A Quiet Word About Classical Concert Etiquette

A foreword from Listen To The World

(EDINBURGH, GUARDIAN, BBC, LTTW) Classical music has been around for hundreds of years, and has undergone a series of challenges now and then, whether big or small. In 2011, a BBC Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell Out argued that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth; while just recently, the BBC’s Promenade Concerts has made history with the first ever woman conductor, Ms. Marin Alsop, to lead their iconic Proms after 118 years. In China, this once banned music is flourishing in recent years and finds its unlikely future; and at this year’s Edinburgh international festival, the expected silence etiquette among the audiences turns out to be a loud one.

In response to such matter, there are some who tend to worry about what happened centuries ago, and some who want to move on from that. So how should we put this longstanding tradition in the current context? Can it remain relevant to the young generation? Among many aspects of it that need to be addressed to, perhaps we can start with how classical music should be best enjoyed.

A classical music concert does require silence from the audience during compositions, which also involve knowing the right time to clap; and for well over centuries, this has been the classical music concert basic etiquette. For casual concert-goers, these longheld norms are frequently confusing, knowing that throwing ourselves together in vigorous applause is considered as normal, even expected, at the end or during a piece. This know-when-to-clap manner is also believed has contributed to the lack of interest of classical concert among the young. The above mentioned DJ Kissy Sell Out had his own words on this issue, “I love classical music, and it pains me to use words like ‘egotistical’ and ‘snobbiness’, but sadly that is how live classical performances come across to young people.” In an age where everything is moving towards greater interaction, he says, classical music is irrelevant. Obviously, there are those who don’t agree with him.

This concert etiquette is mostly just common sense, as NAXOS has put it: the music needs silence, so the audience contributes silence; both the musicians and the audience want to concentrate on the music, so listeners stay put during a performance. However, one aspect of concert manners can be a bit puzzling: no clap between movements. We wait to clap until the very end of a piece, although musicians hate to tell people not to clap. They love applause. If somebody gets carried away and claps in the “wrong” place, most musicians don’t mind. They’re happy to accept approval in any form, but they also want everyone to hear the complete piece as a total experience, as well as to help each other focus on the music. Remember that at the very core of classical music, where it was and is practiced at the house of God, it doesn’t require clap at all.

We mustn’t forget that the etiquette belongs to the classical music tradition, in which the music was meant to be acoustic and acoustically amplified as well. In fact, this tradition has contributed to the development of acoustic and electric amplification technology that we used today. Happily, this hasn’t changed in most concert halls in the West, but unfortunately, not in other part of the world, such as those exist in Indonesia for instance. Electric amplification has pretty much a scene in many classical music concerts, in order to reduce the fragileness of silence caused by the poor acoustic quality. Obviously, this has affected in how the society think how they should enjoy classical concerts.

There’s another crucial point in how classical music should be enjoyed that is being compared with the way people enjoy pop music. Unlike the outwardly response to pop music through shouting, screaming, crying, and dancing, the response to classical music will be inward. We might experience intense feelings while outwardly sitting quite still. This inwardness is part of the tradition of classical music. At this very point, both pop and classical music concert can be very entertaining, although one might leaned more to the body, and one to the mind.

The many attempts to maintain or changed the way we should enjoyed classical music concert are either good or bad for the development of classical music itself, but one thing is for sure: classical music is being challenged by everyone, probably greater than ever. In times where tunes from any genre or artist are available at the click of a mouse, everyone demands a new period to emerge after almost 100 years since the post-great war it hasn’t.


A quiet word about classical concert etiquette

Who says classical music must be enjoyed in silence?

by Kate Molleson

When friends who aren’t used to live classical music come with me to concerts, they often ask if they need to behave in a particular way. I usually tell them to just turn up and listen – that a concert needs no dress code, no special handshake. But there are unspoken rules. The recurring theme muttered about at this year’s Edinburgh international festival had to do with noise: not that made by performers on stage, which they had paid to hear, but the noise made by audiences. Edinburgh, it turns out, is a pretty loud crowd.

Take the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: that tender, faltering statement of resignation and frailty. As conductor Daniele Gatti held the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a breathtaking suspended whisper, the moment should have been utterly transporting – unfortunately, the piercing sound of an unadjusted hearing aid went ringing round the hall like a tiny, whiny theremin. A couple of weeks earlier, Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra had to compete with a cheerful volley of dry coughs ricocheting around the Usher Hall. And there were phones ringing while Nikolai Lugansky played Janáček, not to mention shuffling and chatting as Ensemble musikFabrik played Cage.

It’s not just Edinburgh, of course. In his review of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Proms performance of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Guardian’s Martin Kettle picked up on the (invariably Proms-specific) issue of clapping between movements. “Górecki’s solemn spell was only violated by the insistence of part of the Proms audience on applauding at the end of each movement,” he wrote. Commenter James Welford replied: “Whilst understanding Mr Kettle’s point about the applause, perhaps some of it was an instinctive reaction to being taken to that plateau of feeling: perhaps a number of those applauding were, like us, there for the first time and could not help themselves.” Mr Welford suggests some kind of etiquette primer at the beginning of concerts: “Don’t know why, if it’s considered bad form, a gentle reminder is not made in much the same manner as the no-photography, no-mobile-phones?”

Audience etiquette is a slippery thing, though. The reverence with which we expect to hear Mozart today is worlds away from what Mozart himself would have expected – and, strictly speaking, a proper period performance should also include the food, drink, gossip and hoots of a rowdy 18th-century crowd alongside all those gut strings and natural horns. But the cult of 19th-century genius (Wagner was among the first to decree attentive listening) and the background silence of 20th-century recording studios have shushed our listening habits into pin-drop quiet. All of which makes audience noise seem all the more intrusive nowadays. But how much should we really care about coughs, applause between movements and mobile phones?

The classical music community gives mixed messages. Accessibility is the industry catchword. In some respects, we’ve relaxed into being able to dress how we like and experience concerts as an everybody, everyday event. In others, we’ve come to demand sanctimonious listening environments of silence and absolute stillness. I’d be the last person to advocate stuffiness in the concert hall: there’s nothing more grim than the tut-tuts of an officious crowd. Such a response alienates those not in the know – and if our aim is to welcome new listeners to the fold, we can’t make them feel daft when they get there.

Yet I hate being distracted from great music by careless noise. At worst, it can fundamentally change the fate of a performance, like when Mitsuko Uchida played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in Edinburgh last month and was interrupted seconds before the opening chord by a loud clatter. She was visibly startled, had to reposition her hands over the keyboard, and never seemed to fully regain her focus.

Robin Ticciati, principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and future music director of Glyndebourne, takes a pragmatic view. “True silence is something special to be celebrated,” he says, “and yes, hearing a mobile phone is irritating. But I can’t let that kind of thing impact my performance. And we shouldn’t be too uptight here – what if that phone belongs to someone who has never been to a concert before and was so excited they forgot to turn it off?” When a phone rang between songs in Veronique Gens’s Edinburgh recital, she just joked: “Ceci n’est pas Duparc.”

Marc Minkowski held his left hand out behind him to shush up the loud coughers in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony with Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble at the Usher Hall. It was a clever move, but surely meant that part of his attention was diverted to crowd control rather than to the score.

There’s a hefty list of conundrums when it comes to audience etiquette. Why is it OK to read a programme or a score, when doing so on a smart phone or tablet would be unacceptable? Is head-bopping and air-conducting an honest response to a compelling performance, or an uncouth distraction? Why is it permissible to shout “bravo” after an opera aria but not after a flash concerto cadenza? Perhaps there’s only really one rule: relax, enjoy the concert – but don’t distract those around you.