‘Why so serious?’

The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. Most people are aware that this clockwork routine—reassuringly dependable or drearily predictable, depending on whom you ask—is of recent origin, and that before 1900 concerts assumed a quite different form. It’s always a shock, though, to confront the difference in all its particulars. Two new books, Kenneth Hamilton’s “After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance” and William Weber’s “The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms”, explore how and why the classical ritual has changed.

This is from the beginning of an article in The New Yorker magazine by Alex Ross. This is much more than a mere review of a couple of books, since AR expands his comments into a well-considered essay which makes excellent, and amusing, reading. Here’s another quote to whet appetites and hopefully encourage a full reading:

Piano recitals were, by modern standards, completely nuts. Hamilton, in his deft, sympathetic account of the old-school virtuosos and their gaudy habits, devotes several amusing pages to the antics of the great Franz Liszt, who was the first pianist to break from the miscellany format and give concerts on his own, although the ensuing spectacle resembled “The Ed Sullivan Show” more than the hushed recital of today. In one favorite routine, Liszt brought onstage a large urn into which his listeners had dropped slips of paper, each one inscribed with a suggestion for a tune on which he might improvise. He then drew out the messages one by one, taking delight in those which wandered off topic. Hamilton writes, “On turning out the urn in a concert on March 15, 1838 in Milan, Liszt found a piece of paper with the question ‘Is it better to marry or remain single?’—to which he slickly replied, ‘Whatever course one chooses, one is sure to regret it.’ Written on another scrap he found the words ‘the railroad’—which he illustrated on the keyboard with a swath of glissandi.”

The audience sometimes participated without any prompting from the stage. Once, when Liszt was beginning a performance of the “Kreutzer” Sonata with the violinist Lambert Massart, listeners began calling out “Robert le Diable!”—meaning that they wished to hear instead Liszt’s fantasy on themes from the Meyerbeer opera. Liszt acceded to the demand and launched into his “Robert” fantasy. Imagine what would happen today if, just as Maurizio Pollini was playing the first of Chopin’s Études, concertgoers were to shout, “ ‘Claire de Lune’! ‘Claire de Lune’!”

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