I've been thinking more about the "silent audience" — the relatively newfangled classical crowd that demands dead quiet and abstains from applause between movements. Here are some possible explanations for its emergence. 1. The superb acoustics of late nineteenth-century concert halls such as the Musikverein in Vienna and Boston's Symphony Hall changed how people listen. The sheer beauty of the sound put a kind of gilt frame around the music. The cults of Beethoven and Wagner turned the performance into something like a sacred ritual, a church-like experience to be received in quiet. (See the Parsifal imbroglio described below.) 2. Near-silent effects such as the pianissimo beginning of Beethoven's Ninth and also of Wagner's Ring practically demanded silence before the music even began. 3. As a reader pointed out to me, Gustav Mahler often glared punishingly at audiences when they made excess noise at both opera and orchestral performances. He agitated to stop applause after arias and movements. The growing idolatry of Mahler after his death led other conductors to follow his example, although some, such as Pierre Monteux, protested. 4. The rise of recordings meant that listeners became accustomed to listening to music in solitary quiet. They began to expect the same atmosphere in the concert hall. The lack of applause between movements may very well be what scholar Mark Katz calls a "phonograph effect," a consequence of recording technology and its surrounding rituals. Of course, it doesn't explain why people still feel free to make noise at rock shows and other pop events. Which leads us to 5. The rise of popular culture made classical audiences anxious about their status. They wanted to be sure that they were seen to be "serious," not like those plebians and vulgarians who made noise elsewhere.
As I said in previous posts, I'm for a relaxation of this strict standard. Classical concerts are too tight, too anxious in atmosphere. Consider a case described by Timothy Andres, one of the student composers I wrote about last year, who is now authoritatively reviewing concerts for the Yale Daily News. The liveliest moment at an otherwise undistinguised Yefim Bronfman recital came when Bronfman barked at the owner of a ringing cell phone. Cell phones are definitely a huge annoyance: the other day at the New Jersey Symphony, one started playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik during Grieg's Piano Concerto. Yet noises of one sort or another are the inevitable consequence of having living human organisms in a concert hall. Right now, it's cellphones; twenty years ago, it was those digital watches that beeped at the hour. Classical music will have a healthier future if performers and expert listeners ease up and stop demanding icy silence during performances. Think about someone venturing to a concert for the first time. Would he or she want to come back after witnessing this kind of red-faced, fussbudget behavior? Instead of going ballistic in the middle of the recital, Bronfman should have made a simple, heartfelt plea beforehand asking for silent cellphones. Either that, or just kept on going. Everyone loves a trouper who keeps cool through mayhem.
Update: I had not yet finished writing this post when AC Douglas protested against the first part of it. [A previous version misquoted him; apologies.] He wrote: "I would remind those champions of such egregious prole behavior that we're a 21st-century audience, and know and understand hugely more about what we're listening to than did 18th- and 19th-century audiences, if for no reason other than that we've had a century or two more experience with the music they received so boisterously, crudely, and cavalierly." Do we know "hugely more" than Johannes Brahms, who knew that his First Piano Concerto was destined to fail at its 1859 premiere when the first two movements met with dead silence ("icy coldness," in his own phrase)? Brahms viewed a certain amount of noise during the concerto — between movements, at least — as an index of audience warmth. We no longer act this way, not because we know the music better but because we take ourselves too seriously. I ask ACD this. In the 18th and 19th centuries, we had 1) boisterous, crude, cavalier audiences; 2) a cavalcade of masterpieces. In the early 21st century, we have: 1) polite, restrained, undemonstrative audiences; 2) by AC Douglas' own account, an almost total lack of masterpieces. Are these things unrelated? If audiences were to show more emotion, more involvement, might composers respond with more powerful, moving music? I, unlike ACD, believe that there are composers writing such music now. But we could always use more.