On Listening To Classical Music

You are sitting between two unknown people. The seat feels hard. Something discordant is being played on stage. You would very much like to get up and leave but it is impossible to do so unobtrusively. A sudden crescendo fills you with hope that the composition is nearing its end but alas it seems to have acquired a new life. So you sit, afraid to cough, feeling a sneeze coming up and you refrain from scratching a sudden itch on your left elbow. All you can do is muse: How is it that a soaring melody by Mozart composed more than two hundred years ago can fill you with such joy while this contemporary music is causing you such misery?

It was not always so. We did not always treat our musicians with such awe and veneration. In Mozart’s day they performed while the audience moved around, talking, laughing and drinking. Handel composed his Water Music Suites to serenade King George I on a boating trip on the Thames. It is said that the King was so pleased that he requested it be played again and again.

In the 18h century musicians were not so exalted.

Noblemen had their own orchestras. The players were servants just like gardeners or cooks. Haydn was attached to the Count Esterhazy. He and his musicians followed him to his summer residence and remained there at his pleasure, leaving their families behind. After one such long absence from home the musicians staged a little protest. They started performing and then one by one they got up and left the stage until only one man was left playing. The Count got the hint.

In 19th century Italy, people came to the opera early with their picnics and felt free to hiss and boo the performers who did not please them and pelted them with whatever came to hand.

We have started moving toward a more relaxed appreciation of classical music. Arthur Fiedler and his Boston Pops Orchestra played in a more informal setting and we seem to have more performances in parks and other outdoor areas where people feel more free to move around. Andre Rieu of Maastrich, Holland and his Johann Strauss Orchestra encourage audience participation. They stage lavish productions and he conducts with his Stradivarius violin, often facing the public. People clap, sway and dance in the aisles.

When music moves us we must be free to move. When it bores us we must be free to leave.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about listening to music. I love your feedback!


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  1. That is all very well, but what about people who talk while you are trying to listen to the music. I recently attended a klezmer concert in a restaurant setting. We were told to come to brunch 10, while music starts at 11. One table of 5 came late and talked the whole time. It was rather annoying.

  2. I agree entirely…I’ve seen supposedly great music at the great halls played by great players but it all feels so stodgy. My favorite classical music experiences have been at places like the Hollywood Bowl where things are more relaxed and enjoyable, or in small clubs listening to small bands with a drink in my hand.

  3. Maybe it has to do with the price of the ticket. When you pay so much to see a full orchestra, many people probably feel like they need to be totally focused on the music to justify the ticket.

  4. My experience listening to live music is quite limited; primarily I listen to traditional jazz (from the 20’s and 30’s). The venues and the type of music seem to encourage a certain amount of flexibility and spontaneity. We clap after each musician’s solo, we clap and yell at the end of a song, and we talk to the musicians during the breaks. It is fun, and seldom boring. Perhaps because there is quite a bit of improvisation amongst the musicians. So, each piece is different, every time it is played. My paternal grandparents were classical musicians (string bass and violin), who played in the Ann Arbor Symphony. They didn’t like jazz at all. They were also quite stuffy as human beings!

  5. Your last blog inspired me to go back to a book I’ve had for a long time — Righteous Victims: a History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-20001, by Benny Morris. I’ve never read the book cover to cover, but have used parts of it as a reference from time to time. Will now try to read some of the earlier chapters. I’ve always felt that knowing some of the earliest history is essential, or at least helpful, in understanding what is going on presently.

    My computer was out of commission for the past couple of days. In a way, it’s a mixed blessing. I, of course, missed not having access to it, but was amazed at how much extra time I seemed to have.

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