Classical Music World: Answering Classical Concert Questions

LACA Artistic Director


A few of weeks ago I tried to define and then slap down three reasons why people don’t come to classical music concerts. My message was that you don’t have to know anything about classical music to enjoy it, you don’t have to dress up and you don’t have to clean out your bank account to attend.


Some of you may take my advice and come to one of the Los Alamos Concert Association’s offerings. And, if you have never been to a classical concert, you may find yourself feeling like you are in a foreign land where the music is great but you don’t know the language or the customs.


Here are some answers to your classical concert questions:


Why did the musicians sometimes stop playing and no one clapped except me?

Classical pieces (we call them “pieces”, not “songs” unless they are actually sung) often have multiple sections. Those sections are called “movements.” It is traditional not to clap until all the movements of a piece have been played, maybe so the mood won’t be broken and maybe so the musicians won’t lose their concentration. 


That said, this is a tradition that is often ignored.   


I attended a performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto by the awesome pianist Efim Bronfman with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His performance of the first movement was so exciting that the whole audience burst into applause.  He even stood up to take a bow before sitting down to play the last two movements. The thing is, if you really liked it, clap away.  You will probably take a bunch of other people along with you.  But if you are the shy type and not sure, just wait until the “natives” around you lead the way.


What’s with all the foreign languages?


Early in the history of classical music, Italy was the center of the classical music universe so Italian became (and remains) the standard language used by musicians to describe their pieces and how they wanted them to sound.


The names of those movements I talked about above are often just the Italian words for the speed at which a movement is to be played. 


One of the side benefits of encouraging your kids to take music lessons is that they will learn a lot of Italian without even realizing what is happening!  


Why do so many classical pieces all seem to have the same name plus a bunch of numbers? And what does Op. mean?


My best guess is that composers were musicians, not poets, so they didn’t use much imagination when it came to naming their output. Plus, they were under some pretty tight deadlines.


Composers were usually employed by royal courts to provide entertainment. The Archduke or whoever would send off a message saying “I’m having three friends over for a musical evening tomorrow and need some new music to play.”  The composer would then frantically dash off a new quartet and deliver it. No time to come up with a fancy title, so he’d just call it “String Quartet.” 


When publishers finally got around to making those pieces available to the general public, they just called them things like “String Quartet, No. 6, op. 15.” That just meant that it was the sixth quartet the composer had written and the 15th “opus” in his total output, “opus” being the Latin noun for “work.” All those numbers are basically catalog numbers for the convenience of the publisher. Boring! Aren’t you glad you got to read Great Expectations instead of Novel No.12, op. 22, by Charles Dickens?


So take a look at the LACA web site, pick a concert and enjoy some great music. Relax about the foreign languages and all those numbers and clap like a native!