Vienna claims the most attentive audience

Vienna claims the most attentive audience


norman lebrecht

February 20, 2021

Many people believe there is a special quality to the Vienna concert audience (read here). Even to the Viennese ticket queue.

Is there?


  • George says:

    Yes there is. The State Opera and Musikverein are in the heart of the city. And since Austria has no power worldwide in terms of foreign policy or economy they are extremely proud of their wonderful culture, especially music. It is a small country but has many top orchestras, one if the best opera houses in the world and the numerous top festivals. And people in Vienna deeply care and passionately discuss performances, whether at the Staatsoper, Volksoper, Musikverein, Burgtheater, Konzerthaus, Theater an der Wien…there’s just so much. It is a cultural paradise where you can hear Daniel Barenboim in a Matinee, Anna Netrebko at the opera and Daniil Trifonov in the evening in a concert all on the same day.
    I’ve lived there for five years and from an audience point if view the amount of stars and performances was just wonderful.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      COMPLETELY agree with you. I lived there too, but not as long as you did. Austria punches about its weight. And it doesn’t tolerate uncivil behaviour!!! Dominic Thiem is an Austrian I really admire too.

  • Bostin'Symph says:

    I made some really nice friends whilst waiting in the queue for on-the-day tickets for ENO’s Tristan und Isolde back in 1982. We’re still in touch and have seen a lot else together since.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Unusual things happen in Viennese queues. There is the story of the couple meeting each other for the first time in a queue waiting for tickets for Tristan, falling in love with each other on the spot, and meeting again a week later waiting for Nozze, marrying, waiting many years together but finally decide for a divorce during waiting for tickets for Elektra. They met again coincidentally waiting for Wozzeck but merely quarrelled, until they made-up during a long queue for Rosenkavalier. In these days, their children explore the queues to find opportunities to keep the tradition intact.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It’s true. According to my fly on the wall, also in these days they sit very quiet and attentively in their home, waiting for the coronie to end.

  • Karl says:


  • Monsoon says:

    They’re overestimating the number of tourist attending. They know enough that when you’re in Vienna, you see a concert.

    And not that tourists cannot be attentive, but it’s pretty clear at “destination” opera houses — Wiener Staatsoper, La Scala, Met, etc. — that on any given night there are always a good chunk of people who have never attended an opera before, and a noticeable number leave after intermission.

  • John Greenwood says:

    There IS something special about Vienna’s concert goers. I’ve visited the larger halls many times. It seems like should an attendee get a sharp tickle in the throat, they’d rather roll onto the floor and suffocate to death, rather that cough and disturb the “musical flow.” I’ve witnessed this on numerous occasions. The Viennese capacity to not cough during a performance is indeed laudable and amazing. Bless them!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Viennese children are trained from kindergarten onwards to restrain their coughs, and it is part of the regular curriculum at schools, with exams at the end of the year where the pupils have to swallow a spoonful of dry garlic powder and demonstrate their prowess. The best get a medal and free tickets for a year for the opera. In these days, this talent is an asset, it suppresses covid infection rates in Vienna.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        That may be so but their children know how to comport themselves during performances in their most famous venues. It’s a lesson they could teach many other countries, but I still do have a strong image of those Leonard Bernstein childrens’ concerts on TV from NYC in the 50s. They were amazing audiences!!

    • Brian says:

      Ironically, in old Vienna, concerts were social events with talking, laughing, card playing, and cheering at the best moments *during* the pieces. The enforced solemnity is a relatively modern (class-based) invention that has little basis in the way concert music was originally conceived.

      • John Borstlap says:

        No, in the way concert music was treated, not conceived. And it was a primitive way of experiencing music, because public concerts were a very new thing with audiences unaccustomed to concentrated listening. The real, ‘professionel’ audiences were to be found in the salons of the aristocracy, with concertos of mostly chamber music, and sometimes an orchestral concert – like the premiere of the Eroica.

        • Marfisa says:

          Brian is right. And I think John overestimates the decorum of the upper classes. He should ponder why Haydn’s symphonies are so full of surprises – sudden sforzandos, unexpected silences, motifs that keep on being repeated long after you expect them to end? And, at the other end of the scale, why Boccherini writes music that gradually seeps into your consciousness even if you are not really paying much attention, doing something else, or chatting with a friend. (I can’t analyse how he does it, but he certainly succeeds.) When, and why, did listening to music in a concert hall become a quasi-religious activity, relieving the composer of the necessity of ensuring the audience’s attention? A question for a musicologist!

          • John Borstlap says:

            Art music should be listened to with attention, and not abused as background music, as simple as that. It was terrible for those composers in the 18th century to be treated as staff and their music as wallpaper, like the muzak of today. One of the reasons that Beethoven hammered on his status as Tondichter and as an independent artist, equal or superior to the aristocracy, was because he abhorred the way music was treated in his own days.

          • Marfisa says:

            Music that deserves listening to with attention will be listened to with attention, whether it be your art music or just the sort of ordinary music folk like me love. I’m not sure that you (or perhaps anyone today) really understand the dynamics of 18th-century princely courts. Haydn was no more treated as ‘staff’ in his employer’s institution than a Professor is in a modern university — in fact maybe less so. And one more point: there was a lot of music being performed — and listened to — outside aristocratic courts, by musically literate, music-loving audiences. Hamburg; London; Paris; Leipzig; Dublin; Venice. The atmosphere was not one of hushed reverence, but of active participatory enjoyment.

          • Marfisa says:

            Sentence out of control: “performed outside aristocratic courts — and listened to by musically literate, music-loving audiences.”
            I should perhaps add churches – and even there, I believe, the atmosphere was not necessarily one of hushed reverence (and the congregation might have been able to join in with the chorales).

          • John Borstlap says:

            I don’t think the audiences at early public concerts (London, etc.) were very attentive, there are enough reports of lively indifference. Also, the quality of the music cannot be measured by the attention of listeners, considering the different perceptive abilities of people everywhere in any period. In that sense, it seems unlikely that there has been any ‘progress’ since the 18th century. The customs of the modern concert hall are, at least, a barrier to an indifference expressed too openly.

      • Ashu says:

        That’s interesting. Thank God for progress, eh?

      • Bill Ecker says:

        That was the Opera de Paris where along with everything you mention above, business was transacted in the stalls.

  • E says:

    For standing room, several hours or standing on line before the opera tickets
    are sold is part of the ritual. Then, one rushes in and marks one’s place with a scarf or a ribbon….We are a devoted lot, it is true! And there is indeed much less coughing!

    • John Kelly says:

      It is my strongly held conviction after 50 years of concertgoing that coughing is about 95% correlated with the degree of boredom among audience members. Devoted listeners such as you find in Vienna (I’ve been), Prague and at the Proms are not bored, they’re LISTENING.

  • fflambeau says:

    I’ve been to concerts in many countries. I think the following have the most attentive audiences:

    1) Japan (easy winner);
    2) China;
    3) Austria;
    4) Germany
    5) Korea

  • Matias says:

    A family friend spent a couple of years teaching English in a “TEFL” school in the UK. They ran a summer school which was popular with groups of Austrian schoolchildren in (approx) the 12-16 age group.

    He had two groups from Vienna and, when planning his lessons (simply using a “book of lessons” was frowned upon), he thought that musical themes would be a safe bet in view of the city’s heritage. Not so, apparently. He was shocked, and left high and dry, when he discovered that the children had no more knowledge of or interest in classical music than their counterparts in a British or American school would have, and were wholly immersed in the same, tired Western pop culture.

    I find this disturbing and hope that it wasn’t typical. If Vienna is not able to preserve its musical heritage, it has serious implications for music in the West. Perhaps we’ll have to rely on the Far East to preserve what is left.

  • Been there, done that says:

    I would change the title to “Vienna has the Best Behaved Audience”. Who knows what is going through the minds of the audience while they are attending a concert? I have spent some time in Austria, and found out that you don’t want to break their norms. If you do, chances are you will find out fast that you did. This could be the main reason that people are very careful not to disturb each other. They don’t want to get called out, and be ostracized. So to equate this superlative concert audience behaviour with being the most attentive is a false comparison.