Ladies Wear Gloves

SHE was a tall, handsome young woman, cool and a little reserved. Her furtrimmed costume, her chic hat, were perfect in style, but conservative. And her white gloves, though she had worn them all afternoon at the concert, were still spotless. Her manner, too, was perfect, and she talked easily, without effusiveness: she knew how to meet a celebrity.

‘ But I can’t see why you thought the audience was cold,’ she protested. ‘ They were really very enthusiastic, especially at the end of the concerto.’

Jascha Heifetz cocked his head on one side and raised his eyebrows in an expression of amused skepticism. ‘So? That was enthusiasm? If, when they applaud, the ladies would take off their gloves,’ he suggested dryly, pointing an accusing finger at the white doeskin gauntlets, ‘the musician could tell better whether they liked his performance.’

I often recall Heifetz’s remark when, surrounded by decorous neighbors at an afternoon concert in Carnegie or Symphony Hall, I gaze upon the typical, wellbred audience. These nice people listen with courteous attention; their training forbids a show of emotion and their faces betray none; their only sign of approval, a muted, gloved applause, conveys no indication of real feeling; and their only method of showing disapproval (since they are too well-mannered not to clap at all) is to go through the motions a bit more listlessly. Rebelling sometimes at this frozen restraint, I sigh for one good healthy hiss. That at least would clear the atmosphere of its heavy non-conductivity and open up the possibilities for a real interchange of reactions.

At the Berkshire Festival in August, I sat behind two middle-aged women, evidently people of means and refinement. I watched them, curious to see how they responded to the music. After the Beethoven programme they clapped briefly, gathered their wraps, and departed. Their faces showed neither pleasure nor disapproval. I tried to explain it to myself: ‘It may be that they have heard the Beethoven Fifth Symphony too often. And perhaps the Sixth is too cool for their taste.’

The next night, after a brilliant performance of ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, they again clapped in perfunctory fashion and went out. Possibly they did n’t care for Ravel and Tchaikovsky: many people don’t. But at the third concert neither Mozart nor Stravinsky nor César Franck brought a gleam to their calm features. I waited anxiously for the end of the Wagner programme to see what effect, if any, that would have; but they were very much concerned with the storm that evening, and, though they applauded politely after a glowing ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ the passionate music did not stir them.

With the fifth programme I began to give up hope. It had seemed as if the simple directness of the Haydn Symphony in G major must please them; or the nobility of the Sibelius Seventh; and surely they could not remain unmoved by the mad, pulsing rhythms of ‘Scheherazade’! They were marble figures in evening dress.

The final concert was an all-Brahms programme, and I pinned my hopes for their æaesthetic salvation to the First Symphony. ‘It is n’t possible,’ I assured myself, ‘that any woman who cares enough about music to sit through six symphony concerts can resist this composition.’ The afternoon was perfect: blue skies, hot sunshine, the shadows of great pine trees, a marvelous setting for an outdoor concert. Beauty enveloped us in a cloak of color and melody. Koussevitzky conducted one of those performances which demand the adjective ‘inspired.’ Carried away by enthusiasm, the audience staged a good old-fashioned ‘demonstration.’ But the two women, their faces mask-like, adjusted their sable scarves and departed. . . .

The next time you go to a concert, watch the audience. Are they intent? Are they eager? Are they responsive? The young people may be. The foreignborn will be. Young or old, if they are not yet completely jelled in the rigid mould imposed by Anglo-Saxon ideas of correctness, they may still possess sufficient muscular elasticity — and enough simplicity of spirit — to show what they are thinking. The two women at the Berkshire concerts do represent a large group. It is possible that they were quite pleased with the Festival, that they enjoyed it, though no manifestations of enjoyment were discernible. Now I have no doubt that in friendly conversation over a cup of tea the expressions of these ladies show some variation, and it is to be supposed that they are not therefore accused of undue display of feeling. But put them in expensive seats at a concert and what happens? They don’t look reasonably cheerful, however charming the music; they never smile at music which is jolly or frankly humorous. (The dancing measures of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony are happy; and who can refrain from laughter at the pranks of Till Eulenspiegel?) Why do they stiffen in resistance to music? And by what physiological trick are they able to restrain the revealing flush which creeps into the cheek of a person normally responsive to beauty or emotion?

To a certain extent I understand this extravagant reticence, though I have long since lost patience with it. I belong to a generation brought up on Platonic ideals of self-restraint. It has taken many years to shake my conviction that one lost caste when one felt or showed too plainly either delight or displeasure. To be sure, one found some slight relief in Aristotle and the convenient theory of katharsis which allowed one to weep at a tragedy or submit, momentarily, to sad music — allowed it only for the reason that the vicarious experience purged the soul and set one free for greater efforts of self-discipline. But to shout ‘Bravo!’, to demand an encore, to split the tootight kid glove in an expression of excitement — well, it just was n’t done. One left that to the galleries. No lady (and only a very rare gentleman) would be guilty of it.

What has changed my point of view in the intervening years I am not certain. Perhaps mine was simply an emotional, post-war revolt. Perhaps Sigmund Freud, responsible for so mam metamorphoses, woke the Snow Maiden. Perhaps I was finally converted when I began to understand more thoroughly the artistic temperament and its intense need of appreciation and sympathy. It was then that I recognized the important role of the listener. Since the performing artist requires an audience — and in a sense he has no existence without one — my rôle, though subordinate, is essential to the fulfillment of his. I have no right to withhold or conceal my honest response.

Now applause, since it is a voluntary act, seldom reflex, may or may not be honest. And applause may indicate a variety of reactions, not necessarily an attitude of approval. There is the amiable, hearty handclapping that greets an unknown performer at his debut before he has shown himself worthy of praise; the tumultuous applause of welcome for a world-famous pianist, applause which is due to his renown and which will, presently, be repeated either because he has justified his reputation or because the audience thinks he has; the kindly, sympathetic applause for a performer who has made a slip and corrected it and is encouraged by the friendliness of his audience to vindicate himself; the unconvincing applause, at an orchestral concert, after a new composition whose merits are not at once apparent. (And who has forgotten the awkward moment when it is discovered that the luckless composer is present, has risen from his seat, and, torn between delight and embarrassment, is making his way to the platform to receive those uncertain plaudits? And when the audience, moved either by good manners or by a natural tendency to bestow public laurel wreaths, suddenly changes the tone of its handclapping to determined heartiness?)

There is, too, the reaction to a tremendously exciting piece of music when the audience can hardly wait for the final beat and almost breaks into the last measure in its eagerness. Such applause is hysterical in effect; it is high-pitched and shrill, like an excited voice. Indeed, I cherish a theory — endorsed, I must admit, by no musician — that it has a key of its own, a major key of many sharps. There is still another kind of applause, and this must be for the performer the most precious of all and the rarest. It is preceded by a moment of breathless silence when the audience, truly moved, seems unwilling to break the spell of the music and almost unable to take up the ordinary motions of living: a brief and magnificent moment, lost all too quickly in the conventional demonstrations of approval, but uplifting to every person who shares it.

You may, occasionally, find an artist who is honestly convinced that the attitude of the audience has little effect on his performance. I know of one. A great musician, he deliberately shuts himself off from his hearers, will not permit the thought of them to intrude on his playing, and scoffs at the idea that there is any contact between performer and listener. But I think he is the exception — and even he has been heard to comment on the coldness or sympathy of an audience! I could name six others, all of the first rank, who are quick to acknowledge that bond, who admit that they are extremely sensitive to it and can ‘feel’ the audience the moment they step across the stage.

One of them said to me once, ‘I can, of course, give a perfectly good performance even when I realize that the audience is not “with” me. If necessary I can build a wall around myself and play for my own satisfaction inside that wall. But the spark is not there; I can’t give a great performance without their response. And if, when I finish, they do not show by their applause that they like it, if they do not ask for encores, what am I to think? How can I tell that I have succeeded? Their applause, their enthusiasm, is my only means of knowing!’

I do not suggest that Americans should ape the easy exuberance of the Latin audience. That would be an affectation, alien to our habit and our nature. But I wish that we could break down the icy barrier of self-consciousness and learn to take our music with zest.