(Note: This post has been newly edited to add a footnote as of 1:58 PM Eastern on 25 Jan. See below.)
(Note: This post has been edited for clarity, and to correct an omission, as of 8:01 AM Eastern on 24 Jan.)
As I finished writing a post which was to be an expansion of my prior quips concerning the call for a more relaxed code of audience etiquette at the classical music concert, I realized that fully ninety percent of it dealt with that call as a destructively wrongheaded if well intentioned natural outgrowth and consequence of a pernicious, leveling, popular-culture contaminated Zeitgeist that can with straight face, for instance, characterize classical music as being merely "one of the [many] streams" which flow into the "very broad river [of music]," as at least one currently practicing classical music critic so mindlessly put it.
I next realized that what I'd written concerning that Zeitgeist all sounded way too familiar as it was all ground I'd gone over in some detail numerous times before on this weblog; principally here, here, here, and here.
Well, no point going over it all again. So let me here just add a few supplemental thoughts dealing specifically with that call for a more relaxed code of audience etiquette at the classical music concert.
Champions and promoters of that more relaxed code are forever citing the more free, even rowdy, concert audience etiquette of the 18th and 19th centuries as justification for, and proof of the validity of, a call for a return to that earlier practice. A more relaxed code is not some new, postmodern idea, they say, but was the norm and expected (with the tendentious implication that it was also sanctioned) by the very composers who wrote most of the classical music that today constitutes the by far largest proportion of the repertoire of classical music concerts. Like most such justifications and "proofs," however, those justifications and proofs are made up of many half-truths and carefully selected facts, typically put forward out of context. Following is a small but critical portion of that context.
The mid-18th century marked a willful break from the Baroque style in music, and the beginnings of a new, so-called galant style, at the heart of which is what is called "sonata form" or "sonata style" an essentially dramatic musical style opposed to the "academic" or "learned" style of the Baroque and the beginnings as well of the public classical music concert as we know it today.
The early multi-part works in this new style were made up of a connected series of essentially separate, self-contained "pieces," so to speak (the individual movements of the early symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, for instance), all belonging to a single work but connected more by their designated association rather than by their internal musical structure and logic (and I here specifically exclude, of course, the variation form whose individual "pieces" were clearly connected by more than merely their designated association).
Around the third quarter of the 18th century, with the way shown by the surpassing musical genius of both Haydn and Mozart and undoubtedly additionally provoked by the emergence of the public classical music concert; an entity largely unknown outside of church and theater before the middle of the century the powerful, inherent dramatic potential of sonata style began to be fully realized, and what had priorly been merely a connected series of essentially separate, associated-by-designation pieces of a single work became instead a unified series of essentially dramatic "episodes" connected and associated structurally by their internal dramatic, thematic, motivic, and harmonic musical logic.
Well, Haydn certainly understood that; Mozart certainly understood that; and a small group of musicians and musical connoisseurs understood that as well.* That understanding, however, was largely opaque to the general audiences of the rapidly burgeoning public classical music concert. For them, that unified series of essentially dramatic episodes of a single work was nothing more than a more complex series of separate, self-contained pieces formally connected and associated only by designation, and so they responded accordingly. Which is to say, they thought nothing of responding by clapping or otherwise showing their approval or disapproval after each of those separate pieces; like after each movement of a symphony, for instance (perhaps not so curiously, it wasn't at all that unusual at the time for the individual movements of a symphony to be programmed in a concert separated by other pieces).
Partly by inertia, that sort of egregious ignorance persisted for general audiences of the public classical music concert well into the first half of the 19th century even as Beethoven and the early- and mid-period Romantics continued to develop and make more interlacingly coherent the unified dramatic musical structure and logic of sonata style, and didn't start to become a seriously frowned upon practice until the last quarter or so of that century thanks to the help of enlightened musical connoisseurs and musicians, amateur as well as professional, and thanks also to the emergence of Wagner and the late-period Romantics whose large-scale, organic, dramatic musical structures succeeded sonata style, and outdid it in interlacingly unified dramatic coherence which presented fewer invitations to ignorant audience behavior.
The coup de grace for that ignorance was delivered ultimately in the early 20th century courtesy of the 78 rpm phonograph record which for the first time allowed non-musicians, in the quiet comfort of their own homes, to become intimately familiar with, and begin to understand if only intuitively the true nature of, those great works that today still constitute the core repertoire of the public classical music concert.
And with the growth of that development again assisted, no doubt, by the repeated and relentless encouragement of enlightened musical connoisseurs and amateur and professional musicians finally ended the egregiously ignorant and contemptible practice of rudely and disruptively impeding the flow of works whose unified dramatic musical structure and logic demanded a seamless hearing interrupted only by such pauses or breaks as their creators saw fit to themselves introduce.
I therefore suggest to those calling for a return to the permitted audience etiquette of those earlier, egregiously ignorant times, that they think longer and harder about just what it is they're so loudly and persistently calling for a return to.
* That composers such as Haydn and Mozart, whose very day-to-day livelihood depended on their pleasing audiences with their compositions, understood that their dramatically coherent multipart works constituted a unified musical whole that ought not to be interrupted midstream did not blunt their concurrent understanding that audiences and most particularly the general audiences for the ever-growing new development of the public concert were mightily impressed by circus-stunt virtuoso and bravura displays of compositional skill, and so they accommodated those audiences on that score whenever they could without compromising too greatly the integrity of their compositions, and quite understandably reveled in confirmation of their successes in that endeavor by the expected immediate audience response (see this subsequent post for more on this).
As a composer of opera, Mozart was most especially cognizant of the necessity of these crowd-pleasing effects as he had not only to consider the circus-stunt-hungry audience, but the demands of singers that he write for them arias that would show off to best effect their virtuoso vocal skills and so bring a maximum of immediate bravos from the audience for their performance. Typical on this matter are these comments from the 25-year-old Mozart in a letter to his Papa concerning the composition of Die Entführung, his debut operatic effort in Vienna: "The Janissary Chorus has everything you can desire from a Janissary chorus; it's short and lively written entirely for the Viennese. I sacrificed Konstanze's aria a bit to the agile throat of Mademoiselle Cavalieri [Caterina Cavalieri, the foremost prima donna of the time] ... [in which aria] I tried to be as expressive as an Italian Bravura aria will permit."
A gifted composer's creative life, then as now, is not an easy one, fraught as it often is with unwelcome compromise. One imagines just how much Haydn and Mozart would have welcomed and been pleased by the more enlightened understanding and properly attentive reception of their works by today's better informed public concert audiences.