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 invite you to dance along, but that is not possible here. A man in the room makes a compromise and performs a tiny choreography over his armrest: his thumb and forefingers swing an imaginary baton back and forth, strict in time.

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

The opposite is true, says Thomas Delpeut (1988). He is a lecturer in cultural history at Radboud University in Nijmegen and will soon complete a dissertation on nineteenth-century concert culture in four major Dutch cities. “Take the year 1815,” he says enthusiastically. “Concert visitors had very different expectations of a concert. They were used to walking through the hall during the music. When something was to their liking, they clapped – even when 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, where the audience sat. “Even later in the nineteenth century you still had rooms where that layout was common.” Delpeut shows a drawing from between 1850 and 1860. ‘This is the Parkzaal, at the time one of the most important stages in Amsterdam, located in what is now the Wertheim Park, near Artis. You can just see the orchestra in the background. In the foreground you see the audience.”

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

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

cock fur

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

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

In the nineteenth century there was no question of the fully-fledged concert life of today, mostly by subsidized ensembles and orchestras. But our current doubts about how we can best shape classical music life in the future – there were already those in the past. „Around 1850 there was still no fixed way to organize concerts, the description ‘classical’ was not yet common either. ”, says Thomas Delpeut. “An important part of musical life took place in closed concert societies, to which only men were allowed to join. Women were allowed to 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 says something about musical taste and about social relationships. “The later favorite formula of overture, solo concert and symphony did not yet exist. Concerts often offered a mix; symphonies, solo instruments, opera arias and romances alternated. Concerts also lasted much longer. A contemporary called it ‘Cock fur’.”

Concert by harpist Lavinia Meijer, 2020. Photo Concertgebouw

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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 suits instruct 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 onto the stage. The floor is littered with indefinable objects. What are those cans doing here? What does this weird mountain of blankets, pillows and feathers mean? And what are those devices in the corner? The musicians of Modelo62 spread throughout the space, creating alienating soundscapes.

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

“That was a bit extreme,” she notes afterwards, somewhat relieved that the performance is over. Should this be the future of the classical concert as we know 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 make them part of the performance.”

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

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

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