The Great Silence

Scene 1: You are in the audience in a modern concert hall. The stage is lit, the music stands are in place. When the musicians come onto the stage, the audience bursts into applause and the performers bow. The first piece of music is lively and elaborate, and at the end the audience applauds again – and the performers bow again. Some more reflective music follows, but the ritual of clapping and bowing is repeated. The first half (for concerts are always in two halves) ends with a jolly piece, and the audience goes off to the bar to join the scramble for a glass of wine and attempt to talk to each other over the deafening noise of other people trying to do the same. A short time later they return to the hall and the second half proceeds pretty much the same as the first. It ends with a loud, jolly piece of music and the audience go wild, trying to outdo each other to see who can start clapping first, before the final note of music has died away. The performers bow and leave the stage, a process which is repeated twice more as the audience continue to clap, then the performers take up their instruments and perform an “encore”, usually a short and trivial piece, then the final ritual of clapping and bowing is repeated. How much of this is about music?

Scene 2: a lutenist gives a solo recital. The programme consists of lots of short pieces so they are divided into groups, and the applause is reserved for the end of each group. Because much of the music is unfamiliar to the audience, they are given a written programme, giving the names of the composers and their dates, etc. The lute is very quiet. Apart from that this scene has most of the characteristics of Scene 1, with fast and cheerful music for the beginning and end of each half, and the applause and the bowing.

There are some practical problems with presenting the lute in this way.

The lute is, compared to most modern instruments and the background noise with which we live daily, very quiet. But our ears and brains gradually adjust to the quietness and after a while we are no longer straining to hear and can enjoy the music. The problem is that applause is so loud compared to the music that each time it happens our brains are reset and the process of adjustment has to start all over again. The obvious solution is to ask for no applause during the concert, but more on this later.

The character and order of the pieces is another problem. With unfamiliar music, surely it would be better to start with something simple, perhaps a little improvisation, or a prelude – nothing of any great musical significance, but a kind of gentle introduction to the sound world of the lute. If there is no applause, there is no need for pieces to be in groups, the whole programme can be a continuous sequence, opening up the possibility of exploring some connections between pieces rather than regarding them as isolated entities.

What about the programme notes? Does the audience really need to know the birth and death dates of composers they have never heard of, or that a particular piece was first published in 1536? I doubt it. Having a written programme also means that the audience is very likely to read it rather than listen to the music, make unwanted noise by fiddling with it or dropping it on the floor, or fanning themselves with it if it’s hot, or any number of other things which are destructive of concentration of other audience members and even the performer. There’s no reason why a programme could not be distributed after the concert.

Of course the performer could introduce the pieces verbally, but the danger of giving too much or unwanted information is always present, and the temptation to make jokes or otherwise belittle the situation is to be resisted. It’s hard to create magic, but very easy to break the spell.

Scene 3: an Oxford college chapel in the evening. The service of Compline – the last Office of the day in the monastic tradition. The service is penitential and contemplative, and ends with a profoundly moving piece of renaissance music. The choir file out silently and it is over. All present exit without speaking. In the monastic tradition this is the beginning of the Great Silence, a silence which is observed until the following day.

Lute music surely belongs more in this frame than in the noise of the modern concert hall. We need to give it a chance to work on its own terms, an opportunity for the performer and audience to create together an atmosphere of peace and contemplation. And having created that atmosphere, don’t be in too much of a hurry to break the spell – the music has emerged from silence, and to silence it should return.

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