25 October 2016

Farts, Phones and Aficionados

One of my Straits Times fellow-reviewers, Mervin Beng, railed against the applause with which the audience greeted the individual movements in a performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony given by the Dresden Philharmonic recently.  Most music aficionados and critics would have done the same and, although I was somewhere in Arabia at the time. I expect that I, too, would have been annoyed at the interruption to the flow of the Symphony created by such applause.

Yet neither Mervin nor myself, nor even the music aficionados in the audience, have any justification for our irritation other than pure selfishness.  Certainly Brahms, and just about every other composer in history, would not have expected his music to be heard in silence.  Richard Strauss famously railed against the silence which greeted the movements of a concerto, while others – Chopin springs immediately to mind – actually wrote into their multi-movement works an explicit acknowledgement that they would not be heard in their entirety in silence.

Whether Brahms wanted his Second Symphony to be heard in silence is open to debate, but the fact is, he knew it would not be.  And I wonder what he would think if he were to come and hear it performed today with each movement met with total silence.  The audience for the Dresden Philharmonic concert was responding as they were intended to do and in the spirit of the music; who are we to criticise that?

Understanding how music was originally received is every bit as relevant to our understanding of it as understanding how it was originally conceived.  It amuses me that so-called period-performance musicians spend so much time tuning their instruments and retuning them between pieces and movements.  When Bach assembled his band in the organ loft at St Thomas’s Leipzig, did he interrupt the service to get every instrument perfectly in tune?  I suggest he did not.  18th century ears were more amenable to imperfections than our 21st century ones – I like to think they were more discerning in being able to extract the musical message from the surrounding sound than ours are today.  We like to have our music delivered to us in “authentic” performances, but we do not like to listen to our music in “authentic” situations.

The London-based Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment is taking steps to address this issue, while, at the same time, hoping to spread its message beyond the 4 million people in Britain who claim to attend classical music concerts in a year.  They have started performing in pubs (follow the link below).  The George Tavern in Whitechapel has become the home of their “Night Shift” performances, in which pub-goers sit, drink, chat and possibly play with their phones while Mozart and Haydn are being performed.  As one of the orchestra’s members commented, “This is how the music was intended to be heard.  Not in silence, but
with a glass in one hand, a friend at the table and a relaxed, informal atmosphere in the room”.  You have to hear Haydn that way to begin to understand what Haydn was all about.

Mentioning this to a colleague, I was told “but in Haydn’s day there were no mobile phones, and the mobile phone is the scourge of concert-going today”.  That’s true, but there were other socially unacceptable audience habits instead.  One of these was a penchant to break wind loudly and aromatically.  Given the straight choice between a bright blue screen and a snatch of electronic sound and a noisy and noisome fart, I’d choose the former any day.  The lovely thing is, in a pub setting you can fart and phone to your heart’s content and not disturb the music.  Whether that is an attraction is not for me to say, but in my experience, we enjoy music most when we are not hide-bound by superimposed conventions and the selfish preferences of critics, no matter how well-intentioned.
OAE at The George Tavern

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