The New Yorker: Why So Serious?

Let’s Put a Smile on that Face

by: Colin Oettle

While concertgoers today might resent those who unknowingly applaud or whisper between movements of a piece, it seems such gaffes have only recently begun to draw frowns. The familiar silent audience who applauds in appropriate places is of relatively new invention. Relative, of course, to the age of music in the classical repertoire. As it turns out, classical concerts used to be noisy, social gatherings where aristocrats could mingle and the public could turn bourgeois into a verb.

The September 8th issue of The New Yorker featured the article “Why So Serious?” In it, writer Alex Ross chronicles the history of classical concert tradition.

Ross cites examples from performances at the Paris Opera and recitals by the pianist credited with creating modern piano performance tradition, Franz Liszt. Ross compares Liszt’s recitals to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” claiming that Liszt would solicit suggestions from the audience for subjects to improvise at the piano. Furthermore, Liszt is said to have modulated not only between tonal centers, but entire pieces. As Ross explains it:

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.

Apparently, Liszt obliged. While perhaps not as raucous, a similar concert atmosphere was the trend at the time. But with the French Revolution came the decline of aristocracy and the rise of the Bourgeoise—a new middle class who wanted unique ways to feel elite. And so modern concert tradition was born. Ross argues that the public’s “elite” new concert etiquette combined with more daring performers gave way to the traditions which solidified into modern practice. He quotes pianists Liszt and Clara Wieck (who would later become Clara Schumann) as having “ventured” to play all the movements of the “Hammerklavier” and “Appassionata” Sonatas respectively. Two performances which provoked, he cites author Kenneth Hamilton as saying, “intense debate.”

As the mood of both audience and performer became more formal, it laid the cobble-stoned road for the works of composers like Debussy and Mahler, who were able to compose lengthier, more homogeneous works. By the turn of the 20th century, symphonies were being played in full by professional orchestras of unprecedented caliber. Of course, an organization could not program a single movement of a Mahler symphony, as it would sever the programmatic and emotional themes therein.

Ross also comments on the programming tendencies of today: a halved concert where the focal symphony or concerto occurs after an intermission preceded by a tone poem or overture. He claims this monotony is starting to crumble as new conductors mount podiums around the world, renewing audience vigor and interest in classical performances. His only remaining lament is that concerts today restrict rather than “unleash” the classics—that they might not sparkle quite as much as those of a bygone era.



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