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June 20, 2007

How much involvement?

by Greg Sandow

In all our talk about audience involvement, I wonder just how far we think that should go.

Here are two examples. One is Mozart's famous letter about the premiere of his Paris Symphony:

...in the midst of the first allegro came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away -- there was a great outburst of applause. But, since I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation, I had brought it in again in the last -- and then it came again, da capo! The andante also found favor, but particularly the last allegro because, having noticed that all last allegri here opened, like the first, with all instruments together and usually in unison, I began with two violins only, piano for eight bars only, then forte, so that at the piano (as I had expected) the audience said "Sh!" and when they heard the forte began at once to clap their hands. I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed -- and went home -- for I always am and always will be happiest there, or else with some good honest German, who, if a bachelor, lives alone like a good Christian or, if married, loves his wife and brings up his children well!

(Mozart -- 22 years old, and away from home alone for the first time -- wrote this letter to his father. We can be sure that those last words mean, in effect, "No, dad, I didn't go out and run around with women.")

The second example is a gospel song, sung by Aretha Franklin in her father's church when she was 16. Click on the link, and it'll stream from my website. The congregation (of course in the usual style of the African-American church) is with her all the way, responding, crying out, commenting. (And by the way -- Aretha sang like this when she was 16? Breathtaking. Could she do it when she was 14? Was she born knowing how to do it?)


And so here's a question. Would we want the audience at our own classical concerts to be involved like this? Forget Aretha for the moment. Would we even want what Mozart describes in his letter?

Somehow, the answer we often seem to jump to is "no." It just doesn't feel right.

But I can think of a very simple reason to say yes: This is what Mozart wanted. We talk a lot, in classical music, about being faithful to the intentions of the great composers. Well, here are Mozart's. He wanted the audience to jump in and applaud. He set that up -- he wrote the piece to make it happen. In a very basic sense, it's what the piece is for. (Well, one of the things it's for.) And yes, he did this in an environment when almost every piece that anybody heard was new, and he also planned his provocations for this particular audience. But still -- how can we think we're doing what he wanted (or how can we think we're giving an authentic performance), if we don't allow one of the things he wanted most?

In return, I'll very likely hear two things. First, that we've evolved away from this, which certainly is true. And second, that audience participation will damage the concentration we've learned to have (well, a few of us have) on the underlying structure of a piece. Or on its subtle details.

The second objection raises a simple but very basic question: How do we know what the effect of audience reaction would be? Have we ever tried it? For what it's worth, I have. When I hosted and helped to plan the Symphony with a Splash series with the Pittsburgh Symphony, we played the first movement of the Paris Symphony. I read the audience Mozart's letter, and told them that, since nobody knows which passage he wanted the crowd to applaud, they themselves would have to make the choice. They should consider themselves free to applaud whenever they heard something they liked.

And so they did. They applauded a lot. And what was quickly clear to me was that the piece was designed for this. Mozart anticipated it. The music is full of contrasts, as Mozart, a master entertainer, keeps giving his audience something new to listen to. With the audience applauding, the contrasts stand out, because, first, the audience applauded each passage differently, and, second, the musicians react to the audience, and start playing with a different kind of consciousness. The difference in the various kinds of applause was very striking. At the moment where the recapitulation diverges from the exposition (sorry, those who aren't music professionals, for the technical talk), there was an especially lusty burst of applause. There's no way that many people in this audience knew what sonata form is, but they clearly heard that something new was happening.

Besides, form in classical music tends either to depend on contrasts (the minuet or scherzo movements in Mozart or Beethoven symphonies), or else creates a narrative. I can't see how applause during the music would hurt either of these things. Take the sudden, magical sound of the horns in the trio of the minuet movement in Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. Would a ripple of awed applause take anything away from that? Or suppose people applauded at the trumpet call in the Lenore No. 3 Overture. Would that kill the piece? Suppose the audience broke into cheers at the sunburst beginning of the last movement of Beethoven's Fifth. What harm would that do?

Or even if people applauded, more subtly, at the moment in the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, when the recapitulation unexpectedly goes its own way, almost as soon as it began. How would that hurt our listening? An attentive audience wouldn't drown out the music with applause at that point. But underlining how special this moment is, with a sign of appreciation, would very likely only make it more special. Obviously there are some moments -- many moments -- when you wouldn't want applause, and some styles of music where applause during the music would be clearly inappropriate. But an attentive audience will recognize these. And the musicians, with their body language, can communicate whether they think applause is appropriate or not.

As for the way we've evolved, I take Matthew Guerreri's point (in a comment to one of these posts) that we now accept a 19th century sense of what art means, and how it ought to be received. But I'd add a nuance. We used to accept that. Now, in a global cultural context, I'm not so sure. Someone can come to a classical concert with a background that includes gospel music (listen to the Aretha song), kabuki (where people in the audience react with short, tight cries to high points in a performance), and jazz (where it's routine to applaud a solo). Not to mention rock. Bruce Springsteen, in a spoken introduction to his song "Growing Up," says he couldn't accept what his parents wanted him to be. "I didn't want to be a doctor. I didn't want to be a lawyer. I wanted everything!" Voice from the crowd: "You got it, Bruce!" (On the three-CD live album released at the height of his pop-chart fame.)

So if people with all this inside them come into the classical concert hall, why wouldn't the classical concert hall change? We've seen so many ways in which musical practices blend and combine, in our era (not least of them the way the postwar classical avant-garde has influenced current electronic dance music). Why should classical music be exempt?

Besides, the very evolution of classical music implies that it could evolve again. The ban on applauding between movements of a piece is, in America, no more than 50 years old. Now the wheel is turning again, and applause between movements is starting to break out. (At least in New York.) Younger people whoop when they like a performance, instead of simply applauding or shouting "bravo." Dress codes are changing, certainly for the audience, but often for performers as well. So this evolution toward silent listening, a movement only 200 years old, and one that was resisted strongly as it took hold -- why can't this be reversed? Especially since we know that a large part of the classical repertoire was designed for a participatory environment.

Not that this has to change. We can easily have some concerts done in the 19th century style, and others in a new manner, drawing on both the 18th and the 21st centuries. And who knows? Maybe the people who now say they'd hate that would actually like it, if they saw it. We just don't know. But at the rate our culture has been changing, I think it's rash to rule anything out.

Posted by gsandow at June 20, 2007 8:46 PM


Oh dear. Here we go again.

Greg Sandow writes:

Would we even want what Mozart describes in his letter [concerning the audience response at the first performance of his "Paris" symphony, No. 31, K. 297]?

Somehow, the answer we often seem to jump to is "no." It just doesn't feel right.

But I can think of a very simple reason to say yes: This is what Mozart wanted. We talk a lot, in classical music, about being faithful to the intentions of the great composers. Well, here are Mozart's. He wanted the audience to jump in and applaud. He set that up -- he wrote the piece to make it happen. In a very basic sense, it's what the piece is for. (Well, one of the things it's for.) And yes, he did this in an environment when almost every piece that anybody heard was new, and he also planned his provocations for this particular audience. But still -- how can we think we're doing what he wanted (or how can we think we're giving an authentic performance), if we don't allow one of the things he wanted most?

This choice red herring is a favorite of those who advocate concert hall audiences being permitted, even encouraged, to behave like the denizens of the mosh pit at a rock "concert". The fact is, Mozart wanted that sort of audience response NOT because he thought that's the way audiences should behave, but because it's the way they DID behave when a piece met with their approval. Today's concert hall audiences are way more civilized, way more knowledgeable, and understand the music way better than did audiences of the 18th century if for no reason other than that they've had a couple hundred years more experience of that music. There's no legitimate reason -- none -- for them to comport themselves like little barbarians as did the audiences of the 18th century. Reserve that sort of behavior for the mosh pits where it rightly belongs, and eschew it in the concert hall where it manifestly does not.


Posted by: A.C. Douglas at June 20, 2007 10:32 PM

Oh dear indeed -
Mr. Douglas has evidently never had the joy of being in the middle of a mosh-pit..


Posted by: Jonathan Mayes at June 21, 2007 3:13 AM

What a great article, Greg!, What a great solo by Aretha!

Posted by: Robert Jordahl at June 21, 2007 3:41 AM

I have to smile at this, because I'm wondering where this dream audience is that "en masse" is going to pick up on the Eroica's 1st mvt. recap "unexpectedly going its own way..." We make music in the hope that every member of the audience picks up on such miracles, but I don't think we're there yet.

Fundamentally I still have to side with ACD on this one. Within the context of audience behavior of the time naturally Mozart would prefer clapping to, say, hissing. Greg, you say "obviously there are many moments when you would not want applause..." but who, then, is going to decide what those are? All it takes is one person to disturb everyone's else's absorption of a given musical moment. In this era of ever-increasing incivility, is this the direction we really want to go?

Classical form cannot be reduced completely to a series of contrasts or an overarching narrative. What is an absolutely sublime moment for some listeners may be merely a passing transition for others, and vice versa. Encouraging or fostering an atmosphere where the way the music is received defaults to the behavior of the most demonstrative of the mass negates the fundamental power of this music as an experience unique to each individual listener.

Posted by: Phillip at June 21, 2007 6:10 AM

Actually, I think the scheme you outline in the last paragraph is already here: in the past six months alone I've seen meticulously recreated 17th-century music, straightforwardly presented 19th-century music, and informally presented contemporary music. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but I think (in agreement with Molly) this is the current state of things, and has been for a decade at least. One question I would have looking ahead is if a reliance of the free market (which I don't trust to value anything about the arts correctly) would collapse this set-up to one dominant style of presentation, which would inevitably work against the effective experience of a lot of repertoire. The best thing development and foundation support could do is provide the breathing room to let experimentation and evolution happen at its own pace. (Sometimes I wonder if the culture is really changing any faster than it always has. It certainly seems that way, but, on the other hand, you can go back a hundred years and find the same bewilderment--just substitute telephones and automobiles for iPods and the Internet.)

One last thought: if we're considering revolutions, we ought to distinguish between bottom-up revolutions (which tend to work rather well, although they take time) and top-down revolutions (which almost always bring unintended consequences that far outweigh any possible benefits). The history of music is one of percolating revolution--there's a reason periods don't acquire a name until sometime afterwards. Right now, modes of presentation are allowed to evolve to match the repertoire being presented. I think the current "we have to change everything now" feeling I sense among administrators and critics verges a little close to a top-down revolution for my taste. A short-term view got us into whatever trouble we're in--a short-term view isn't going to get us out of it.

Incidentally, I love a good mosh pit, but I have trouble keeping the thread of a two-minute punk song while I'm in one, forget about a tricky false recapitulation.

Posted by: Matthew at June 21, 2007 9:03 AM

Dear Greg,

Heady stuff all of that back and forth on the subject of audience behavior in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries...I wish someone could interview Mozart.

I've been going to the Opera and to the Symphony and to recitals and to concerts for the best part of my 60 years on this planet. In my teens in Havana I saw and heard Heifetz, Menuhin, Casals, Tebaldi, de los Angeles, Segovia, Gilels, Babin and Vronsky... Igor Markevitch and, before him, Erich Kleiber conducting our Havana Philharmonic...I think that Cubans were a pretty hip audience back in the 40's and 50's and still are. I remember moments of near mass hysteria in audiences at the Ballet Nacional with Alicia Alonso doing Giselle. Ovations that went on for minutes on end...We, as Latinos, have always been pretty demonstrative. And this has NOTHING to do with politics, as I am recalling pre and post Castro events. I miss all that and, these days, rarely get it except at the opera.

My rambling leads to one main point: American classical music audiences should learn to cut loose, shake off their Puritan baggage, and shout with joy. A recent Beethoven 9th at our Performing Arts Center elicited at more than one moment supercilious looks from the stuffy German conductor at the helm of the visiting Cleveland Philharmonic. Too damned bad, say I. If Beethoven's second movement of the ninth prompts me to burst out with un-programmed applause, then so be it! Music-making is a communal act.

Look: Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini, Verdi, Gounod, Bizet, Meyerbeer, Massenet, and many of the German and Slavic opera composers - except for the obsessive Wagner - planned, encouraged, programmed, rejoiced, and celebrated all applause at any time in all their works. And, to this day, opera fans - a loud, passionate, and, admittedly, often overbearing breed - let it rip when they feel like it. Oh that symphonic audiences could do just that! And the proof is in the pudding: of all the performing arts, Opera and its audiences are growing apace all over our map.

I hope your leg is doing much better. Don't break a leg, "in bocca al lupo!"


Posted by: Rafael de Acha at June 21, 2007 1:08 PM

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