SILENCE IS GOLDEN
We have just watched Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain, presented by Lucy Worsley. She explained that, when the young princess first attended the opera, it was customary for the audience to talk loudly throughout the performance. Not only that, they wandered around and enjoyed noisy and boozy picnics in the auditorium. Apparently the young Victoria was the first one to watch and listen in silence. Happily, as it was ‘trendy’ to do as she did, we have to thank her for the development of silent audiences.
Mozart would have been startled by modern attentive audiences. His works were performed in a total hubbub. The first composer to get really stroppy about noise was Wagner. When you consider the duration of his operas (Die Meistersinger lasts five and a quarter hours) he was asking a lot. Even ardent fans would start shuffling about after a couple of hours!
Of course, these days the noise is slowly creeping back into concerts. Mobiles and iPads ping, ring and glow. And new audiences, not familiar with concert etiquette, share thoughts mid-movement and often clap enthusiastically between movements. Then there’s the fact that someone always gets a tickly cough in the quiet bits.
I’ve had some less than silent audiences in my time. I used to leave big pauses at the emotional climaxes of my pieces, until I found that folk mistook them for the end, and started applauding. On another occasion, two good ladies in the front row decided my concert was the perfect time to have an argument - which gives new meaning to ‘front row’, I suppose. It’s a funny thing that even quiet audience participation is completely audible from the stage. As the two ladies grew more and more angry with each other, I played louder and louder to drown it. Then I had a brainwave - I suddenly dropped my playing to a whisper. Their fortissimo shouting carried on for a second or two, then they piped down for the rest of the evening.
Perhaps my funniest experience was during a sound check before a concert. All performers try out their loudest bits, just so they can judge if they will be too loud. The acoustics vary so much from hall to hall. And what seems loud in an empty venue is considerably quieter once the audience arrive and ‘soak up‘ the sound. Anyway,I was ‘giving it a few seconds of welly’ when a gentleman crossed the stage and prodded me. “Turn that noise down!” he scowled. “If you play that loudly all evening, how on earth are we going to carry on a conversation?”