When does a concert become a narrative?

A causerie written for the roundtable on Seconda Pratica’s


Day of Early Music

March 21, 2016





The question of when a concert becomes a narrative cannot be answered, I believe, before a different question has been addressed: where does a concert become a narrative? To this, let me propose an answer: a concert can only become a narrative in the minds of a receptive audience. Without a well-prepped listener, one who believes that a succession of musical events can actually resemble sustained spoken story-telling, even the most carefully programmed concert will be a diegetic disaster.


The good news for fans of the narrative concert is that this audience currently exists, indeed flourishes, in the Classical music scene.


Period sources indicate that audiences of the past did not listen in a sustained way to either theatre, opera or music- so an imposed narrative would have been lost on them. But, with the passage of time, audiences have been tamed, and shamed and trained into obedient silence. This occurred in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries; and today we continue to embrace the resulting subservient behavior. Having acquiesced to sit in the dark and exclusively listen at concerts, audiences came to expect coherent and consistently polished performances, rather than the 18th-century performative events that were characterized by great unevenness: by high and low points both in performance and in audience behavior.


H. L. Berckenhoff described the process of audience tame-shame-and-train, as it played out in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in the late 19thcentury, like this:


[The conductor of the Concertgebouw orchestra], Willem Kes was the man who introduced a new age. Not only was he able to form the orchestra, as far as is humanly possible, into the technically perfect and extremely sensitive instrument that we still admire, he also formed an audience worthy of such an orchestra. What would have been the use of an orchestra capable of the most subtle nuances of timbre and of the reproduction of the most refined rhythms if he had not also impregnated [his] audience with the realization that the concert hall is a place that demands in the visitors a silent attention and energized mind?


His task was not the most rewarding. To bring order in chaos always results in objections to be overcome. One must intervene with a firm hand. Both orchestra and audience lacked discipline. […] We remember him with great gratitude as the creator of a new orchestra and a new audience![1]


Here we see, at the dawn of the 20th century, both performers and audience ‘rising to the occasion’, as new disciplined listening created a need for more nuanced and subtle performances. But if the listening techniques of just over 100 years ago were so different from those of today, how can we even imagine what a visit to the theatre, the opera, a salon-concert in the 18th century was really like?


Much ink has been spilled over this question; I do not pretend to be breaking new ground here. William Weber’s 1997 article ‘Did people listen in the 18th century?’ pleaded for the allowance of nuances in our conception of historical listening: rather than a black and white understanding of the audience-expectations of the past, an ‘on’ or ‘off’ approach to listening, Weber imagined a fluid state in which audience members and performers received attention by turns. And indeed, there is plenty of evidence of rowdy audience behavior in this period, behavior that must have been far more entertaining than what was going on onstage: Tiffany Stern in Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan and Jeffrey Ravel in The contested parterre paint lively pictures of, for us, entirely unacceptable audience behavior in Paris and London. Ravel notes of the spoken theatre in Paris:


The spectators in the pit were not consumers of cultural products in the sense that theatregoers are today; they did not necessarily focus their undivided attention on the activity on the stage for three hours to render a verdict determined by their socioeconomic worldview […]. Instead, it appears that they milled about the parterre, interacting with each other and with spectators in other parts of the hall, all the while keeping track of the onstage performance. The performers, in turn, did not require or assume the silent, rapt attention of the spectators.[2]


What is important to note here is that such ‘milling’, ‘interacting’ audiences enjoyed particularly intense moments of listening amongst the myriad ‘distractions’ of a night at the theatre, and that the general chaos heightened rather than diminished their pleasure. That at least was Diderot’s take on the subject. In his Réponse à la lettre de Madame Riccoboni, Didereot laments the fact that by the mid-18th century armed soldiers had been placed on the stages of the Paris opera and the Comédie Française, in order to tame the audience:


Fifteen years ago our theaters were tumultuous places. Upon entering the coolest heads were heated and sensible men shared more or less the deliriums of the insane. […] One was agitated, one was stirred, one was jostled, the soul was beside itself. However, I do not know of a more favorable disposition for the poet. The play got started with difficulty, was often interrupted: but, was there a beautiful passage? [Then] there was an unbelievable fracas, the encores were demanded endlessly, one felt a religious fervor for the author, for the actor, for the actress. The enjoyment passed from the pit to the stalls, from the stalls to the boxes. One arrived [at the theater] hot-headed and went away drunk; some visited prostitutes, others dispersed themselves in society; it was like a tempest that dissipated itself at a distance and which rumbled on for a considerable time after its removal. Voilà le plaisir. Today one arrives cold, listens cold, leaves cold... and I don’t know where one goes afterwards.[3]


Here Didierot claims that a theatre experience predicated on intense listening at literary highpoints mixed with constant irritation and distraction is an ideal one. How different from Berckenhoff’s refined performers and listeners in the Concertgebouw!


Therefore, my conclusion is that:


A concert becomes a narrative when it is subjected to the ideals of late 19th- and early 20th-century concert organizers. If one is performing repertoire from this period, I mean from the late 19th- and early 20th-century, or if one is performing repertoire from any period without attempting to grasp at its original intent, its authenticity, then this might indeed be an interesting way to organize a programme. However, within the context of Early Music, and of authenticity, it is a highly misguided one.


Of course authenticity is a chimera, and we need not chase that rainbow any further here today...but I would like to point out that one of the main reasons that it is a chimera is that no matter how authentic any performance of ours might be, the audience of today decidedly does not behave as it did in the past.


Jed Wentz

March 21, 2016




[1] “Voor het orkestspel in ons land is het nieuwe leven uitgegaan van het Concertgebouworkest te Amsterdam. Willem Kes is de man geweest, die het nieuwe tijdperk heeft ingeleid. Niet alleen wist hij het orkest te scholen tot het, menschelijkerwijs gesproken: technisch volkomen en uiterste gevoelig instrument, dat wij er nog steeds in bewonderen ¾ hij heeft ook een publiek gevormd, zulk een orkest waardig. Wat immers zou hij hebben gewonnen met een orkest, bij machte de subtielste kleurnuancen en fijnste rhytmen weer te geven, als hij niet tevens een publiek had doordrongen van het besef, dat de concertzaal een plaats is, die van de bezoekers stille aandacht, een gespannen geest vordert.

Hij heeft niet de dankbaarste taak gehad. Order brengen in een chaos, geeft altoos bezwaren te overwinnen. Daar moet met harde hand worden ingegrepen. Aan beide: orkest en publiek, ontbrak tucht. […] Wij gedenken hem [Kes] met groote dankbaarheid als de schepper van een nieuw orkest en van een nieuw publiek!” H. L. Berckenhoff, Kunstwerken en kunstenaars (muziek) (Amsterdam: Den Degel, [1916?]), 9-10.


[2] Jeffrey S. Ravel, The contested parterre: public theater and French political culture, 1680-1791 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 19.


[3] “Il y a quinze ans que nos théâtres étaient des lieux de tumulte. Les têtes les plus froides s’échauffaient en y entrant, et les hommes sensés y partageaient plus ou moins le transport des fous. On entendait d’un coté, place aux dames; d’un autre côté, haut les bras, monsieur l’abbé; ailleurs, à bas le chapeau; de tous côtés, paix-là, paix la cabale. On s’agitait, on se remuait, on se poussait, l’âme était mise hors d’elle-même. Or, je ne connais pas de disposition plus favorable au poëte. La pièce commençait avec peine, était souvent interrompue; mais survenait-il un bel endroit? c’était un fracas incroyable, les bis se redamandaient sans fin, on s’enthousiasmait de l’auteur, de l’acteur et de l’actrice. L’enjouement passait du parterre à l’amphithéâtre, et de l’amphithéâtre aux loges. On était arrivé avec chaleur, on s’en retournait dans l’ivresse; les uns allaient chez les filles, les autres répandaient dans le monde; c’était comme un orage que allait se dissiper au loin, et dont le muremure durait encore long-temps après qu’il était écarté. Voilà le plaisir. Aujourd’hui on arrive froids, on écoute froids, on sort froids, et je ne sais où l’on va. Ces fusiliers insolens préposés à droite et à guache, pour tempérer les transports de mon admiration, de ma sensibilité et de ma joie, et qui font de mon admiration, de ma sensibilité et de ma joie, et qui font de nos théâtres, des lieux plus tranquilles et plus décens que nos temples, me choquent singulièrement [...].” Diderot, ‘Réponse à la lettre de Madame Riccoboni’ in Œuvre de Denis Diderot, tome quatrième, Ire partie (Paris: 1818), 731-2.