I’ve noticed one of the most uncomfortable moments that arise when I take a friend to the orchestra comes after you’re seated. You’ve arrived in plenty of time, removed your coat, and turned off your cell phone—so now what? Unless your dinner conversation was particularly riveting, you need something to chat about—ideally something that will help set your friend at ease.
I suggest you regale him or her with tales about how new and different this semi-sacred ritual really is.
For the orchestra experience—the dimmed lights, the enforced silence, the rules of when to clap and for how long—is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon. Going to the orchestra used to be a lot more, well, fun.
To begin with, there was no orchestra to attend. Opera ruled, and by the 18th century most European capitals as well as many small towns had opera houses. Performances were riotous affairs, in which the music took second place to seeing and being seen. Opera glasses were de rigeuer—not to watch the stage but to ogle pretty ladies and eye handsome men.
If your purpose was to get noticed, you bought seats on the stage itself. Naturally, you felt free to chat, play cards, take snuff, and even get up and wander around the set. Paying close attention to the performance was considered poor form—it exposed you as a hick just arrived from the provinces.
The floor was a different world altogether—these were not the cheap seats since there were, in fact, no seats. You stood, or wandered around, or danced. The floor had its hazards. In Italy, aristocrats dropped orange peels on the hoi polloi below, or indulged in games of competitive spitting to see who could put out the candles held by those below. Sometimes they missed the candles.
If your taste ran toward instrumental music, you were out of luck. Symphonies were the province of private orchestras employed by nobility. When instrumentalists began striving for larger audiences and went on the first concert tours, they had a hard time finding spaces large enough to perform, since no one had invented the concert hall. Mozart had to play in the backrooms of taverns when he toured London in the 1760s.
All this started to change with the Romantics, who prized instrumental music as being more “pure” or “absolute” than opera—instrumental music could express ideas and sensations that were “beyond” words. Concert halls started going up—although even then the experience was very different than what you’d have today. Concerts might start at any time of day or night—Berlioz once scheduled an event to kick off at fifteen minutes before midnight—and last as long as everyone was having fun. Audiences applauded between movements and even during performances if they heard something they liked. The evening would be a hodge-podge of arias and opera excerpts, symphonies and sonatas, and popular tunes.
It took technology, societal shifts, and a few charismatic characters to invent the modern orchestra experience. The technology came in the form of gas lights. Until the 1830s, it was impossible to control the lighting of a hall, so everyone sat more or less murkily illuminated by candles and lanterns. Gas allowed house lights to be dimmed, although the practice didn’t catch on immediately. Audiences thought it was strange—even indecent—to sit in the dark.
The societal shift arrived in the form of the middle class and its cultural aspirations. Unlike the self-confident aristocracy, the bourgeoisie needed to pump up its ego. Applauding at the right time became a sign of just how sophisticated you were—after all, you have to know how many movements are in a piece to clap only at the end. Silence during performances demonstrated how seriously you took the music; chit-chatting would now earn you nasty looks. Eventually even aristocrats had to bow to the new practice. On tour in Russia, when Tsar Nicholas insisted on talking during his concert, Liszt abruptly went silent. The puzzled Tsar asked, “Why have you stopped playing?” Liszt replied, “Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks,”—but the message was clear: music trumps royalty.
Liszt was one of the charismatic characters that changed attitudes. He embraced the relatively new notion that music had special, sacred powers—it wasn’t just background music for conversation and card-games but a serious, almost sacred thing. His son-in-law Wagner had similar ideas. The Paris premiere of Tannhäuser flopped because the composer declined to cater to the whims of the aristocratic Jockey Club by placing the ballet in Act I instead of Act II. Club members liked to eat dinner, arrive in time for the ballet, and then leave; moving the ballet earlier meant they would (sacre bleu!) have to arrive on time. Club members outraged by this disruption of their dinner plans in turn disrupted the opening performance with hoots and whistles. Yes, this is opera, not orchestra, but innovations in one tended to bleed over into the other.
The figure that took all these notions and ran with them was Gustav Mahler. Mahler took music seriously—well, Mahler took everything seriously, but music was particularly Serious Stuff. When Mahler conducted in Vienna, he insisted house lights be dimmed during performances, barred entrance to late arrivals, and glared at the audience before lifting his baton. The terrified Viennese didn’t dare whisper, cough, or rustle a program. He also set about ruthlessly “educating” them with demanding programs. Light evenings of miscellaneous pieces became a thing of the past. You sat still in your seat and listened to the entire Beethoven’s Ninth or all of Gotterdamerung, five hours be damned, and you should have gone to the bathroom before you left home.
Emperor Franz Joseph for one found the new regime perplexing. “Is music such a serious business?” he asked, “I always thought it was meant to make people happy.”
So as you sit with your friend at the orchestra, let them know that it hasn’t always been this way, and in many ways the present is better than the past. Sure, it would have been fascinating to watch the play of egos on display at the Paris opera, but you wouldn’t have heard very much. In a smoky, ill-lit hall, possibly even the backroom of a tavern, with everyone talking up a storm, the music didn’t much matter. The orchestra became what is today for a reason—because people thought music was something that should be respected and heard. OK, so the Romantic attitude about the Sacredness of High Music is a little hard to swallow in the ironic post-modernist 21st century, but if you wanted background music for card-playing you would stay home and plug your iPod into some speakers. The orchestra continues to exist because people want to hear great music. While it’s not perfect, the current system does create conditions that allow you to truly concentrate on what you hear.
You can also reassure your guests that it is now strictly forbidden to drop orange peels on the heads of fellow concert-goers.