A Few Words About Coughing

My wife and I visited New York for several days, and this past Sunday, we went to Lincoln Center to hear Bernard Haitink conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Ninth Symphony. It was a wonderful concert in every way, but the experience led me -- not for the first time -- to think about coughing.

Haitink, the most dignified and self-effacing of grand old maestri, led a magnificent performance. There was a special poignancy in watching this octogenarian conduct a work so suffused with end-things. The long final Adagio especially could almost have been composed with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in mind: its gentle, hymn-like threnody frequently gives way to passages of nostalgic bliss, of rage, of terror, of despair. And then, in the heart-breaking final bars, it lapses into a mysterious sort of serenity in which time seems to stand still, in which the music itself seems to cease even as it pares itself down to naked strings and haltingly gasps out its triple-pianissimo final cadence.

This is one of the most haunting endings in the entire symphonic literature, and Haitink judged it perfectly, producing an effect -- unique to this piece -- at once tragic and ecstatic.  The final moments would have been purely exquisite, except for the sudden hacking cough that broke in from one of the boxes about ten seconds from the end.

It was far from being the first loud cough to interrupt a pianissimo phrase that afternoon. Indeed, there was a phlegmy obligato for many of the quieter passages throughout the work's 80-minute duration. Nor, of course, was the phenomenon unique to this concert; coughing during concerts and recitals, frequently during the quietest or the most delicate moments, is something with which all concert-goers have become familiar. It's the rule, not the exception. And it tends not to happen so much during climaxes and fast passages. It comes when it can do the most damage, when the mood upon which it intrudes is the most fragile.

Twice, in fact, I've seen pianists simply stop playing because of the bronchial cacophony that was interfering with their concentration. Alfred Brendel did it with a little shrug of humorous exasperation that secured the audience's sympathy; if I recall correctly, they may even have applauded the gesture. Ivo Pogorelich, on the other hand, fixed the audience with a sustained angry glare, and didn't resume playing until the room was intimidated into an almost eerie silence.

Why does this happen? I'm convinced it isn't a matter of medical necessity. I myself have never, in half a century of attending concerts, coughed while a performance was in progress. Not once, not even when I was still recovering from a cold. Neither, as far as I can recall, has anyone I've been with. And the occasions where you might most expect to hear coughing and wheezing, chamber recitals at the Wigmore Hall in London, say, or Hertz Hall on the University of California at Berkeley campus -- venues where the median age of the audience is somewhere in the neighborhood of 436 years old, and systemic health problems can safely be assumed -- are, in fact, generally the quietest.

cough.JPGAnd consider this: you don't hear much coughing in movie theaters. You may hear candy wrappers being rustled and popcorn being crunched and even villains being hissed, but not coughing.

This can't be an accident. I'm put in mind of Alan Jay Lerner's observation: "Coughing in the theater is not a respiratory ailment.  It is a criticism." I think something comparable -- not identical, but similar -- is at work here. I certainly don't mean to suggest that coughing at concerts is an implicit review of the musical performance. But it may well be a symptom of inattention, boredom, and possibly even anxiety, a symptom of diffuse focus.
The cure isn't a lozenge, the cure is to listen more closely.

Photo Credit: Flick Users jordanfischer and Photocapy