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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 1 September 2011

The History of Concert Etiquette, Abridged

by Crystal Chan / September 1, 2011

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Many people believe concert attendance—especially by the younger generation—is low because the classical music experience is too stuffy. Sure, at a classical concert, the music is different from that of a jazz or pop concert. But more importantly, how people act is different; the atmosphere is different. This is due to etiquette, which determines how people (are expected to) behave at a performance and thus shapes the concert-going experience. Today, these conventions are more similar to those at a theatre performance than to those at concerts of almost every other musical genre. How did classical music concert etiquette become what it is?

Church, Court & Carnival
In the beginning was the church, and the church was the music hall. Liturgical music was the only rehearsed music most people heard in Western Europe before the 17th century. Proper etiquette for listening to performed music was therefore analogous to proper etiquette for being in church. Even though church music was often an integral part of the mass, musicians were not the focus of attention: they were vessels for communion with the divine, there to inspire or lead the congregation and often physically relegated to the choir or organ loft in the back. Generally, audiences were expected to be reserved and silent in respect for the voice that the music represented.

Music soon became popular at the courts, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. Composers started to depend on the nobility as patrons. They tailored their music to serve as entertainment and accompaniment for life at court or as the soundtrack to public celebration or mourning. Conversation, appreciative clapping or cheering—even during performances—was acceptable as long as the noble in charge was okay with it. The same was true for music at home, on the streets, at the local tavern—etiquette was determined by the setting and its authority figures.

Rise of the Concert Hall
The move to the concert hall in the 19th century had an effect on classical music etiquette and performance on the same scale that the introduction of the microphone had on popular music in the 20th century. As concerts increasingly moved from the salon, court, and church to halls destined solely for performance, more attendees could witness each concert. A great thing, but it also meant that the ensembles were further away and unamplified on stage. There were also a lot more audience members making noise, reflected in the popular portrayal in films and TV of the Victorian concert as a lavish affair where one "went to be seen" and audience members gossiped during the performance. Not all concert halls were acoustically sound, either. Due to common design flaws sound often travelled both from stage to audience and vice versa.

Composers: The New Gods and Kings
All of this made it hard to hear music over audience noise. In 1882, Wagner famously condemned noise after the second act of a Bayreuth performance of Parsifal, only to be hissed at himself by the audience two weeks later after he yelled out "bravo"; maybe Wagner had only wanted quiet during an especially magical moment on the first occasion, but the worship of his fans had taken over. Audiences increasingly looked to composers to dictate how they should respond to music. Wagner was the first of many composers who (in his case, seemingly unintentionally) popularized the notion that making noise at a concert was unacceptable.

Halls also influenced composers, specifically as to how they highlighted musical performances as the main event. They wrote pieces as unified pieces of art rather than as entertainment or background music. Mahler specified in the Kindertotenlieder score that there should be no applause between movements. A culture of quiet steadily became the norm, starting from the late 19th century and cementing into rule by the 1950s and 1960s. The major exception to this day is operas with big arias. These, or particularly excellent performances of a section, can be applauded and even hailed with one or two bravo’s.

Conventions of the Future
Returning, in many ways, to the experience of church music so prevalent a few centuries earlier, audiences find themselves attentive, facing forward in the dark. Indeed, the cultish build-up of a pantheon of works, artists, and composers is almost religious in fervor. Even today, the wish not to disturb the enjoyment of a composer's unified vision is the main reason cited for not clapping between movements and for generally not making noise (second to audience members who want to listen undisturbed). Of course, most classical composers hadn't expected their music to be performed to a silent and thoroughly attentive crowd. Handel wouldn't have expected a reverently silent Water Music premiere.

Appreciating classical music in quiet surroundings seems natural in a world of recorded music. On records, movements or sections are divided into tracks and many performances are recorded in pristine quiet, sans applause. Having grown up with these cultural conventions, many young composers continue the trend by writing for quiet concert hall audiences.

On the other hand, there are a lot of current composers and musicians interested in audience participation and in performing in unconventional spaces. Maybe they are on to something; what the history of concert etiquette tells us is that it is malleable and that the greatest influences on it are place and authority. If we want to attract a faithful new generation of patrons, it seems we can start by holding concerts in environments that are inviting to the intended audience and by communicating how composers or musicians, would have wanted or want their music to be enjoyed in a different way than the norm: whether in casual dress or not, in quiet or not, participating or not.

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