9/8/08 - classical music

In today's excerpt - audiences at a classical music performance:

"The modern classical—music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. ... The audience is expected to remain quiet for the duration of each work, and those who applaud between movements may face embarrassment. Around ten o'clock, the audience claps for two or three minutes, the performers bow two or three times, and all go home. ...

"[However], before 1900, concerts assumed a quite different form. ... Here is [James] Johnson's evocation of a night at the Paris Opera in the years before the French Revolution:

" 'While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbes chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.'

"In other words, the opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed declasse. ...

" 'Public concerts didn't become widespread until after 1800, and well into the nineteenth century they took the form of 'miscellanies'—eclectic affairs at which all kinds of music were played before audiences that seldom sat still or quieted down. ... Applause usually erupted after movements, and at times during them, if the audience heard something it particularly liked. ...

"What changed? ... To some extent, these changes can be explained in anthropological terms: by applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural elite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder. 'The bourgeoisie isn't a class, it's a position,' the Journal des Debats advised. 'You acquire it, you lose it.' Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum."


Alex Ross


'Why So Serious?: How the Classical Concert Took Shape'


The New Yorker


September 8, 2008


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