THE SOCIETY OF MUSIC: March 25th 2020

The Show Must Go On

Charlotte Gardner
Charlotte Gardner

What with current world events, I seriously considered shelving my previous plans for this column this week in favour of addressing where we currently find ourselves, and in particular the pain being felt by artists, agencies, festivals, promoters and all those reliant on live music for their income. My heart goes out to them. But as one who has spent the past week checking the news every half an hour and feeling all the worse for doing so, I've decided that perhaps it would be more useful for me to give us something else to think about.

So. Some of you may have spotted in the news a couple of weeks ago that luminary pianist Sir András Schiff is about to publish a memoir titled Music Comes Out of Silence, and that it's not altogether complimentary of the critical faculties of today's classical concert audiences. Or indeed of today's professional critics (gulp). One chapter in particular, written as a letter to Schumann, stands out. While acknowledging that the number of concert-goers has risen all over the world, Schiff also laments, “The average listener of today has hardly the faintest idea about what he is hearing. He neither knows anything about new music, nor can he differentiate between outstanding, moderately good and poor performances. Two days or so after the concert, he reads the opinion of a so-called 'expert' in the local paper and adopts it as his own...”

"And with few exceptions, these reviews have sunk to an alarmingly low level."


Today’s audience: Uninformed?

(Image: Public Domain)

Inevitably some have commented that remarks like this don't exactly welcome newcomers to concert halls, and that's a fair point. I also don't think we can hold up bygone eras' audiences and critics as paragons of critical engagement and incisiveness. It was only the critics who found the first version of Beethoven's Violin Concerto “wearisome” with its “endless repetition of a few common passages” (and they were right), because the general public were “extraordinarily pleased”. Then it was the Berlin critics who got it wrong at their first hearing of Brahms's Violin Concerto, branding it “trash”. And while it's eighteenth century opera audiences who are most known for taking virtuosity for artistry and for gossiping through the performances, if the novels of Leo Tolstoy or Edith Wharton are anything to go by, it would appear that late nineteenth century audiences had just as many non-musical motives for a night out at the theatre. In fact, it's arguable that 21st century Covent Garden boasts a higher proportion of audience members who've come purely for the music.

Trash? Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

Caveats over though, I'm afraid that I do recognise what Schiff is describing. Certainly, I've sat myself through orchestras sleep-walking their way through a symphony, followed by rapturous applause from a public convinced that because this is a world-famous orchestra it must have been good; and I've found it strangely depressing. Likewise, when I've attended a sell-out performance from a heavily-marketed soloist and discovered their image to be stronger than their actual playing. Still, does it actually matter if people attend concerts to passively receive rather than analyze, if the end result is a relaxing evening?

I'm all for people having a good night out, and for music providing a haven from life's freneticism. However I'm also for a society that prizes the highest quality of cultural life possible, because ultimately this is the most spiritually enriching scenario for everyone. I'm also for a society that values thinking and thinkers – where we have both the desire and the capacity to ask ourselves whether we're asking the right questions, and to engage with those questions in reasoned and open-minded debate with others. This feels like an endangered quality in our 21st century world, and the loss of it makes our society a poorer and more vulnerable one.

Who knows whether 21st century musical audiences are worse arbiters of taste than previous generations. The bigger question is whether listening analytically in a concert hall is something worth doing now, regardless of historical comparisons, and personally I'd love it if at least more people were willing to give it a go. Not least because critically engaging with what's onstage is actually darn fun – it's why those of us in music journalism love our jobs so very much! So, if you haven't done this before, before you turn up to your next live performance (or watch it online, given where we currently stand), listen to recordings of the works, and read some compositional background. In fact listen to a few different recordings of each work, because it's amazing the differences you'll hear between them when you're really listening in. Ask yourself what you like, what you're less keen on, and why you feel this way. Then turn up to your concert, watch and listen, and see what you notice.

It would be mad to assert that wider numbers of people discovering the joys of analytical listening is going to solve the world's many problems. However when our world's wheels do eventually begin turning again – which they will – it might just constitute one nice extra ingredient in what will hopefully be a society which, as a whole, is looking around with new, wiser eyes. ¶

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