Sunday, September 16, 2012

How classical music audiences became silent

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause. Mozart's famous letter to his father in 1778:
Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures — there was a big applaudi├čement; — and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement — and sure enough there they were: the shouts of Da capo. The Andante was well received as well, but the final Allegro pleased especially... I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars — then suddenly comes a forte — but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte — well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royale — bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged — and went home.
Brahms lamented the absence of applause at the failed premiere of his First Piano Concerto in 1859. ...

The great change in audience behavior began, I believe, at the premiere performances of Wagner's Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882. From Cosima Wagner's diary: "When, after the second act, there is much noise and calling, R. comes to the balustrade, says that though the applause is very welcome to his artists and to himself, they had agreed, in order not to impinge on the impression, not to take a bow, so that there would be no 'curtain calls'. ... At the end R. is vexed by the silent audience, which has misunderstood him..." ...

By around 1900, a portion of the public had embraced the idea that certain works should be heard in rapt silence... "but even in Germany this is felt to be in advance of public opinion." ...

So who is the culprit? Barney Sherman came forward with the apparent answer: [conductor] Leopold Stokowski... [A]t the end of the nineteen twenties, he convinced himself that applause during symphonies intruded on the divinity of the concert experience, and he began trying to convince audiences to stop. ...

The no-applause rule was slow to spread. It was not in force in Vienna, in 1938, when Bruno Walter conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in one of the last concerts before the Anschluss. ... Here is one of the most “serious” audiences that ever existed. Many of those in the hall had attended Mahler’s legendary Viennese performances. Some had known Mahler personally. Yet they applauded during this most searching and death-haunted of Mahler’s works. ... You can also hear intermittent applause on American orchestral broadcasts into the nineteen fifties. ...

Emanuel Ax, for one, says that the absence of applause sometimes makes him uncomfortable. As a listener, I don’t need total silence to help me to understand the music, even less to register its emotional impact. To the contrary, I find this ponderous silence forced, unsettling, and in places absolutely anti-musical, as after the big movements of concertos. It’s crazy for three thousand people to sit in Carnegie Hall contemplating Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if it were some Buddhist monument, rather than a rousing, passionate entertainment.
--New Yorker music critic Alex Ross on the shushing of the concert hall