Silence is not the problem

Another cliche-riddled story about how to fix classical music is making its rounds on Facebook. I tried to muster some sympathy for Richard Dare’s Huffington Post piece, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained,” but found it a long straw-man argument with no redeeming insight. Dare, a financier who is now head of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, argues the old line, that the rituals of classical music are off putting, without acknowledging any value in them. Why can’t listeners react spontaneously, shout and clap when they want to?

But this [is] classical music. And there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied — as I believe are many classical concert goers — by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.

He then goes on to compare all these rituals to authoritarianism and North Korea.

The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.

Yikes. And this guy is head of an orchestra.

In fact, there are a few good reasons for the protocol of classical music. Silence allows one to hear the music. It is a sign of respect both for the musicians and fellow audience members. Silence encourages close listening, and not clapping between movements gathers a multi-piece musical work into an organic whole, allowing its parts to be appreciated together (each movement revising the one before, subtly altering the memory of the experience) rather than as disconnected parts. The reason people sometimes shush noisy audience members is because music lovers deeply value the experience of listening, and don’t want it ruined by thoughtless and rude behavior.

And people often do shout with joy in the concert hall and opera house. A good lusty bravo after a well-sung aria is a thrill to hear. A riotous ovation gets the blood pumping.

Just wait until the music is over.

And this guy is going to save classical music?

Unfortunately, discussion of classical music has become so rote and tribal that Dare’s piece isn’t really about a problem or solutions. It’s a litmus test of how one thinks about preserving culture.


Filed under Culture, Music, Opera, Orchestral

20 responses to “Silence is not the problem

  1. Indeed, Philip. It seems like Dare and all of these other quick fix Op-Ed’s are trying to address 1) age and 2) a presumed lack of enthusiasm.

    Any issues facing the current concert music scene are far more nuanced than can fit inside of a neat, hip article. And Dare creates a false image that all of Beethoven’s pieces premiered at Oktoberfest or something. Even Rite’s premiere, the most infamous concert in modern memory, has been romanticized to the point of wild distortion.

    I welcome anything that gets people talking — but not during the second movement of Eroica. Thanks for the good read!

  2. Zlatica Hoke

    Things have come to a sorry pass when you have to explain to a rich grown up why he has to keep quiet at a classical music concert.

  3. Michael Wheatley

    There was a time, Mr. Kennicott, only a few years ago when I would have argued vehemently for the very point of view you share in this post. Like most in the professional classical music world, I was one who could accurately be described by the old joke: How many classical musicians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer — “Who said anything about change!?”

    For those of us who love classical music, who are trained and experienced concert goers, it’s very easy for us to dismiss newcomers to the experience as impatient, or even uncultured. But this snap to judgement denies a very real and urgent crisis in many concert halls. We are competing for the attention and entertainment dollar of an audience who has countless options of how to spend their time and treasure. And whether we like it or not, Mr. Dare’s view is absolutely that of many whom we are trying to introduce to the classical concert experience.

    Additionally, while I absolutely agree with the value of silence in concert so as not to tarnish the experience, I have to ad that this absolutely was not the way classical music performamce was observed until fairly recently in its long history. Mr. Dare is quite right in pointing out that it was not until Mahler’s insistence that we all stopped clapping between movements.

    I’m certainly not of the opinion that a “quick fix” of *any* kind is a solution to the problem of waning concert attendance. Neither, though, should we ignore the widely held point of view spoken of in Mr. Dare’s post, because it IS shared by the very people we are trying to initiate.

  4. Steven Ledbetter

    The practice of applauding between movements or not (and even during the performance itself) has had periodic changes over the centuries. In Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time, it was entirely common for an audience to request an encore of a movement they particularly liked–during the pause between that movement and the next. Mozart wrote to his father of his delight in a Paris performance when the audience applauded at a particular spot DURING the movement because it meant that they had gotten the joke he had embedded in it.

    Mendelssohn, on the other hand, wrote his concertos in such as way as to discourage applause, by linking them without breaks. That convention became more and more common (though not to the complete abandonment of applause between movements, as classical music became more “sacralized” in the 19th century, less regarded as an art whose function was, at least in part, entertainment.

    The “no-applause” rule is usually spoken of as being all but universal in the 20th century, yet I was very surprised to hear recorded radio broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky in the 1940s in which the audience cheerfully (or at least vigorously) applauded between movements, especially after the first movement of a concerto.

    I would not be so bold as to try to forbid applause, but there are pieces of music where the composer has gone all out to encourage it in the audience (Henry Fogel has discussed this on a number of occasions during the time he was President of the League of American Orchestras). Surely it is unnatural to deny our impulse to applaud a thrilling conclusion of a movement (with several more yet to come), when the composer was TRYING to get us to applaud.

    I don’t object to hearing applause from newcomers who feel confused or simply feel like applauding at an “inappropriate” place– but I do object to the sneering and eye-rolling that goes on among more experienced listeners at such times, who prefer to display their “superiority.” That, more than anything else, will discourage a first-time concertgoer from wishing to undergo such humiliation again.

    • philipkennicott

      Thanks Steven. I see no reason to be dogmatic about the rule, and I recognize it’s historical trajectory. Still, I think for symphonies written from the early 19th century on, when the form is increasingly practiced as a holistic one, it is a good rule. I think we undervalue the quality of silence between movements, the rather powerful fact of collective silence. I’d hate to see it tossed out wholesale, especially in a society that doesn’t exactly want for opportunities for immediate self expression.

      • Steven Ledbetter

        In general I agree with you, but I cannot imagine NOT applauding after the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique!

      • philipkennicott

        Exception granted.

      • JH

        One more bone to pick here with Steven’s comment:

        Steven, ESPECIALLY for Tchaikovsky Pathetique, applause after the third movement is missing the point, because the entire symphony’s uniqueness hinges on the final heartbreaking movement being part of the entire work. To applaud after the third movement is to fall for false triumph and the applause at that exact spot also destroys the mood going into the final movement.

      • Steve Ledbetter

        JH’s analysis is certainly one way to look at the piece — but I can see the same sequence of ideas being equally striking with applause between the movements–as if the audience is “tricked” into accepting the “false positive” ending,but the “heartbreaking” final movement can certainly come as some kind of shock just when you thought it was over.

    • musicalassumptions

      I have also heard applause after the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto on radio broadcast recordings from the 1940s. And I have also heard embarrassed applause before the coda of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth!

      • Steven Ledbetter

        The first time I ever heard the Schumann piano concerto (I was in high school and did not know the piece at all), it was during Van Cliburn’s triumphant US tour after winning the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. He was performing it with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. At the end of the first movement, the audience immediately began thundrous applause and he stood up to acknowledge it, before continuing with the rest of the piece. It seemed completely natural to me… The end of a concerto first movement is, more often than not, a place where the composer invites, even demands, and surely DESIRES applause. Symphonies, not so much.

      • Kenneth

        Ha, well, that makes sense about the Schumann. The first movement was originally composed as a stand alone one movement work, a few years later turned into the whole concerto we know today!

      • Steven Ledbetter

        Yes, that is certainly true. But I think if you consider most concertos, the first movement ends in a way that positively invites applause and chance for the soloist to take a bow (if so desired).

      • Kenneth

        I don’t know about most, but certainly the Tchaikovsky first concerto, I doubt if it has ever been performed in this country without people applauding after the first movement.

      • JH

        Just because confused audience clapped in the 1940s after one movement does not mean that now becomes a practice to be promoted.

        Plus, that’s bad enough, but Richard Dare wants to go even further: clap WHENEVER you feel like, even during a movement! You might as well be at your local jazz dive, clapping after each nice lick by the bass player.

      • JH

        Steven: I don’t know any soloist who would welcome applauses after first movements so that he/she could take a bow. Every soloist I know of considers inappropriate applause a sign of local audience ignorance and disrespect for the soloist and composer.

        Leonidas Kavakos almost did not come back for the second half of his recital because, just within the first half, the audience clapped after first, second, third movements of Beethoven sonata, after first, second, third and fourth movements of Franck sonata, after first, second, third and final movements of a Bach sonata….and could you blame him? It was supremely embarrassing.

        Just because the music ends triumphantly after first movements of most concerti does not mean audience ignorance is to be excused.

        The movements are clearly marked in the program, and it is the responsibility of the audience member to be able to count.

      • Steve Ledbetter

        I”m not sure if this is a timely response , or if i was the Steven you were addressing because I’ ve been away for awhile. But the first time I heard Van Cliburn (in 1956) play the Schumann concerto in Tucson, there was a roar of applause at the end of the first movement, and (if I remember correctly) he anticipated it by standing immediately after finishing the movement, and moving to; shake the conductor’s hand. Of course that is another piece where the first movement is essentially a real ending, so it makes sense.

        Still I’d rather avoid situations in which people shake their heads and tut-tut when someone applauds at the “wrong” place — that is simply rude of the tut-tutters. They were also once inexperienced concertgoers.

  5. JH

    Here’s how this kind of BS happens:

    Just because this guy’s rich, not because he has arts background deserving of his post, he became head of Brooklyn Phil.

    Next, because he’s head of Brooklyn Phil, he gets a gig posting on HuffPo on classical music.

    So now, just because he gets a gig posting on HuffPo, he believes his opinion on classical music in general should be respected. Never mind that in this instance he’s promoting destruction of a performance for the sake of popularity with audience.

  6. Pingback: Classical style: Some thoughts on the so-called applause ban at classical concerts

  7. James Orleans

    I realize that this thread is a bit old, but it was a recent stage experience that got me looking for discussions about applause. Just a week or so ago in Boston’s Symphony Hall the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto received the expected applause. But it turned into a prolonged standing ovation, and the the intermission exodus seemed to be gathering steam (an actual impediment to continuing the performance, I might suggest). It was pretty clear to me from the stage that that many listeners thought that the piece was finished, and that the applause was as much a reaction based in a lack of knowledge of the structure of the piece as it was an enthusiastic expression of appreciation for a well-played first movement. Two very different things. This was confirmed to me as I made my way up the stairs to visit with a friend at intermission, when a woman stopped me and thanked me for the lovely music, and then asked if I could tell her what the encore was. I told her as matter-of-factly as I could that it was a three movement concerto. Personally, I have no qualms about applause between movements, but I am far less eager to see ignorance dictate the tone in the concert hall.

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