Yesterday I contributed with 73 chords and a few unisono passages to the Borås Orkesterförening jubilee concert with guest star Barbara Hendricks. Otherwise it was a very nice concert as well. Especially Berlioz’s Op. 7 (“Les nuits d’été”) was stunningly beautifully performed and very moving. The soloist’s utter concentration in creating a soft and intimate drama in this sequence of works was honored by an astonishingly silent audience. It is November, after all, and more than a thousand people had come to listen (this must be the absolute record for a classical concert in this area).
The few coughers that made themselves heard, however, make me wonder about the psychological workings of concert coughing.
Some time in the mid-eighties, someone’s patience in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw snapped. An orchestral concert was preceded by the following public announcement: various maestros had been complaining about the inflation of audience noises, and would everyone be so very kind to refrain from coughing. Unexpectedly, the audience did not cough very much on that evening
Why ‘unexpectedly’? Because one of the explanations of audience-coughing is surely that it is a compulsive testing of unwritten-ban-boundaries. A second explanation would be that coughing is seasonal and these people are all sick. In the first case, a rebuke would only intensify the coughing, in the second it would have no effect whatsoever.
Now I actually believe that the psychology of the Concert Cough is more complicated than that. Okay, there is one group that coughs between movements. If we discount the odd case of horror vacui, this has nothing to do with psychology at all: people have kept their urge in control until the music stops, and now they feel free to (often quite politely) free themselves from that oppressive feeling. The majority of coughers, however, have – in all their boldness – an uncanny sensitivity for those moments of the music that mean most to the performer. A sudden diminuendo paired with intensified drama; an unexpected sweetening of the timbre; an exquisite infinitesimal rubato; a quietly uttered syllable: these are the moments where people introduce their five-minute passes of rhythmic choking, their uninhibited roars, their high-pitched sneezes, their gurgles and bellows.
In harpsichord playing, this would happen in the second movement of a concerto that had a motoric first movement. This is the harpsichordist’s most eagerly awaited moment. Finally, the instrument may sing, and the music breathe. If the harpsichord is a good instrument, these moments can be unforgettable for the listener. Indeed, it is not until the middle of the movement, perfectly timed with the first dramatic modulation, that the first true coughs can be heard, and from now on, the soloist’s workings are pierced, larded and, finally, covered by a veritable acoustic blanket of appreciation. For this is, in my belief, what really happens: people get moved to coughs.