The Applause Issue
In yesterday's Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Matthew Erikson writes that for many people, "going to a classical concert may be a source of much social anxiety. Clap at the wrong moments -- and it may seem like most moments are wrong -- and you look like a hick. Must classical-concert etiquette be so bewildering and counterintuitive?"
This issue of not applauding between movements is one of my pet peeves...
It is born of a snobbishness, a device whereby some people can feel superior by showing visibly that they know the piece isn't over yet. It is entirely a twentieth century convention - a custom that would shock Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and any other composer prior to our own time. We have plenty of evidence of the fact that applause between movements was normal. Berlioz, writing of the Beethoven symphonies, tells us that the second movement of No. 7 is the most beloved of audience because it "always gets the longest applause." Elgar's wife, describing the Manchester premiere of Elgar's 1st Symphony, noted "after 3rd movement E. had to go up on platform & whole Orch. & nos. of audience stood up--Wonderful scene." If that happened today, the audience would be accused of ruining Elgar's mood, despite the fact that it seemed to thrill the composer and his wife.
Here's another example. I was recently reading Joseph Szigeti's wonderful autobiography With Strings Attached: Reminiscences and Reflections when I came across the following:
At one playing of a Mozart Concerto, Richard Strauss conducting, the Master and I exchanged happy glances at the conclusion of the serenely joyous first movement. Naturally we expected a similarly happy reaction from our audience and when we met with polite and stony silence instead, Strauss turned to me and muttered..."The so-and-so newspaper scribblers and commentators! This is their work - making people scared to clap when I know they feel like doing it.How did this happen? Some day, after I retire and have time for research, I would love to do the requisite digging to learn the origin of the "no applause between movement" culture that has helped to stultify our concert halls. I saw one middle European conductor a few years ago wag an accusing finger at an audience who dared to applaud between movements of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, despite the fact that that is not a tautly constructed symphony but a set of tone poems. The shushing of people who dared to clap between movements has had the effect of intimidating people - and worse, humiliating them. What a great PR campaign - make people who paid to see your project feel stupid. That's guaranteed to get them to keep coming!
This is only one aspect of a more complete and complex picture, a picture that becomes clear if you observe focus groups of people who attend other cultural events but stay away from symphony concerts. Invariably in groups of that nature people articulate feeling intimidated, or even stupid. "I would like to go to a concert, but I don't know enough about the music..." is one way that one hears this; "I'm afraid I'll clap at the wrong time," is another.
There is a lot that the symphony orchestra field must do (and, to its credit is beginning to do) to take some of this aura of the religious ritual out of the concert hall - and I think we're going to see much more of a change in that direction in the coming years. One big help would be to actually encourage people to applaud between movements, and for performers to graciously acknowledge such applause rather than scorning them. (Read a recent article from Andrew Druckenbrod on the subject). As I said to a companion at the time the conductor did mock the audience, "how many times do you think those people will again pay to be demeaned from the stage?"
Surely, this is not a new topic--many of my fellow ArtsJournal bloggers have devoted blogs to this controversial subject. For instance, Drew McManus's "Applause and Pretentiousness" survey finds that in actuality most respondents were in favor of applause between movements. (Read the survey results). In another ArtsJournal blog, Greg Sandow asks that we revise what we know about classical music and its history, since we take for granted how today's audience is expected to sit silently between movements.
We have to think a lot about the aura that we have created in the concert hall. I wrote an article in SYMPHONY magazine a few years ago about the disappearance of light music from our concert halls. That has its origins in the same root as the no-applause practice - we've made concerts almost grimly serious. It used to be that some musical wit and fun was allowed in the concert hall - Suppé or Rossini Overtures, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies, Enescu Rumanian Rhapsodies, pieces like Danse macabre or Espana - these were a regular part of the subscription concert repertoire. Then they got stolen by "pops concerts," and people would say "oh, you can't play that on a serious concert - that's a pops piece."
The orchestra field is very seriously re-thinking everything about the way it interacts with its audiences, the way it presents the art form. Clearly there is no desire, on my part or anyone else's, to dumb down the music. I don't want flashing laser lights accompanying my Brahms, thank you. But the stiff formality of the ritual of the concert could use a healthy re-examination, and it is getting it. As I travel around the country and see some examples, I'll share them with you.
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