Symphonies for Snoozing? When it's OK to Be Bored in Concerts

Thursday, December 12, 2013

We've all had moments when our mind has wandered during a Wagner opera, a Bruckner symphony or perhaps a long Mozart recitative. Some of us have even dozed off. But maybe we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when our thoughts drift to a grocery list or an e-mail we forgot to send earlier.

Boredom in the concert hall may actually be a good thing, says John Crace, a features writer for the Guardian newspaper. In a recent article he argued that the slow, tedious moments in classical music make the exciting ones that much better.

Among the works Crace cited is Wagner's six-hour Parsifal, which puts extremely high demands on modern listeners. "There's an hour-and-a-half of absolutely sublime music, which makes it all worthwhile," he told host Jeff Spurgeon. "And then there are bits, especially in the second act, when my mind starts to wander."

It probably was the fault of Wagner – not the listener or the performer. "He expected his audiences to come along for the ride with him," Crace continued. "And I don’t think audiences are always prepared to do that."

But other industry-watchers disagree that the blame rests with the composer. "Before I would go attacking the repertoire per se, I would first take a look at the performance," said Ben Finane, editor-in-chief of Listen magazine. "I think it’s incumbent upon the singers to establish good chemistry on stage for those [Mozart] recitatives. It’s incumbent upon the conductor to keep things moving, and when that happens, I’m not dosing off."

In 2011, BBC Music Magazine asked 10 leading music critics to name the most boring masterpieces in classical music. Responses included Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, Vivaldi's Gloria and several operas: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Puccini's Madam Butterfly and Rossini's Cenerentola, among others. "There was no common thread, which shows that one man’s meat is another man’s poison," said Jeremy Pound, the magazine's deputy editor.

Wagner has frequently come in for criticism, and some critics say it's a rare opera of his that couldn't be improved by taking 20 minutes (or more) off the running time. "That’s the trouble with Wagner is there’s so much good stuff in there but you have to sit through the dreary stuff in between," noted Pound.

Crace believes that opera is a challenge because, unlike a play, it's difficult to cut in performance. "No one would dream of performing Hamlet at five hours," he said. "But there is a feeling in opera that somehow there’s an irreverence attached if every note of every bar is not included."

Perhaps the media has unfairly hyped epic works and created unreasonable expectations in audiences, said Pound. But just as important to realize is that, with age, a listener's concept of time starts to change. "What was boring to me 20 years ago now I absolutely adore," Pound added.

Listen to the segment above and tell us: Are there pieces that sometimes make your mind wander? Leave your comments below.


Brian Wise


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Comments [25]

Kenneth Christensen from Crystal Lake, IL.

Most boring masterpieces of the past 300 years must include, excluding art songs and piano music

1. Wagner's Ring Cycle or Parsifal.
2. Handel's Messiah, especially really poor performances
3. Bach's St. Matthew Passion
4. Bruckner and Mahler Symphonies. I cannot decide
5. Mozart's Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni
6. Adagio of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (Depressing)
7. Pelleas et Melisande/ St. Sebastian of Debussy
8. Bach's Christmas Oratorio
9. Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (CAN'T SIT THROUGH IT IN IT'S ENTIRETY)
10. Berliioz's The Childhood of Christ

Jul. 25 2015 09:00 PM
Marcus Mendelssohn from :ondon, Great Britain

You guys have never heard over 103 laborious minutes of Josef Suk's Asrael Symphony???!!! Takes away the will to live...

May. 15 2014 12:17 PM
Anthony T. Mastandrea from Ramsey, NJ

Rossini's comic works are never boring. "La Cenerentola" is magnificient.
How dare anyone say Puccini is boring! "La Boheme," "Madama Butterfly," "La Rondine" are stupendous.

Wagner is boring - example, "Sigfriend" - with the woods and the bird, ugh! As was pointed out, "Pelleas and Melisande" is very boring - it always puts me to sleep. I've tried three times with this opera - but have struck out all the time.

For me, most of Mahler is boring - why do people do flips over this man. Some parts of Richard Strauss can drive me to boredom - and much of Bach sounds like "funeral music!" Give me Beethoven, Mozart and Tschaikowsky anytime in the concert hall.

Dec. 18 2013 02:46 PM
MICHEL DEDINA from Imperial Beach, CA

I hope an opera house somewhere stages a production of Mozart's 'Magic Flute' without the interminable spoken dialogues which are so excruciatingly boring they numb the brain.

Dec. 15 2013 03:40 AM
ndeflon from Hudson Valley

Berlioz Les Troyens

Dec. 14 2013 10:53 AM
David from Flushing

I once attended a performance of Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" at the Met. The lulling music and various scenes that faded on and off the stage were ideal for those given to dozing. I looked down the aisle in the Family Circle and noted that I was one of the few persons still awake.

Dec. 14 2013 09:43 AM
shayna alterman

i visited the Vienna Operahouse and was shown the special room where Emperor Franz Joseph used to sleep during opera performances. I guess his wife dragged him to the opera just like nowadays.
i was also told a probably apochryphal story about the Operahouse during WWII. There is a frieze of bigger than life-size statues of great composers all around the first story. The new Nazi commandant of the city ordered his aide-de-camp to remove the statue of Mendelsohn, a Jew. The aide said, "which one is Mendelsohn?"
The commandant said, "I dunno. Take down the one with the biggest nose."
The aide ordered it done. The statue that was taken down was Rchard Wagner.

Dec. 14 2013 07:45 AM
Tessie from Clifton, NJ

Give me some scissors, please. There are so many extremely long moments that could be eliminated from so many operas. The Rataplan from Forza comes immediately to mind.

I can listen to Wagner for hours as long as I am not in the opera house. After three hours, I just can't sit still and ca nolonger concentrate.

Dec. 13 2013 11:49 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

After listening to the conversation, I would have to say that I agreed most often with Ben Finane's comments. We should not speak of "boring" music, as that is something very subjective. What one person finds boring another finds fascinating. Also, we should not fault the composer just because we don't happen to like his music, and the listener certainly needs to put in an effort as well. "Hearing" is passive; "listening" is active.
As a Bruckner lover, I naturally take issue with the opinion that his music is "boring". For me, there is no other music that compares to it, so much so that I like to say there are two types of music: Bruckner and everything else. Although there are many other composers whose music I appreciate, there is no other music that affects me as much as Bruckner. But that's just me - I certainly don't expect everyone else to feel the same way. And that, I think, is the beauty of classical music - there is something for everyone.

Dec. 13 2013 09:29 PM
Nadya from Livingston

I love Rossini's Cenerentola! So, boring, No. The music and singing are fabulous. I smile with every trill and hum it all day long.

Dec. 13 2013 08:39 PM
Karen Ann from Morristown, NJ

I used to be a volunteer usher at our local performance hall. Once, during a symphony performance (I don't recall the piece itself), there was audible snoring coming from one of the seats, and nobody seemed to be trying to stop it. When the house lights came up, we saw the culprit -- a blind patron's Seeing Eye dog.

Dec. 13 2013 01:27 PM

Tristan und Isolde cures insomnia. A liberal dosage of Mendelssohn helps to ward off Wagner's anti-Semitism.

Dec. 13 2013 11:40 AM
Bob from Huntington, NY

Bolero. Ravel did compose a great piece to show off an orchestra. However I find it difficult to stay awake when the same melody is played over and over and over etc., etc. etc.

Dec. 13 2013 10:40 AM
Freddy Snyders from New York

I agree with Bernie from UWS. I would rather not comment on the people who are bored with Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner and Mahler.

Dec. 13 2013 07:20 AM
Bernie from UWS

Agree with Leslie. The music that would really bore me in concert isn't Wagner or Bruckner but Boccherini, Spohr, CPE Bach, a lot of Handel, Offenbach -- in other words, the lighter, more toothless corners of the repertoire. What's also boring are orchestras that insist on repeating the same Beethoven and Tchaikovsky works over and over again while ignoring music from our own time.

Dec. 13 2013 05:47 AM
Leslie from Belfast

Bruckner, Mahler, R.Strauss, Wagner always have me sitting on the edge of my seat and wired. Not wired to hold my eyes open, but full of electricity.

I have slept through more performances of Cosi fan Tutte, and other Mozart, operatic or otherwise, than the composers I mentioned above.
This year, at the MET was the first time I stayed awake through the whole Cosi. I shall return to it in the spring.

It took Sir Colin Davis to make me be interested in Mozart symphonies, and yes, I've been bored by Bruckner and left performances in the middle, because I had known exquisite performances. Why sit through something deadly?

I really think it's the performers and specific performances which electrify us.

Dec. 12 2013 10:02 PM
Gene in L.A.

If listeners are not willing to go "along for the ride," it's not the composer's fault. If John Crace doesn't like the longueurs of the non-"exciting" parts of Parsifal or of an expansive Bruckner movement or "a long Mozart recitative," he should leave it for people who do, stay home, and listen to the "exciting parts" on his headphones. How pretentious!

Dec. 12 2013 09:29 PM
Eddie Lew from New York City

I have been a passionate opera lover for 56 years and have seen every great singer appearing in NY and elsewhere since my teen years and I find this article totally absurd, and not to say silly. Until the increasing rise of the importance of the director, about the late 70s and early 80s opera has become deadly boring because directors suck out the passion and spontaneity of the modern singer to foist his or her agenda.

To have experienced Birgit Nilsson's Brunhildas and Isolde or Cesare Siepi's Gurnemanz, John Vickers' Siegmund, Scotto's Butterfly, to name the tip of the iceberg of the wonderful singers I heard, some great and some second-string, not to mention conductors like Karl Boehm, Dimitri Mitropoulos, makes me cringe to hear people, of some repute, say the absurd things in this article.

I lived through an era where singers' passion and spontaneity astounded us, never dreaming that their performances were boring for an instant. Yes, not every performance was great, but even a less-than first rate performance had passion.

If these "experts" lived through the great post-war-era singers I heard they would never say such flip opinions based on their narcissism and presumed cleverness. I experienced many ovations after performances lasting up to 45 minutes; it makes me cringe to hear anyone saying Wagner is boring. Most performers today are boring, mere puppets mimicking what directors, many who don't like opera, tell them.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Listen to a Furtwaengler performance of a Wagner opera and you will see the fault is in ourselves.

Dec. 12 2013 09:21 PM
Jeff from NJ

I often find myself drifting during a long piece, especially during a slow movement. In a way it seems therapeutic, a way of gently unloading the day's worries and processing its events. I think it's a great thing that classical music can help us to do this in a particular way.

I also think, however, that the tendency to use classical music as background music while doing other things makes it harder for people to focus at a concert. I have a friend who will not go to a classical concert; it doesn't make sense to him to sit and watch the orchestra play background music! (And he's a musician himself!)

Dec. 12 2013 06:19 PM

I do find the performance is the thing. That is to say that in a good, interesting performance or sometimes in an excitingly, awful performance, I will be alert sitting at the edge of my seat waiting to see what's coming next. I find there are a lot of performances which are too bland, beige and boring to keep my mind from wandering. Sometimes supposedly energetic performance can make my mind 'flee' from the concert stage if it is otherwise simply not good. There are no particular composers, except possibly Bach or Mozart, who come close to sending me off to the Land of Nod.

Dec. 12 2013 06:16 PM
Ciff Flanders from New York, NY

I've found that, when I know I'm going to be facing five hours of Die Meistersinger or Rosenkavalier, to take the day off and rest up beforehand! It helps to be fresh. I once attended a magnificent Meistersinger and at one point I happened to notice that almost the entire row in front of me was deep in the land of Nod!

Dec. 12 2013 06:05 PM
safary from Montclair

It is an established fact that your mind changes as you get older and more mature. It is also true that when you hear a new piece,you can not make a rush judgement one way or the other. You definitely have to listen several times ( four five or six)and devote your undivided attention before you come to any conclusion. Today's young audience do not have the patience, unfortunately in this instant gratification age. Too bad, they do not know what they are missing.

Dec. 12 2013 05:53 PM
Frank from UWS

That was Rossini. They talk about it in the show actually!

My most boring piece has to be Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Deadly.

Dec. 12 2013 05:52 PM

Who was it who said that Wagner gad great moments and long quarter-hours?

Dec. 12 2013 05:18 PM
Lee from NJ

I feel so much better that I am not the only one nodding during an opera!

Dec. 12 2013 05:18 PM

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