems odd to me. I mean, I myself have gone through any number of journeys from thinking something is awful to gradually coming to accept it to liking it a lot (Cecil Taylor is an example); it seems like a natural process. But maybe twelve-tone broke the continuity. Or something.
posted by languagehat at 6:15 PM on September 9, 2008


Thanks for the article- I read it in this week's issue of the NY and found it very enlightening.
posted by awesomepenguin at 6:21 PM on September 9, 2008


I have always favoured the concert stylings of 100 - 200 years ago over current performances. Yes, this means talking.

I think I've sat in front of you...
posted by pmurray63 at 6:49 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


acrasis: Beethoven composed his pieces so that the first movement of something linked (in key or motif) to the next movement, and so on, making his compositions an organic whole in a way (say) Haydn's were not.

LvB didn't seem to have a problem to omit a movement or two when trying to sell the Hammerklavier, and in the British edition ultimately published, agreed to a switchover of of movements 2 & 3, and separate publication of movement 4.
posted by Gyan at 9:42 PM on September 9, 2008


languagehat: Removing the easily, intuitively recognizable context of monophony disoriented most listeners profoundly, too. Then they got used to it. People normally get used to new developments in art. Why are the same people who have learned to appreciate Picasso and de Kooning unable to appreciate their musical equivalents?

This is an interesting question, and one can make a parallel comparison with the way "high culture" has accepted experiment in painting and sculpture compared to the way it has distinctly not done so in poetry either (those folks who would accept de Kooning would balk at Language poetry and its decendants as they would music by Elliott Carter and Ligeti).

I guess I have a vaguely thought-out idea about the ways the visual arts can be made less scary by seeing them as decorative objects to be possessed and controlled and ordered within museums, compared to the way experimental classical and non-traditionally referential poetry are less easily domesticated into an upper- or upper-middle-class "lifestyle," but that's probably too much to get into in a humble Mefi comment made during work hours. (Talk about the interstices of the bourgeois, sigh.)
posted by aught at 8:05 AM on September 10, 2008


I don't have much to add to this discussion, except to mention Tanglewood. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has a summer training camp (not actually sure how to characterize it) in Tanglewood. The music is good, admission is cheap (as long as you don't mind sitting on a lawn) and while the music is being rebroadcast on speakers, nobody I was there with cared. It was a picnic with classical music. We were silent during the pieces, but it was a relaxed atmosphere. It was ok to arrive late, etc.

As for contemporary works I just moved to NYC. The Philharmonic is having a concert consisting of three works written in the last 60 years plus some Mahler. In fact, one of the pieces (by Lorin Maazel) is being conducted by the composer.

After this discussion, I may try to go, that is if I can find someone to go with.
posted by Hactar at 9:00 AM on September 10, 2008


Has someone already linked to this recent Stuff White People Like?

I may have missed this in the thread, it seems like the source of funding for music in the states has a pretty strong influence on what gets played as well as ticket prices. Were I not able to get my trusty student rush tickets, I would not have attended nearly as many concerts because I simply could not afford it. But orchestras cannot subsist on my cheap tickets alone.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:34 AM on September 10, 2008


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