Can Less Etiquette “Save” Classical Music?


The growth of Western classical music in China has been widely reported on for some years now – indeed, we ourselves wrote a book on the subject, “Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese.”

But one interesting aspect of this phenomenon that has received little coverage is the extent to which Western listening habits have also taken root in China– a fact that many would cheer, but which perhaps should give us all pause.

This thought came to us during the recent “Reaction to the Record” conference at Stanford University during a presentation entitled “Can We Make Classical Music Exciting Again?” by Anatole Leikin, a pianist and music professor at UC Santa Cruz.  Leikin lamented the current state of classical music, which he described as “dropping out of the cultural mainstream,” plagued by aging and dwindling audiences and failing orchestras and record companies.

Among the potentially solvable reasons for this sad state of affairs, Leikin quoted the musicologist Richard Taruskin bemoaning “the ritualism of our smug, dull concert life.”  Once upon a time, said Leikin, the audience participated in concerts.  Applause could be heard between movements – indeed, if it was not heard, many musicians were chagrined. Brahms, Leikin said, knew at once that his first piano concerto was a failure because there was no applause after its first movement.  Many musicians interacted with audiences as a matter of course – Liszt would improvise, talk to his listeners and essentially stage variety concerts.  Nobody thought clapping was “irreverent or stupid;” instead, audience members were allowed to express their emotions.

This style of listening to music – which Leikin says died out after World War II when the “great freeze in performing climate” took hold – resembles traditional Chinese opera-going.  Indeed, Chinese operas were generally performed in a teahouse style setting (and sometimes still are), with the audience sipping and snacking even as the performance went on.   Teapots with extremely long spouts were used to reach through the crowds to refill cups with boiling water; steaming hot towels were tossed to audience members who needed to clean up (or wake up).  If a singer was particularly good, the audience shouted its collective acclaim – hao, hao, hao! And if the aria was a familiar one, many members simply sang along, as loud as they pleased. Small children were brought along for the fun – Jindong still remembers with delight the countless nights he spent at Peking opera performances with his grandparents in the Qianmen theater district, eating peanuts and sunflower seeds and running up and down the aisles.

Over the years, however, Western-style theaters were constructed for the performance of symphonic music and spoken (as opposed to sung) drama; eventually Chinese opera was transferred to such venues.  Audiences were discouraged from talking and eating (though they still did both), often bringing their dinner in with them in a plastic bag and making outgoing calls during the performance.  Indeed, when the Julliard String Quartet performed in Guangzhou in 1999, its members were so appalled by audience behavior that two of them left the stage in frustration. In recent years, as “grand theaters” containing opera houses, concert halls and drama theaters – and costing hundreds of millions of dollars – have been built in dozens of cities around the country, there has been a real push to enforce what is now considered standard classical music etiquette.  Indeed, the pre-concert instructional recording at the Guangzhou Opera House not only tells audience members to turn off their mobiles, but informs them that they should not clap between movements.   And they don’t.

So, is this good or bad?  Does the absorption of modern symphonic concert-going etiquette mean that Chinese audiences can finally appreciate classical music in the same silent, formal way as Westerners – or that even as classical music seems to flourish, the “ritualism” and “smugness” that will eventually spell its demise is spreading like rot through China’s spectacular new concert halls?

As a symphony orchestra conductor who grew up cracking sunflower seeds as he watched opera, Jindong has a unique perspective.  His view is that it’s fine to applaud between movements if the audience is so moved – he appreciates the enthusiasm and does not think anyone should be made to feel foolish for clapping at the “wrong” time.  He also believes in some interaction between audience and performers – indeed, he often addresses the audience before a concert. But, he draws the line at eating and talking, because he feels it distracts from the artistry of a performance.

Perhaps it is time for a reconsideration of classical music audience etiquette. Instead of exporting musical snobbery along with symphonic orchestras, we should import spontaneity and enthusiasm  – but draw the line at eating sausages and dried squid.

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  1. Ariel says

    I hope Mr. Leikin is being misquoted otherwise along with Taruskin he is so far off the mark as to be laughable .

    • says

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t believe I am misquoting anyone, although as I noted in the posting this was just one of the problems addressed. Here is the write-up of Mr. Leikin’s presentation from the conference website:
      Can We Make Classical Music Exciting Again?
      Anatole Leikin (University of California, Santa Cruz)
      It is not uncommon nowadays to see news articles entitled “The Death of Classical Music in America,” “Is Classical Music Dying?”, or “Relevance Lost: Can Classical Music Adapt?”. Audiences are aging and dwindling, symphony orchestras are shutting down, and classical records companies are in pain. Classical music is dropping out of the cultural mainstream. This situation reflects a radical departure from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when classical music enjoyed immense popularity.
      There are several factors at work here: socio-economic, technological, and cultural. Many of them are beyond our (that is to say, musicians’) control. But we certainly can change at least some of the adverse conditions. One factor, which in the past greatly contributed to the wide popularity of music in society, was bustling concerts, which differed drastically from “the ritualism of our smug, dull concert life” (as Taruskin put it).
      To begin with, the atmosphere in concert halls used to be much livelier, involving diverse concert programs that mixed solo, ensemble, orchestral, vocal, and instrumental forces, thereby appealing to a wider range of musical tastes. Interactions between the performers and the audience were quite spirited, including enthusiastic rounds of applause between movements and ardent requests to immediately repeat them if the listeners liked particular movements well enough. As such, the concerts of yesteryear in no way resembled the staid, standoffish affairs that are typical of classical music concerts today.
      More importantly, the vast majority of modern performances themselves differ strikingly from those of the old days. Many performers now proudly declare their artistic “self-elimination” (using Taruskin’s term) for the sake of being faithful to the composer. In actuality, however, this trendy credo turns out to be faithful to the score (at least, ostensibly so), which is an altogether different concept. As a result, modern performances sound impersonal, formal, overly predictable, and essentially boring. Conversely, performers of the past treated the score only as a point of departure. The license they took with the score allowed them to craft distinctly personal, expressive, and highly engaging interpretations, marked by spontaneity and creativity. Such performances enthralled audiences, drawing them to concerts in droves.
      Perhaps, we can bring back these vastly entertaining qualities of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century concerts, with all their thrills and unpredictability. Then we may stop losing audiences (especially younger listeners) and make classical music exciting again.

  2. Mary Green says

    I’m sure that classical music audience etiquette must not only exist, but also must be quite strict. As a music lover I enjoy going to concerts and doing it every time I have such a possibility, and when I’m listening to music I don’t want to be distracted from listening to an amazingly beautiful melody, by ringing of someone’s mobile, or even worse someone’s champing. Also smell of food can be unpleasant for others. So as for me it’s completely inappropriate. The last concert I visited was the performance of violist Maxim Rysanov and pianist Jacob Katsnelson, who by the way have recently issued new disk with Beethoven’s works, performed in collaboration with Kristina Blaumane, which I’ve found at onyxclassics. So, when they only started one of the works, some mobile phone had started to ring… It was so loud that I could hardly heard the musicians, as I was not the only one performers had to stop playing and wait until the mobile will be turned of… I think the mobile’s owner was very ashamed, and as for me he or she should be… So what about me, I vote for the classical music audience etiquette!


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