Concert Etiquette

Back in January, something disastrous happened at the New York Philharmonic. During a performance of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, at one of the most silent parts in the piece, a cell phone began to ring.  The owner did not even realize it was his phone until Conductor Alan Gilbert stopped the performance. He dropped his hands to his side and waited for the concertgoer to stop the noise.  After the noise stopped, Gilbert addressed the audience and said, “Ordinarily, in disturbances like these, it’s better not to stop, since stopping is worse than the disturbance.  But this was so egregious.”  So, this raises the question – how are you supposed to act during a classical music performance?  There are certain codes and rules one must abide by for Western Classical music, and disregarding them is deemed to be disrespectful and just plain rude.

Originally, concerts and live performances were just an excuse for social interactions.  The audience rarely paid attention to the performers and spoke to each other all throughout the concert.  In the late 1800’s, Wagner was the one who truly took a stand against disturbances from the audience during performances by reforming the way the opera house should be constructed.  After Wagner revolutionized the opera house, it helped give proper recognition and focus to the artists and performers on stage, but some composers believed that applauding and whistling during the performance was a good thing.

In an online essay written by Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, he gives readers an excerpt of a letter from Mozart to his father in the year 1778.  It expresses the happiness and joy Mozart received from applause during one of his pieces.

Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures — there was a big applaudißement; — and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement — and sure enough there they were: the shouts of Da capo. The Andante was well received as well, but the final Allegro pleased especially — because I had heard that here the final Allegros begin like the first Allegros, namely with all instruments playing and mostly unisono; therefore, I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars — then suddenly comes a forte — but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte — well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royale — bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged — and went home.

In today’s classical concert world, if the audience erupted in applause and screams during the middle of a piece, those audience members would be booed and there would be yells to throw them out of the concert hall (which is what happened to that poor man who’s phone went off in January).  Audiences today expect a certain amount of refinement.  Even the slightest cough or sneeze could seem distracting to other audience members.  Concertgoers are also required to wait be seated between works if they arrive late.  There are certain cues for when to clap and when to remain silent (for example, it is customary to keep silent until the conductor’s arms are fully lowered to their side. Although concert etiquette has changed throughout the years, the music remains the same.  Classical music connoisseurs can still enjoy the music even though they might have to contain their excitement.


Click here for a link to an article about the man at the philharmonic.

Click here for the online essay by Alex Ross.

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