What would Mozart make of our spaced-out concert formations?

15th March 2021 | Concerts, Inspirations, Musings, Travel | 0 comments

Yesterday I was in Perth, recording Mozart and Beethoven quintets for piano and wind instruments with principal players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – Adrian Wilson, Timothy Orpen, David Hubbard and Chris Gough. The performance will be relayed as a Radio 3 lunchtime concert on April 9 at 1pm.

We conformed to Covid restrictions and sat 2 metres apart from one another. The distance across the group felt quite far (see photo). And we were only five people – imagine what the distances are like with a full orchestra!

In the few recordings I’ve been able to do during lockdown, I’ve found that when it’s harder to hear, I rely more on visual information. There’s always a blend of aural and visual information in music-making, but I suspect the balance has changed during the era of social distancing.

We were wondering what Mozart would have said if he could have seen us spread out across the stage. (Something rude, probably: ‘Do you all smell? Hee-hee!’) At first we wondered whether he might have lived through times of illness when the Viennese stayed apart to avoid infecting one another.. But then we remembered that in the 18th century, the understanding of disease was very different. If I remember correctly, it was not yet known how infection spread, and there was little appreciation of the need for public health measures as we know them today.

Pictures of chamber music gatherings in Mozart’s day show the players crowded together, sharing music stands, sometimes using double stands (like a sandwich-board on a stand) so that one person could sit on each side. They made best use of candlelight by putting stands as close together as possible. String players might stand right beside the pianist, reading the string part from the piano score. After a year in lockdown, those 18th century images of jolly music-making provoke a sharp intake of breath from the Covid-era viewer: ‘Why on earth are they so close together?’

So I don’t think Mozart would have enjoyed our currently spaced-out formations – although they might have given him ideas. It’s an intriguing thought – if Mozart thought that the musicians might not be able to hear the fine detail of one another’s playing, would he have composed different music?

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