Why do you have to sit in silence in a classical concert?

This is the fourth of Lady Eff’s Rants which are being broadcast as part of the Classics From Scratch programme on Secklow Sounds, an online radio station which  brings people and communities together. Classics From Scratch is presented by Catherine Rose and is broadcast at 2 pm on Thursdays. It is available to listen online a few days later.

One of the things most people ask about classical music is: why do I have to sit in silence while the music is playing? Normal people react while they listen to music – they laugh, they sing along, they applaud after a song has started when they recognise their favourite number. Sitting still in total silence, hardly moving – well, it just isn’t natural, is it?

Well, I’ve got news for you – it wasn’t always like this. People used to treat classical music as the background to their social lives, just like we use other kinds of music today. The whole ‘sitting in silence’ thing probably started to come in with Beethoven – when you had to concentrate to make head of tail of what was going on.

Of course, classical music isn’t normally amplified, so not only can you hear the players, but they can hear you. It’s like live theatre in this respect – you might put the musicians off and make them lose their place. So keeping quiet is part of getting what you paid for. Also, in some concert halls the acoustic is so clear that if you say something like ‘hasn’t that violinist got funny hair?’ or ‘I can see right up that cellist’s skirt’, they’re definitely going to know who said it. On the other hand, when the music IS amplified, you’re fine to fidget and chat – just don’t start throwing the furniture.

The ways classical music is enjoyed are helped by others being at least relatively quiet. For instance:

  1. You’re carried away on a tide of relaxing loveliness – you don’t even want to hear the person next to you BREATHE, never mind cough.
  2. You’re sucked into a vortex of emotional turmoil by the force of the music – so you don’t want anyone accidentally treading on your toe.
  3. You’re immersed in the musical argument of the piece – its shape, its colours, its intellectual drive – and you don’t want to be distracted.

BUT – and that’s a big but, as the trumpet-player said to the harpist, musicians actually really like to hear a little bit of feedback from the audience. A sigh or a murmur of appreciation at a particularly lovely solo. A chuckle when Haydn plays one of his musical tricks. A gasp when the enormous gong is struck with full force.

But the best sound of all is the silence after the end of the piece, when everyone is so moved that they can hardly bear to start clapping. That silence is the best compliment of all.

(Lady Eff then left us in silence… but you can click here to hear and indeed see – the Ritual Fire Dance by Manuel de Falla, which we used to break the silence.)

The episode of ‘Classics from Scratch’ in which this rant appears can now be heard on Spreaker by clicking here.

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Published in: on May 16, 2013 at 15:32  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Blame Wagner!


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