Going to classical music concerts (such as a piano recital, chamber music or a symphony orchestra concert) is very often an elevating and inspiring experience. In many ways it is like participating in a ritual. Dressed smartly, you take your seat and wait for the musicians to appear on stage. Once the music begins, you will sit still and in perfect silence. If the piece has a few movements, the musically educated audience will know not clap between the different parts of the piece. Sometimes the music is rhythmical and dance- like, or a section will end in an impressive and dramatic way. Although it could seem natural to jump up, shout bravo, clap and cheer- you won't, because one doesn't do that in classical concerts. In today's classical music concert set up you must remain quietly seated.
There are many good reasons for this silence. It helps the performers concentrate and enables everyone to hear the subtle nuances expressed in the playing. As in a ritual, it creates a very special energy when hundreds and sometimes thousands of people meditate together on the music performed in the music hall. At the end of the piece, or the whole concert, the audience can express their enthusiasm by clapping energetically and if they clap for long enough the performers may give an encore or even a few little musical gems as an extra bonus.
I love going to classical concerts but often feel a bit ambivalent about this way of listening to music. The music itself is full of life and the performers are very often open minded, spontaneous and easy going people. So must the set up be so stiff?
19th Century concerts- entertaining, rather chaotic events
Up until around the mid 19th century classical music was presented very differently. With the increase of population in the big cities and a growing middle class, music was presented in public halls in a manner accessible to the unlearned. While the educated elite listened to music in closed events, the wide public had its own classical music concerts. Such a Concert in the mid 19th century would include segments of longer pieces (the first movement of one piece, the last one of another, etc) performed by a variety of artists and the audience would applaud (or boo) at the end of each performance. It was expected of the artists to improvise between the compositions and on themes spontaneously suggested by the audience .The whole event was a lively social and entertaining experience.
20th century concerts- solemn and formal
Concerts gradually became more formal from the mid 19th century. Improvisation became rarer and pianists were expected to perform their pieces memorized.
The big shift came with the edited recordings in the mid 20th century. People grew accustomed to hearing perfectly played music on their recordings at home and awaited the same in the concert hall. And since recordings of multi movement pieces had no applause between the movements, people naturally remained silent until the end of the whole piece before applauding at a live performance too.
21st century concerts- can we loosen up again?
The strict and formal structure the classical concerts developed into in the 20th century may be softening a bit in the 21st century. It is becoming more common for musicians to go on stage and casually talk about the music and about themselves, guiding the audience through the concert. After performing, the musicians will sometimes mingle with the audience and answer questions. The dress code seems to be less strict too, both for the players as for the listeners. Social media contributes to a more familiar and normalized atmosphere between the musicians and their audience as well.
I hope this trend of finding ways to update the concerts and making them accessible to a wider range of listeners will continue, allowing classical concerts to remain an inspiring and wonderful event for the next generations too.
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- The Concert Pianist
- Interview with Concert Pianist Ronald Brautigam
- Improvisation Hundreds of Years Ago: Interview with Elam Rotem