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Eating Orange Angel Cake while discussing Concert Etiquette

Eating Orange Angel Cake while discussing Concert Etiquette!

There is nothing more annoying than going to a concert expecting to hear beautiful sublime music and being continually distracted by rustling programmes, coughing, people humming along ( my husband is SO guilty of that one!!) or clapping in the wrong place.

This cacophony of irritating noises led me to wonder if concerts and operas were always places with such formal rules on etiquette.

And it seems that they weren’t.

Sitting quietly and listening to music in a formal way is a real late 19th century phenomena. In fact prior to this change, going to the opera has been likened to going to a soccer game!!

So how did this change occur?

After Monteverdi established the opera as a musical form with clout in the early 1600s, monarchs throughout Europe were desperate to build incredible, elaborate opera houses to show off their importance in the world’s sphere. It seems that the less important the monarch the bigger the opera house. (fast cars come to mind as a comparison but maybe I’m just being cruel!!) . The biggest being in San Carlo Naples built in 1732.


In Italy, in the Baroque and Classical periods, the upper class would go to the opera up to 4 or 5 times a week. It was the place to see and be seen. Opera houses were even built so the boxes on either side of the stage faced each other rather than the stage itself. Paintings from these periods show people chatting to one another, being served drinks and basically paying absolutely no attention to the performance on stage.

In Milan nobles turned their boxes into homes away from home. They had their own furniture and paintings in their boxes and had curtains which could be drawn so games of cards and the like would not be disturbed by the music below. Curtains were often only open when favourite arias began. Then if they wanted to hear it again, nobles had no hesitation in calling out to for it to be repeated. The opera was like the modern day radio or ipod. Only when the king was attending did decorum improve.

A review of a performance of Rossini’s Zaro in the Morning Post of 1850 lists all the nobility and gentry who attending the opera but never mentions the actual performance! That’s how important it was!!

Concerts were the new kid on the block. The first public fee paying concert was in England in 1672. They were initially performed in either taverns or inns where people would sit around tables listening to music (often like jazz venues now). When concert halls were finally built, legitimizing this art form, they were usually quite austere, more like the internals of a church. This did not mean that audiences for concerts were better behaved although decorum was probably slightly better than in the opera houses.

This bad behavior was so entrenched that both novels ‘Madam Bovary’ and “The Picture of Dorian Gray’ talk about the usefulness of the opera house to chat without being heard. While Dorian Grey is trying to listen to a Wagner opera, his friend says to him- the music ‘is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage, don’t you think so, Mr Gray?”

So how did this all change? Well it all had to do with the rise of the Middle Class.

By the beginning of the 1800s the middle class was beginning to grow not only in size but also importance in society. The nobility had lost a huge amount of power, wealth and prestige fighting the Napoleonic Wars and the middle class was more than happy to take up the slack.

The middle class’s mission was to educate themselves as a way of being accepted into the upper echelons of society and music was very high on their education list. Initially they copied the uncouth behavior exhibited by the elite which infuriated the nobles as they felt that these upstarts were interfering in their domain. To rectify this problem the nobles starting making more and more outrageous unspoken social rules trying to make it more and more difficult for the middle classes to achieve their goal.

But something very interesting happened. As the middle class became more educated they actually started listening to the music being performed to them. Audiences began to come to concerts to ‘hear’ the music, so the composers wrote more interesting music for these educated people to listen to.

Publications were written condemning the upper classes for their bad behavior and demanded better respect for the musicians and the rest of the listening public. The Musical World wrote in 1840 about a performance of Bellini’s I Puritani at Her Majesty’s, “A school for behaviour should be provided for some of the aristocratic tenants of the boxes at the theatre. The incessant gabbling of lording coxcombs is doubtless interesting to themselves, but by others cannot be regarded otherwise than as an obtrusive impertinence, and, as such, should be put down without ceremony”

As more people started attending concerts it became increasingly likely that one would be seated next to a stranger rather than a friend so being on ones best behaviour became even more important.

Slowly but steadily this new group of people were dictating social etiquette to the upper class – the inventors of all social norms. By the turn of the 20th century concert and opera going had become more as we know it today. Almost like a sanctuary where people can go and know they will be able to listen to music without being disturbed by others ( unless you are sitting next to a hummer!)

A few weeks ago I was rummaging through my recipe file and found my good friend Tania’s secret Orange Angel Cake recipe. Tania gave me this recipe over a decade ago when her boys and my girls were great friends as preschoolers. It was just a morish as I remembered it, if not more so!!

Thanks Tan for letting me share it!!!

  • 8 eggs separated

  • 1 ½ cups castor sugar

  • 2cups SR flour

  • 1cup olive oil

  • 1cup fresh orange juice

  • Rind of one large orange

  • Beat egg whites with ¾ cup of sugar, then refrigerate until yolks are ready

  • Beat yolks with remaining sugar and rind, when fluffy slowly add orange, flour and oil

  • Take out whites from fridge and add yolk minture to whiles folding through with a wooden spoon

  • Pour mixture into a Ungreased chiffon tin

  • Bake for 1hr at 180C

  • Put tin upside down when ready and let cool this way. The cake should come out very easily.

Try not to have a second, or third!!


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