I’ve noticed that the overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. don’t know very much about classical music. We all take singing in elementary school, but we never study the history of it unless you happen to be a classical music major in college. I find this to be very sad. The majority of people at concerts shouldn’t just be other musicians. I don’t think anyone got into this field to play music for our colleagues; we fell in love with the effect music has on us before any of us were experts and we play to share that effect with as many people as possible.
I’m starting this series to do my small part to remedy this lack of knowledge, to share the rich (and still happening) history of classical music, and give me reason to ramble about music history. Hopefully this will help you to feel comfortable going to that concert you’ve been a little tentative to try, to talk with the snooty music snobs (unfortunately they are real), to get some perspective on the music you hear, and maybe you’ll even decide to explore classical music beyond the orchestra.
So, the first thing you need to know about going to the symphony is the rules. This is very stuffy, but it’s very ingrained, and there are even examples (this) of people who will publicly call you out. I strongly disagree with audience shaming, but it’s the way things stand now. To avoid this, and to make your evening as enjoyable as possible, remember these few things.
1. As you may or may not know, classical music is famous for being uptight and a little stiff. It’s expected that there will be silence from the audience during the pieces. Just be respectful, don’t talk through the pieces, don’t play on your phone (that glowing screen shines like the bat symbol in a dark hall), and please remember to turn the sound off on your phone. Extra noise during the music is very distracting in classical music, maybe more so than in other styles of music, because there are often soft, delicate sections that are easily “ruined” (in the eyes of some) by unplanned sound.
2. Don’t clap during the breaks between movements. Having multiple movements in one piece is something that is entirely foreign to pop music. If there’s a program, it will list the movements so you can keep track. If there isn’t a program and they don’t announce how many movements there are, just wait until everyone else starts clapping, or the musicians look expectantly at the audience.
3. If you’re late, don’t come in until the piece is over. This will not be an issue if you go to a concert with ushers, they’ll usually stop you before you get within 50 feet of the door, but if it’s a small concert, please wait for applause. It’s just distracting, mostly to the musicians, for someone to be looking for a seat and climbing over people while they’re playing.
Now that you know the “rules”, let’s talk about the music. Classical music, or more accurately Western art music, started with the Baroque period in the 1600 and 1700s. Some names you might recognize from this period are Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel. The Classical period lasted from the late 1700s through 1820. If you’ve heard of no one else, you probably have heard of Mozart, who is easily the most well known composer from this period. Romantic music started in 1820ish and lasted into the early 20th century. This is the music that is most played in orchestra concerts, and includes some of the most famous names; Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. Twentieth Century, Modern, and Contemporary music all overlap and describe different things that have happened in the past hundred years. Classical music changed a lot in the past hundred years, often having several different movements and styles developing simultaneously, and having a huge range of sounds and aesthetics. Some names that might be familiar are Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Copland, Elgar, Gershwin, Mahler, Debussy, Bartok, Shostakovich, Phillip Glass, John Cage, and David Lang.
This is just something to get you started, and maybe give you some listening ideas. I particularly recommend the modern/20th century composers. Next week, we’ll start exploring specific topics. Happy listening!