Sitting still in a room? A classical concert can also be different

The Great Hall of the Concertgebouw is buzzing. The music on stage, at least.The Cleveland Orchestra plays the timpani and brass bangs of Bruckners”Scherzo’ Ninth Symphony bounce off the walls. The stirring rhythms inviteyou to dance along, but that is not possible here. A man in the room makes acompromise and performs a tiny choreography over his armrest: his thumb andforefingers swing an imaginary baton back and forth, strict in time.

Silence and sitting still during classical concerts has always been part ofit, you would think. We consider classical music to be timeless, and that alsoapplies to etiquette.

The opposite is true, says Thomas Delpeut (1988). He is a lecturer in culturalhistory at Radboud University in Nijmegen and will soon complete adissertation on nineteenth-century concert culture in four major Dutch cities.“Take the year 1815,” he says enthusiastically. “Concert visitors had verydifferent expectations of a concert. They were used to walking through thehall during the music. When something was to their liking, they clapped – evenwhen the orchestra was still playing. And if they thought something was bad,they booed.”

The halls also looked different then: in some of them there were tables, wherethe audience sat. “Even later in the nineteenth century you still had roomswhere that layout was common.” Delpeut shows a drawing from between 1850 and1860. ‘This is the Parkzaal, at the time one of the most important stages inAmsterdam, located in what is now the Wertheim Park, near Artis. You can justsee the orchestra in the background. In the foreground you see the audience.”

That audience seems mostly busy with themselves. Groups of dressed men andwomen stand around tables, talking. In the foreground you see a waiter holdingup a wine glass.

Delpeut: “For most people at the time, music was a background for the socialscene. Audience arrived late and left early. When an opera singer sang, themen would stand between the seats so they could see her better. After whichthe women sometimes went back to the chairs, so that they could see the stagebetter.”

cock fur

For his PhD research, Delpeut worked with a database of almost twenty thousandpieces of music. In this way he learned which pieces were programmed the mostand in which order. He also used magazine articles, letters and minutes fromconcert societies to form a picture of the burgeoning concert culture.

“In the past, there was a perception that Dutch concert life only becamesignificant from the opening of the Concertgebouw in 1888. Finally there was agood hall, and shortly afterwards a good orchestra. Even the public began tolisten “seriously.” I am trying to show that those events are the culminationof a process that has already started.”

In the nineteenth century there was no question of the fully-fledged concertlife of today, mostly by subsidized ensembles and orchestras. But our currentdoubts about how we can best shape classical music life in the future – therewere already those in the past. „Around 1850 there was still no fixed way toorganize concerts, the description ‘classical’ was not yet common either. ”,says Thomas Delpeut. “An important part of musical life took place in closedconcert societies, to which only men were allowed to join. Women were allowedto join as guests.”

The audience has learned that passive listening style themselves>> Thomas Delpeut researcher

Programming is a good lens to view concert life, says Delpeut; it sayssomething about musical taste and about social relationships. “The laterfavorite formula of overture, solo concert and symphony did not yet exist.Concerts often offered a mix; symphonies, solo instruments, opera arias andromances alternated. Concerts also lasted much longer. A contemporary calledit ‘Cock fur’.”

Concert by harpist Lavinia Meijer, 2020. Photo Concertgebouw

At that time, the public came for famous, preferably virtuoso soloists. Butconcert organizers, musicians, critics and visitors who considered themselvestrue music lovers felt that ensemble music deserved the emphasis. Theydiscussed the optimal program design for this purpose. Is it best to program asymphony at the beginning of a concert, or at the end? Their ideas wereinspired by what was happening in other European musical centers.

Delpeut: “In practice, a hybrid form was dominant: you program a belovedsoloist, so that you can also play a symphony by Schumann. The drawing of theParkzaal looks crazy to us now, but there people have learned to listen toBeethoven’s symphonies.”

In the course of the nineteenth century concert practice changed; attentionshifted to the music and to listening quietly in neat rows. Around 1900, thestill usual concert form of the classical concert came into being, while themusic that is played is often older. “Many people call the listening culturethat emerged ‘passive’,” says Delpeut. “But the public has learned thatchanged listening style itself. That was a gradual process.”

We are now used to the strict etiquette and form of ‘modern’ classicalconcerts. Should we let them go then? “Of course you can’t just transplant thenineteenth-century concert to our time,” says Delpeut. “But if you realizethat the past was not as rigid as is often thought, innovation does becomeeasier.”


Researcher Veerle Spronck (1993) is also concerned with the ways in which youcan organize concerts – but she focuses on the present and obtained her PhDthis summer at the Maastricht Center for the Innovation of Classical Music.

This center was founded in 2017 as a collaboration between MaastrichtUniversity, Hogeschool Zuyd and members of the South Netherlands Philharmonic.The mission: to experiment with new ways of organizing concerts. Does she seesomething in the nineteenth-century concert form?

“I discovered that orchestras are very flexible, so yes: you can also breathenew life into ‘old’ programs. Inspiration from the past can be a great way toshape the future. But not because it should. Well, because it is alsopossible.”

I want to break the ‘wall’ between musicians and audience>> Veerle Spronck researcher

Spronck chose a performance at new music festival Gaudeamus as an example:Three Degrees from Reality by the ensemble Modelo62 from The Hague.

In the Utrecht Theater Kikker, two figures in gray nuclear reactor suitsinstruct the audience to take off shoes and socks and put on silver suits,’for protection’.

The supervisors drive the audience through a door, which leads directly ontothe stage. The floor is littered with indefinable objects. What are those cansdoing here? What does this weird mountain of blankets, pillows and feathersmean? And what are those devices in the corner? The musicians of Modelo62spread throughout the space, creating alienating soundscapes.

Towards the end of the concert, the atmosphere turns grim: some spectators aretold to “dance and enjoy” as a menacing drum beat swells. Others have to forma circle around them – which fails. Veerle Spronck looks a bit lost.

“That was a bit extreme,” she notes afterwards, somewhat relieved that theperformance is over. Should this be the future of the classical concert as weknow it?

Spronck: „The evening did offer promising elements, such as taking off shoes.That’s a ‘power move’, a way to take the audience out of the routine and makethem part of the performance.”

Spronck concludes in her research that even small changes in an orchestra’sroutine can greatly alter the audience’s concert experience. “Think, forexample, of the ensemble Pynarello, which plays without a score. This makesmore interaction possible, they also play without a conductor. And that alsobenefits the audience: you can better see what is happening in the music. Andthe audience can sit between the musicians, because there are no desks in theway.”

Spronck’s research resonates in practice; she is currently working with theSouth Netherlands Philharmonic on a new experiment. She also shared herinsights about innovation with, among others, professional magazine DasOrchestra and with the European network of artistic directors of concerthalls ECHO. Her enthusiasm is infectious, but you also feel that there isurgency behind her words. „In all reports of the Council for Culture you willdefinitely come across ‘innovation’; ensembles are therefore necessary. But Ialso think that it is inherent in the profession of an artist to ask yourself:why and how do I do what I do?”