The autumn issue of Classic Record Collector, the only classical-music magazine I still read regularly (not that there’s a whole lot of competition out there), features on its cover Pierre Monteux, a great conductor who was by all accounts a perfectly delightful man. These two traits are rarely found in the same person, so their simultaneity in the case of Monteux is worthy of note.
Born in 1875, Monteux played for Brahms, conducted the first performance of The Rite of Spring for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and lived long enough to conduct the 50th-anniversary performance of the same piece in 1963, with Igor Stravinsky present and cheering. As if that weren’t enough to put him in the history books, he also conducted the premieres of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë.
In short, Monteux was a very distinguished artist, which is all the more reason why I found these remarks he made in a 1959 interview to be worth mentioning:
I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements or a concerto or symphony. I don’t know where the habit started, but it certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions. Of course applause should be spontaneous, not dutiful, but often it is the most natural thing to applaud between movements.
It sure is, and yet I continue to see obviously excited concertgoers shamefacedly sitting on their hands at the very moment when they ought to be raising a ruckus. What’s more, the concert halls of New York are full of spine-starched prigs who delight in staring down any poor dope who makes the “mistake” of expressing his heartfelt enthusiasm for a great performance at a moment not to their liking. This never happens at the ballet–not only do dance audiences clap between movements, but they also applaud whenever anything especially cool happens on stage. Good for them, and down with the prigs.
Incidentally, my favorite Monteux anecdote (which didn’t make it into Classic Record Collector, alas) is to be found, logically enough, in one of my favorite musical memoirs, André Previn’s No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood, a book which has served as the source of two “About Last Night” almanac entries to date. Previn, who likes to tell stories of which he is the butt, studied conducting with Monteux:
He liked cloaking his advice with indirection and irony. A few years later he saw me conduct a concert with a provincial orchestra. He came backstage after the performance. He paid me some compliments and then asked, “In the last movement of the Haydn symphony, my dear, did you think the orchestra was playing well?” My mind whipped through the movement; had there been a mishap, had something gone wrong? Finally, and fearing the worst, I said that yes, I thought the orchestra had indeed played very well. Monteux leaned toward me conspiratorially and smiled. “So did I,” he said. “Next time, don’t interfere!” It was advice to be followed forever, germinal and important.
I wish somebody had told Leonard Bernstein that.