by Rebecca Toal
Scene: Royal Albert Hall, Prom concert, muggy Saturday afternoon in September, hungover, with a friend
Imagine it: you’ve scouted out some better seats for the second half so you can see the brass section, and the man two seats down from you, his arm around his small son’s shoulders, apologises “this is his first concert, so I’m really sorry if he gets a bit excited.” Of course I tell him not to worry and that it’s great if he does, but I wonder why he assumed that we would require silence? We are two young women dressed in jeans and tshirts, clearly having snuck into seats that weren’t ours. Was it the fact that we were playing ‘spot the friend in the orchestra’, or talking about our next musical engagements, and so it was obvious that we were Musicians, and therefore Protectors of Art?
It’s fairly common knowledge that in concert halls of the 18th-Century, much like the theatres, talking, applauding and general rapture was the norm, as is evident in Mozart’s 1778 letter after the premiere of his Symphony No. 31:
“Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures—there was a big applaudißement;—and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make […] I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars—then suddenly comes a forte—but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte—well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royal—bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged—and went home.”
You can read more about the evolution of silence in concerts via Alex Ross’s online essay, but ultimately most agree that this resistance to show our natural response to the music, prescribed by the unwritten rules of concert-going, is a large factor in the perceived (and experienced) stuffiness of Classical Music. How many times have you been in a concert in which the audience has clapped in the ‘wrong’ place, and is met with a riotous handful of ‘shh’s and angry twisting-in-sits? Given that the age of social media encourages everyone and literally their dog to broadcast their opinion, is it really that shocking that the younger generations are apprehensive about spending their time and money going to a concert where they might be told to shut up and sit still?
I felt dual excitement and pity for the small boy I was sitting next to. He verbally marvelled to his father as the lighting changed colour to illustrate each movement of The Planets, and while his father was clearly enjoying the music, he was also evidently embarrassed and/or worried that the training of his son wasn’t going quite to plan. What a bizarre message to teach a child: “Enjoy the music, but not visibly.” It reminded me of the many discussions I’ve had about eating disorders and body policing with friends, in the way that we are expected to be thin and beautiful, but also to be ‘Foodies’, and to go for Instagrammable brunches at the weekend: “Enjoy your food and enjoy socialising, but your appearance must, under no circumstances, let anybody know about it.” Somehow, this society of instant gratification and self-expression has left Classical Music behind on an inaccessible desert island, with only a couple of hundred years’ worth of staple repertoire leftover for firewood.
Who are we curbing our enthusiasm for anyway? I can speak for myself and perhaps a few other performers when I say that I love it when an audience reacts naturally to the music, and I don’t find myself offended when my noise is met by more noise. Is it the other audience members that we are afraid of disturbing, and are we therefore suggesting that there is a hierarchy of audience members that should be observed? Or is it the often-dead composer who we are assuming would prefer silence to rapture? Although, I have rarely heard anything louder than an uncomfortable, unsure silence at the end of a symphonic movement.
Coming from teaching a lot of whole class trumpet in schools, I can safely say that children’s appreciation of music can come in a lot of forms, but rarely is silence the go-to. Movement, clapping, laughing, and singing are what I would usually expect when faced with a group of dented-trumpet-wielding primary school students, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As soon as somebody introduces rules for enjoying music to them, that’s when they lose interest. So please, small boy at the RAH, make some noise.