noun: fermata; plural noun: fermatas
- a pause of unspecified length on a note or rest.
- a sign indicating a prolonged note or rest.
“It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” – Miles Davis
John Cage’s 4’33” may be the most infamous example of the use of silence in music (or rather the use of silence to create music), but composers have always recognised the power of silence and musical silence is as meaningful as interruptions and pauses in the language we speak. And because music is also a language, we recognise and understand the significance of those silences in music – a momentary breath, a witty or rhetorical stop-start, a pregnant, portentous pause, false cadences, an interruption to the flow of music which has you guessing before the composer strikes off in another direction. All these devices add meaning, drama, humour and emotion to the music. They also sharpen our attention and keep us listening, for the ear is constantly asking “what comes next?”.
A fermata marking above a note is generally understood to mean a longer pause – i.e. longer than the note value. Exactly how long to wait is at the discretion of the performer and there is a fine line to tread between creating dramatic, meaningful silence or suggesting that you might have forgotten what comes next in the music!
There is an even greater fermata at work at present, thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic. It has created an unprecedented, in peacetime at least, rupture to normal daily and cultural life. Concert halls and opera houses are closed, those places which until a few weeks ago resounded with music, and silence – not just the silences between the notes but that special hush of anticipation before the music begins or that magical concentrated, almost inexplicable silence which occurs during a particularly intense performance when it seems as if the audience is listening, and breathing, as one, or that special quiet at the end of a particularly arresting performance before the applause comes.
For those of us who love live music, the closure of the venues and its effect on our cultural life, has come as a huge blow, and not just in the absence of live music but also the social aspect of attending concerts. I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang at the Barbican in March; both concerts were cancelled, and I do not anticipate returning to the London venues which I love (especially Wigmore Hall) until the autumn now, at the earliest. Summer music and opera festivals are now being postponed or cancelled (sadly, it seems highly likely that the BBC Proms will be cancelled), and one wonders how venues will cope when they are eventually permitted to reopen while audiences must continue to observe social/physical distancing. Auditoriums are not really designed to observe a 1- or 2-metre apart rule, and in older halls such as London’s Wigmore, audiences sit hugger mugger in tightly-packed rows. How will venues square this tricky circle? Will they perhaps sell only every other seat to ensure some distance between people? And how will orchestras, ensembles and choirs, for example, observe appropriate physical distancing on stage?
And there’s another conundrum for the venue managers – managing the social spaces where people meet and congregate before and during a performance, spaces which are often crowded, especially at a sold-out concert or the opening night at the Royal Opera House. It will be a challenge for sure – but I have a feeling that when the venues begin to reopen, music lovers and keen concert-goers like me will flock back to them. And some of us may take a gamble with our health in doing so.
In the meantime, while coronavirus has forced the closure of the places where musicians and audiences come together to share in the experience of live music-making, it has not silenced the musicians who are determined to play on, their music broadcast via YouTube, Zoom and similar platforms, often with interesting and innovative results, and, it would appear, large audiences. Classic FM reports that a recent “living room” concert by their Artist-in-Residence violinist Maxim Vengerov has been viewed by more than 20,000 people, with 1,500 peak live viewers – more than can fit comfortably into a medium-sized concert hall. Such performances also bring the musicians closer to their audiences and break down the traditional barriers and notions of elitism associated with classical music and the rituals of its performance and presentation. Audiences see musicians at work in their own homes and discover that away from the formality of the concert stage, these people are normal – they live in normal homes, not Lisztian salons, wear normal clothes, have kids and pets. By the same token, musicians can forge stronger connections with audiences by bringing their music to the living rooms of their fans and supporters. If these online viewers translate into paying concert-goers when the venues eventually reopen, this could signal a marvellous resurgence for classical music and perhaps even encourage new audiences, a perennial issue for the artform. So maybe the coronavirus could have a positive impact on the way music is presented and enjoyed – we can but hope….
As a postscript, readers may be amused to learn that an alternative Italian word for fermata is corona…. And fermata is also the Italian word for bus stop.