[ Interviews: Faculty & Artists ]

Blast from the Past: Concerts à la 1810

July 11, 2019
Paul Berry

Paul Berry hosting a Pre-Concert Conversation

Concerts à la 1810 were much different from today’s. Here are five ways concerts à la 1810 were more relaxed. Hint: eating and booing.

The relatively restrained classical music concerts of today are a far cry from those of yesteryear. In the 19th century, for instance, it was common for people to talk during performances and maybe even clap or boo, depending on how they felt about the music.

Norfolk Chamber Music Festival will give a sense of how these concerts might have been programmed on July 19 with Concert in the Style of 1810. Rather than a typical performance of complete quartet works, the concert will feature a playlist of stand-alone movements, opera pieces, and a variety of performers. We talked to Yale Professor Paul Berry, who host Pre-Concert Conversations at the Festival, to get a sense of how today’s concerts have evolved.

First, it’s important to delineate between public concerts and those that were performed in homes and smaller venues, ie. concerts that were more salon-like. Public concerts might have had audiences of 1,000 or more. Salons were more intimate affairs with different etiquette and likely different programming.

“What’s interesting to me about this program is that this is like a chamber music version of a public concert,” Berry says. “In public concerts you have this potpourri effect. The idea is to entertain as broad an audience as possible. It’s for anybody who can afford a ticket.”

“What you don’t want to do is bore them or give them too much of any one thing. These are long affairs. You wanted your money’s worth. You want to hear a lot of music, the most diverse kind possible.”

Here are five ways in which public concerts a la 1810 were different from concerts today:

1. The voice was king (or queen).

The values of the music reflected the larger musical values of the culture, which in the early 19th century meant vocal music was appreciated more than instrumental music. “You would never hear a concert of just instrumental music,” Berry says. “In chamber music now the voice often gets left out. In 1810, they would have looked at us as if we had three heads [if a program had been created without vocal music]. You need the voice. It’s the most important type of music.”

Symphonies were primarily used as openers to for the vocal pieces. “The symphony was a palette opener and mood setter,” Berry says. Not coincidentally, at that time, symphonies overwhelmingly opened with works in a major key; the idea was to put audiences in a positive receptive mood. “They also start with big, loud chords because they want to get your attention. You can picture 1,000 people chatting so you need a lot of noise,” he says. “You can’t dim the electric lights as a sign the concert is starting because there are no lights.”

2. Talking is allowed.

“There’s going to be noise during a concert,” Berry says. “The general etiquette in public spaces is not this attitude that you should shut up and listen carefully.” People would likely talk during recitatives but be quiet during arias. Smaller salon concerts would likely have had less talking.

3. Eating is allowed.

While today’s concert halls are now cautiously experimenting with allowing patrons to bring food and drink into the hall, that would have been the norm in the 19th century. Expensive tickets would include a table and food with the requisite waiters coming and going during the concert.

Musicians had to adapt to the venue and the audience, rather than the other way around. One Viennese string quartet coached by Beethoven played the same piece of music twice, Berry says. “People listened to the premiere,” Berry says, “then had some wine and cheese and listened to it again.”

4. Active enjoyment was the norm.

“The attitude was not one of contemplation,” Berry says. “It was one of active enjoyment rather than repressed listening. Talking and eating shows that. People didn’t go expecting to be transformed or educated. They didn’t expect to come out more erudite. They expected to be entertained.”

5. Most of the music was contemporary.

“The music you would hear in a public or private concert was almost certainly written within 20 years of when you’re hearing it,” Berry says, adding, “Most of it was from last year. You’re trying to please the public’s taste right now. No one would listen to music from 100 years ago in 1810. That’s a huge difference. Concerts have become part of a museum of classical music rather than venues where new music is heard. If you could truly do an 1810-style concert today there would be no music from 1810. It would have music from 2005 and onward.”

The difference is that people were not thinking of music as classical music — it was simply music. “If you go to a classical music concert now it’s some rarefied environment. [Audiences of the past] wanted to hear music,” Berry says. “They would expect to hear vernacular allusions to music of their own time. Now we associate chamber music with some rarified world.”

“The percentage of music in a public concert that’s challenging was lower in 1810 than it would be now,” he adds. “Most chamber music was designed to reward the pre-existing taste of its audience. Now it’s designed to reshape or challenge that taste. Now it’s about saying you all should be listening to this new music.”

By Janet Reynolds

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.