When I invite a friend to concert, I’m often surprised to discover that it will be his or her first. Then the questions start: “Do I need to wear a tux? When do I clap? Isn’t it very expensive?” At a recent concert, one of my close friends (an experienced concertgoer) was amused when someone behind him expressed consternation as I left the stage after the opening overture: “Where’s Courtney going? Is the concert over? But it was such a short song.”
Classical music concerts can seem rather strange, even offputting, to newcomers. The good news is that the etiquette is very easy to follow. Generally we don’t clap until the very end of a piece, even if it has several separate movements. When in doubt, wait until everyone else starts. Today you can wear whatever you like to a concert, although it’s probably safest to dress as if you are meeting your potential in-laws for the first time.
What’s not so easy to figure out is why this etiquette developed. In Mozart’s time, musicians expected the audience both to talk during performances and to express delight or disapproval at musical effects by spontaneous applauding or booing. What has changed?
Well, a lot. In Mozart’s time, concerts were private events for the aristocracy and the music was a backdrop to other activities. Today we listen to “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” in silence, but Mozart wrote it as musical wallpaper for a garden party. Back then the audience might have heard the same music several nights in a row rather than giving it their undivided attention for a few hours.
Things changed in the 19th century when concerts became public affairs. (It’s alarming to realize just how much of our musical culture stems from Victorian times; for example, our onstage dress. I happen to love tailcoats — they are elegant and comfortable — but it is a bizarre anachronism that we musicians continue to wear them centuries after our audience has moved on.) The music changed, too: Beethoven’s symphonies demand that we give them our full attention.
With the music itself safely established as the concert’s raison d’etre, the next generation of composers began to make greater demands of their audience. Mendelssohn set out to prevent disruptive clapping in the middle of his violin concerto by connecting the first and second movements with a single bassoon note. Composers had long viewed all the movements of symphony or concerto as a single creation, and now they expected the audience to listen to them as such.
By the time of Gustav Mahler at the beginning of the 20th century, the orchestra had grown into a huge beast of more than a hundred musicians. Expectations of the music had also grown: audiences sought escape at the concert hall, a few hours of transcendent relief from daily life, even a quasi-religious experience. Not much has changed in the intervening century, and those expectations inform most of today’s concert etiquette.
The fact that we’ve listened to music in this way for more than a century also informs what we listen for. Mozart’s audience might have expressed pleasure at a compositional novelty in his Jupiter symphony. Nowadays we know that symphony very well, so we are just as likely to be listening for what is new or unusual in the way our orchestra is performing the piece.
Orchestral music is extraordinarily rich. Its power is overwhelming; it can help you see things differently and more generously. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that some music can make you a better person. But only if you can give it your full attention. I suppose the defense of conventions that might seem stuffy to the newcomer is that they allow one to listen undisturbed. It can be rather tricky to find transcendence through Wagner when the lady beside you is jangling her bracelets as if auditioning to join the percussion section.
The world is noisy and distracted. It is thrilling and liberating to expect something different from a concert.