The shape of classical concerts: must read of the day!

Alex Ross, writing on the format of modern Western classical concerts, begins his piece with a description of the concerts themselves:

The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. The music usually begins a few minutes after eight, listeners having taken their seats beforehand to peruse program notes or chat with neighbors. The evening falls into two halves, each lasting around forty-five or fifty minutes. An orchestral concert often proceeds from overture or short tone poem to solo concerto, and then to a symphony or some other major statement; a solo recital builds up to a big sonata or a virtuoso showpiece. The audience is expected to remain quiet for the duration of each work, and those who applaud between movements may face embarrassment. Around ten o’clock, the audience claps for two or three minutes, the performers bow two or three times, and all go home. Opera has a slightly looser code—the length of the evening depends on the composer’s whims, and the audience makes its feelings known with sporadic applause and very occasional boos—but there, too, an atmosphere of high seriousness prevails.

The piece, which is a review of two books that trace the history of how the current format and playing/listening styles emerged has plenty of interesting things to say — like this one about listening to an opera in Paris in the years before the French Revolution:

Here is Johnson’s evocation of a night at the Paris Opéra in the years before the French Revolution:

While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.

In other words, the opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé. Johnson quotes a nobleman writing, “There is nothing so damnable as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat.”

There are a couple of things that caught my attention: one is that in earlier times the audience seldom sat down or quieted down; the other is that Franz Liszt introduced a routine by which audience might ask for their favourites by writing them down on slips of paper. Both these are true of modern Carnatic concerts!

There is also some anthropology, of course:

With the aristocracy declining in the wake of the French Revolution and subsequent upheavals, the bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life, imposing a new conception of how concerts should unfold: programs favored composers of the past over those of the present, popular fare was banished, program notes provided orientation to the uninitiated, and the practice of milling about, talking, and applauding during the music subsided. To some extent, these changes can be explained in anthropological terms: by applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural élite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder. “The bourgeoisie isn’t a class, it’s a position,” the Journal des Débats advised. “You acquire it, you lose it.” Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum.

The piece also suggests how the hushed down audience helped/encouraged the composition of some of the modern pieces and discusses how the genius of Beethoven anticipated some of these developments of the concert scene.

Ross ends his piece with a suggestion as to why the current concert format also needs modifications:

The problem isn’t that the modern way of giving concerts has grown hopelessly decrepit, as some say; it’s that music has for too long been restricted to a single, almost universally duplicated format. If the idea is to treat composers as serious artists, then concerts must become significantly more flexible, in order to accommodate the myriad shapes of music of the past thousand years. Superbly polished as today’s performances are, I sometimes get the feeling that the classics are a force more contained than unleashed, and that new works might still produce the tremendous effect that Beethoven had on Berlioz’s old music master at a concert in Paris: “When I came out of the box and tried to put on my hat, I could not find my own head.”

A must-read piece!

While we are on the topic, some of you might also be interested in listening to what Ariyakudi, the doyen of Carnatic music and the pioneer of modern Carnatic concert, has to say about Carnatic concert tradition (or kutcheri paddhathi, as he called it).

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4 Responses to “The shape of classical concerts: must read of the day!”

  1. Ludwig Says:

    Tangential, but interesting, possibly. If you can, go to:

    and forward to 38:00, and see and enjoy. You’re hopefully on broadband 🙂

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Ludwig,

    Even with broadband, I was not too successful — the embedded player would not allow me to fast forward either.


  3. Ludwig Says:

    Oh, too bad. Did you try clicking on the “Play in Standalone Player” link? Anyway, the reason was that one of the questions in the finals of the Landmark Quiz in Chennai this year involved the quizmaster playing Ariyakudi singing “Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu” and a clip from a Tom & Jerry cartoon where Tom play’s Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (or something like that!), and asking us to “Connect these two pioneers.” The answer of course, was that both of them defined the modern format of the concert in their respective performing art.

  4. Guru Says:

    Dear Ludwig,

    There was some problem with play in standalone player too — may be related to my using Firefox on a linux machine or related to missing plugins. Anyway, thanks for the pointer; I knew about Ariyakudi and did not know about Liszt till I read Ross’ piece.


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