Saturday, December 6, 2008

Standing or not Standing at Handel's Messiah

I was struck last night at the marvelous performance of Handel's Messiah at Symphony Hall in Boston that many, perhaps most of the audience in the Orchestra seats did not stand at the Hallelujah chorus. (Looking around it appeared that the majority of those in balcony seats were standing.) So far as I can recall, at every performance of Messiah I've previously attended nearly everyone stood for the chorus. So I'm curious if there is generally less willingness to stand in Boston than elsewhere, or if there's more diversity on this matter than I've realized. The program of the Handel and Haydn society devotes a page to the question, in carefully neutral terms, suggesting that audiences probably did not stand for the first 40 years of Messiah performances, indicating that there is no evidence that George II really stood at any early performance, and noting that conductors Robert Shaw and Christopher Hogwood oppose standing as it distracts "from Handel's powerful opening of the chorus"). The program text politely concludes that "both practices" [to stand or to sit] "remain very common among Boston's music lovers."

This had led me to ponder what the pleasure is in standing for the chorus, for me and perhaps for many others. It is a miniature ritual, of course, and thus part of the pleasure lies in submitting oneself to a greater structure that transcends the self and any given moment in time. I think I've always felt the pleasure of partaking in Durkheimian collective effervesence while participating in the audience standing en masse. This pleasure was a bit diminished seeing so many people seated last night, although I suppose one could take greater pleasure in being part of the restricted group that chooses to stand. There is a populist edge to the practice, and the fact that some conductors complain about it perhaps makes it even more desirable?

I see that there's a certain amoung on line about the to stand vs. not to stand debate, including:

My limited observations from last night suggested that the further back away from the stage audience members were sitting, the more likely they were to stand (in the first 15 rows or so, I could see only a single solitary woman standing). So presumably we were seeing an instance of small group social dynamics; perhaps most of those inclined to stand were unwilling to take the plunge without accompanying persons standing in front or beside them?

I'd be most interested if others have insight into this minor ritual phenomenon?


bjonpeake said...

Like I said, I wonder if it has something to do with the "postTV" culture that is taking over the orchestra halls.

Orchestras are known for not including any extra sensory information (movement is very much frowned upon unless you are a. world renowned, or b. the concert mistress/master). So, in an increasingly visual society, the audience is losing the feeling of communitas that it shared with the orchestra in previous times- people have fallen away from the orchestra and the Messiah (in all meanings of the phrase).

There's also the issue of politics. Some orchestras that I've played with ask people not to stand because of the noise it creates. There's this general idea shared amongst conductors and performers that what they are doing is not necessarily for the audience, but for some kind of artistic mission held by some higher aesthetic being. The audience is there "For their own good" as was put to me a by a conductor in Illinois. This, in turn, is transferred as a general notion through all of the stereotyping of orchestras and their conductors that you see on TV. You think they're really there for humor, but they're really instilling ideals for how to interact with people and the orchestra at concerts. Jazz musicians hate this because we play in a club and people just sit there and stare at us until the tune is over, and then they clap. Nobody wants to shout or clap along like all of those classic bluenote and vanguard live recordings.

While I'm sure the answer is not an either/or in this case, I'm willing to bet that these two factors greatly inspire the split-interaction of the crowd.

Mark Auslander said...

Thanks, that's helpful. A curious irony in this instance is that senior clergy strenuously opposed any performances of Handel's Messiah because they were appalled at the masses actually enjoying Scripture. Long after music has been detached from its ecclesiastical base, is there still some enduring anxiety over the masses having too much fun with this particular piece of music?

golomski said...

Hello, here are a few evening musings...

Performance, Space, Sound, Subjectivity

Casey Golomski

Tonight I was called on to play principal horn for the Harvard Wind Ensemble's concert dedicated to the recently passed American post-classic composer Henry Brant (1913-2008). Throughout his award-winning career as composer and educator, Brant played with the concept of space in performance. Soloists and clusters of players or instrument-types are differentially positioned within the performative space.

The concert tonight will feature two unrecorded pieces: 60/70 (1974/1983) and American Debate, an Antiphonal Overture (1976). Both pieces position two distinct groups of instruments in different spatial positions within the hall. One plays from the rear balcony, within the fourth-dimension and realm of the audience, and the other on the stage, although arranged so as not to face the audience, redirecting sound and visibility of performers' actions for the audience.

In 60/70 the groups are playing simultaneously and American Debate they are orchestrated in unison, only to break away mid-piece, the spatially ascendant group echoing and countering themes projected from the stage. The result are sounds produced and deployed that resonate (with) and are perceived by audience members differently depending on their place within the concert hall. The musical sign(s) perceived may be dis/harmonious.

Performances of spatial music call into question the classical notions of audience-performer orientations, an extension of basic self-other relations which are modified, de-centered, and potentially reconfigured within the ritual space of the concert hall. Not only are audience-performers' self-other relationships called into question, but so are those between performers. Many of Brant's compositions are orchestrated for diverse types and quantities of instruments. Brant's piece entitled Orbits (1979) is scored for high soprano, organ, and 80 trombones, the 80 trombones each playing independent parts (i.e. they are not in unison nor scored together). For the audience, the ritual-musical text may be a parataxis, "the pure and simple juxtaposition of elements" (Barthes 1988:187). whereas for the performers, each embody different agent and subject positions in the very immediacies of the performance. However, the performers are still quasi-circumscribed in that the piece of music has definitive beginning and end. Does this challenge or reify Victor and Edith Turner's writings on that communitas often instantiated between ritual participants?

Henry Brant,
“It has never seemed to me that life is a simple matter, and I have always felt that music can reflect everyday existence, with its many complicated events both internal and external. A mundane episode in everyday life is not a one-dimensional event. People pass one another unaware of each other’s needs and fears. For me, spatial amalgams of highly contrasted musical events, freely associated yet controlled, present opportunities for representing in the concert hall, musical equivalents of the incessant bombardment of social and environmental catastrophes which bedevil daily existence.”
Roland Barthes 1988 The Semiotic Challenge. NY: Hill and Wang.
Victor Turner 1969 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. NY: Aldine.

Ellen Schattschneider said...

What a fascinating thread. Concert halls do normally impose such powerful form of Foucauldian discipline that it is always interesting when we see any deviation from the normally self-regulating panoptic gaze. I like the idea of reading the act of standing as a miniature rite of rebellion, although in many instances around the English speaking world standing for the Hallelujah chorus has become so mainstream as to be normatized, I suppose.

An interesting footnote to the Friday night performance of Messiah that Mark discusses: the moment the Hallelujah chorus was completed, the entire audience (including all the people in the expensive seats who had remained seated) leapt to their feet for a standing ovation. This was the second act closer as well, but I think it go much more a standing ovation than the first act closer did. So everyone got to partake in a sense of the promised "communitas" of shared standing, even they literally "sat out" the Hallelujah part!

Casey's description of the Henry Brant pieces is really intriguing. Theatre people often speak of the "fourth wall", which separates the actors from the audience, who are suppose to remain unacknowledged throughout the performance. It is interesting how much pleasure audiences take when that fourth wall is violated in the concert hall; Friday night, the horn player who appeared briefly way up in the balcony to play during "The Trumpet Shall Sound", got the loudest ovation of any musician of the evening at the final curtain call.

So I'm curious Casey, if any of the audience during the Brand pieces performed "off script" as the standard performer-listener relations were being subverted? Or did everyone continue to listen in prescribed respectful silent mode?

Mark Auslander said...

A relative in New York just explained that a number of Jews she knows have refused to stand for the Hallelujah chorus, ever since the New York Times published an article a couple of years ago on the claim that Handel was unusually anti-semitic and that the Hallelujah chorus in particular is a triumphalist celebration of the misfortune of the Jews (especially the destruction of the second temple).

The Times reviews the scholarly debate:

Lisa said...

I always thought it strange that Americans would do something because a British king did it.