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Audience Participation

Please do not shoot the pianist
He is doing his best

Sign in a Colorado saloon
Quoted by Oscar Wilde

In the middle of the Romantic era the Belgian painter Edouard Jean Conrad Hamman portrayed in his Mozart in Vienna a rapt group of listeners transfixed by the great composer at the piano. The audience was posed in positions which emphasized their total absorption (what Schoenberg termed "inwardness intensified") in the proceedings. The Yale historian Peter Gay, in his magnificent cultural history The Bourgeois Experience, points out, however, that the painting is a total fabrication. An actual contemporary painting by Ollivier shows the boy genius performing for a crowd that is much more interested in the lunch buffet. It seems unthinkable to a modern music lover that people were not attentive to the greatest of all composers, but this phenomenon reflects the changing history of the classical music audience and suggests what is not often discussed, that the constitution and the deportment of the audience have had a direct effect on the composition of the music which we revere today.

The audience for secular music from 1500-1800 was almost always attached to some noble court, ranging from the Imperial to the lowliest local aristocrat. Primarily music was an entertainment meant to be enjoyed as a part of a larger experience. Telemann's Tafelmusik was designed to be employed as background for dinner conversation and this accounts for its popularity on FM radio today, where music has once again been relegated to wallpaper for the daily events of the home or office. Musicians were relatively low on the scale of household servants, often required to perform other non-musical domestic functions (Bach was in charge of table bussing at the St. Thomas dining hall). Conversation was the norm at a concert, even in a formal setting. The nobleman who was interested in music himself, for example Frederick the Great of Prussia who was an accomplished composer, would expect serious attention from the audiences invited to listen to a concert with him, but this attention was often forced, coming as it did by implicit royal decree. Haydn openly introduces a loud jarring moment in the quiet slow movement of his "Surprise" Symphony to awaken any sleepers at the Esterhazy court. At the opera, listeners often brought their dinners with them as picnics (this is still surreptitiously done at the London Proms and openly at outdoor concerts throughout the world) or used their appearance at an operatic function to further their social aspirations. Flirtations and business deals were on the minds of many of the assembly and there was no sense of constraint on the volume level of their conversation. People came and went as they pleased, arriving late, using their entrance to upstage the music and leaving ostentatiously on a whim. The operatic overture was adopted from the incidental music tradition of the drama to try and minimize the audience's effect on the production as a whole, giving latecomers some time to settle into their seats before the story had begun. Unfortunately, modern opera audiences still use the overture as a background for their conversational conclusions, or, in the case of the people who seem to always sit behind me, as the occasion to commence their evening's dialogue. Gustav Mahler, used to latecomers as an opera conductor, provides for a ten minute pause between the first and second movements of both his second and third symphonies as a way of settling these offenders without destroying the mood that he has labored so hard to create.

In the nineteenth century public concerts were born at the same time as a new aesthetic was sweeping the civilized world. Part of the doctrine of the Romantic age was the role of the individual audience member in the artistic process. The listener was required to concentrate on the new music to glean the great rewards cached there by the genius who created the piece. Intense listening to a Beethoven symphony (one of the first sets of works to be introduced at public concerts) would inspire and excite a listener to great heights of enlightenment and aesthetic satisfaction. A concerted effort was mounted by composers, conductors, orchestra and theater managers, and musical journalists to educate the public in the correct way to conduct itself at these new artistic experiences. It was a learning process which lasted for most of the century, with composers steadfast in their desire to silence the audience and hold their attention and audiences resistant to sit quietly without some attainable reward. Musical compromises were part of this learning process. The "standard" ending of a symphony was used by Haydn and Mozart to let the public know when to applaud. Beethoven expands on this convention (the ending of his "Eroica" is shamelessly long and repetitive) and virtually all symphonies and concerti of the nineteenth century end in this exact same way (bum…bum…BA!). While one group of composers was trying to calm down its audience, another competing school was endeavoring to work them into a frenzy. To please the crowd, the virtuosos of the period played and composed works which required great dexterity and showmanship and which turned the classical concert into an extension of another emerging art form, the circus. The violin wizardry of Paganini was extremely popular in his time, but his music does not have the lasting power of a Mendelssohn or Brahms concerto and so is rarely heard today. Theatrical performers like Liszt and Thalberg (and later in the century Anton Rubinstein) at the piano encouraged the crowd to applaud as often as possible by performing stunts at the keyboard. Liszt often appeared with two pianos back to back, playing alternately on them so that each side of the house could have the benefit of observing his magical fingers navigating the keyboard. Supposedly, composers of serious works were intent on having an audience hold its applause until the end of a piece, but some built in releases of musical tension which beg for instant approval, for example the ending of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1. It became the convention in the nineteenth century for audiences to applaud at the end of the first movement of a major concerto and then to hold the rest of their approval until the end. This convention remained until around 1940. Today it is considered gauche to applaud until the end of a work, unless the performance of a movement is so extraordinary that the crowd wishes to voice its approval for a once in a lifetime experience. This leads to disastrous moments in the concert hall, as between movement applause is almost always the result of ignorance on the part of the audience and can be very distracting and discouraging to the performers.

Wagner was able to procure the services of the ideal audience. As the darling of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he had all of the resources of the kingdom at his disposal. When he was preparing his new theater, the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, he wanted to test the acoustics with a full auditorium. Wagner filled the house with soldiers and they sat there while he rehearsed the orchestra. Afterwards, he wrote that he had finally performed before the perfect congregation because they were all in their seats on time, they didn't talk during the performance, and, having no pretensions of understanding the music, they did not discuss it after the performance. Since it was by then considered rude to talk throughout the opera, the audience demanded emotional releases in return. At the Paris Opera each new work submitted for audition had to include a complete ballet as an entertainment for the restless audience. Wagner revised his early opera Tannhaeuser for Paris by including such a ballet and also enlivening the music itself with some patently un-Wagnerian touches, such as the use of castanets in the overture. Verdi's Don Carlos (Don Carlo in Italian) premiered in Paris in French with a complete ballet which is always cut today and Berlioz' masterpiece Les Troyens was fashioned over an intense ten year period to conform to all of the conventions of the Paris Opera, which ultimately rejected and never performed it. Italian opera of the nineteenth century was designed so that many literally show stopping displays of bel canto vocalism would alleviate the crowd's boredom, so that they would be quiet during the rest of the piece. Rossini was a master of audience manipulation, even recycling his overtures so that the crowd would feel at home from the very beginning of the evening. He wrote many of his crowd pleasing female roles for his wife, Isabella Colbran, who gained much fame and audience praise as she stepped to the front of the stage and out of character to perform as the singer Colbran rather than as the character in the tale. Singers eager to advance their careers would hire people, known collectively as claques, to applaud and scream wildly in praise of their favorites. Sometimes, particularly in Italy, rival claques would actually come to blows during a performance where two rivals were appearing onstage together. Even an actor deeply concerned with creating the proper illusion on the stage, like the Stanislavskian singer Chaliapin, had no qualms about repeating King Philip's great monologue Dormiro sol from Don Carlo if the crowd was generous enough with its cheers and applause, even though the mood that he had worked so long and hard to create was permanently shattered as a result.

The twentieth century has often been a battlefield between conductors and audience. Willem Mengelberg always began a performance by rapping his baton twice on his music stand and waited for absolute stillness before beginning. The introduction of works with dissonance in the early part of the century led to much audience unrest, which manifested itself in such ways as booing, catcalls, fights among audience members, and occasionally even the storming of the stage by the crowd. In a well-known incident from the late 1980's a man was ejected from the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut and subsequently arrested for booing during a minimalist piece presented by the Cleveland Orchestra. The conductor of the orchestra, Christoph von Dohnanyi, surprised everyone by lining up on the audience member's side, stating that he would rather have a negative reaction than none at all. It was the purpose of contemporary music to excite, explained von Dohnanyi, and he felt that, at least on this one occasion, he had reached a member of the public. What is most disturbing to musicians is a lack of interest and respect for their art, and don't think for a moment that the audience's behavior is not observed by those on stage. James Levine tells the story of conducting the New York premiere of the Lyric Symphony of Alexander von Zemlinsky. After each movement, more and more members of the audience left the hall. He became increasingly disillusioned and could not understand why, as he put it, "…they had already paid the babysitter and parked the car…was this music so unimportant to them that they would give up probably their one chance to ever hear it?" At Bayreuth, the Wagnerian traditions are still enforced. Patrons must come in evening dress and sit on hard chairs and even at the end of the twentieth century the hall was not air conditioned (the festival is in August in Southern Germany). At the most revered of Wagner's works, the opera Parsifal, the audience is expected not to applaud even at the end of the acts, and for a time in the early 1950's under Hans Knappertsbusch, were not even supposed to applaud at the very end of the performance. This is of course an extreme policy, but it should be noted that Germanic audiences always observe a respectful silence for a moment at the end of any performance before applauding. This allows the music to be heard in its entirety and to be framed in the same silence that preceded its opening measures. Nothing is more irritating than the premature applause of an opera audience at the end of the sung portion of an aria, while the orchestra is still playing, or the mindless contest common among modern audience members as to who will shout bravo first, destroying any opportunity for a millisecond of silence to frame the performance.

We have come full circle. The outdoor concert, so popular in the summertime, has created a tendency in audiences to feel free to converse and enjoy their picnics with little or no regard for the program, the performers, or the few who actually came to hear the music. Radio and especially television have created an environment in the home where it is comfortable to converse while enjoying great art and this has subconsciously translated into many people's comfort level enabling them to converse at a public presentation (this is a particularly serious problem at the cinema). Humming, singing along and conducting from one's seat have been annoyances throughout the century (Virginia Graham once quipped that the man in front of her couldn't be a very good conductor otherwise her lightning would have struck him by now) and can destroy live concert-going for many potential audience members. Sometimes it is the fault of the musicians. In the mid-1970's the New York Philharmonic was engaged in a furious feud with their conductor, Pierre Boulez. Their performances suffered tremendously. At a reading of Mahler's Symphony #7 at Carnegie Hall it was noted that the only two orchestra members who sat up straight in their chairs and paid attention to Mr. Boulez were the two Juilliard students who had been engaged for the evening to play the small but vital guitar and mandolin parts in the fourth movement. In this case the audience was much better behaved and respectful than the musicians and all had to suffer a third rate performance of a modern masterpiece (and in the hall where Mahler himself conducted the same orchestra).

The effect of the audience can also be felt by listening to music that was never meant for the public to hear. The late quartets of Beethoven were written by a deaf man who no longer cared about pleasing the crowd. Mahler's 9th Symphony was written after his own musical world had begun to consider him trivial. Schoenberg and Webern continued to create masterpieces long after they abandoned any hope of public acceptance. And Charles Ives, writing music only for himself and his imaginary friend Rollo, filled his piano bench with astounding music which is just now being appreciated. What all of these works have in common is a sense of experimentation, of daring, of moving a sophisticated audience of one to new heights of aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment. But music doesn't exist in a vacuum and for it to survive it must reach a larger audience. Many post-Webern composers completely turned their backs on their audience and composed for the rarified academic environment. As a result there has been comparatively little music of any substance produced for an audience since 1970. If classical music is to avoid the fate of becoming only a museum piece, composers must find new ways to reach an ever-changing audience.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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