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.

March 9, 2007 4:20 PM | | Comments (22)

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Can a musical historian verify what I vaguely believe is true? That is, until the Romantic era, it was unusual for multi-movement works to actually be played all together (in correct order) at one time?


I don't know if it was "unusual" - certainly many of Mozart's and Beethoven's symphonies and concertos were performed as whole units during their lives; but it was not uncommon for them to either be excerpted, or played with other music between movements. I believe that was the exception rather than the rule, but would love to hear from some who have studied the era in more detail.
-Henry

I found this site through google while researching this question about clapping between movements. A few months ago, I took my ten year old son to experience Beethoven's 9th for the 1st time (it has been my favorite since I was 10) - this was the first symphony I have been to since I was in high school. We went to a Friday night "casual" performance in the hopes that it would be relaxed and enjoyable instead of stuffy...

Unfortunately, it was one of the worst experiences I have ever had at a performing arts event...even though it was a "Casual Friday" performance (we wore nice pants and sweaters - no jeans) there were many people in black tie - leaving us feeling underdressed...

Everyone had their nose so far up in the air that they could barely see my son walking in front of them - the last straw was when several people on the lower level began applauding so my son followed suit and the people around us were FREAKING OUT, making rude comments, and shushing them...my son and I felt like idiots (and i hadn't even clapped)

We will NEVER attend again...I have enough stress in my life - I don't need to be made to feel like a 2nd class citizen and a complete idiot while trying to enjoy some culture with my son...



This is so disheartening that I hardly know what to say. Those who claim to love classical music are going to be responsible for killing it completely if they continue to abuse and humiliate those who are coming new to it. And, as I have said before, the "purists" are even wrong historically -- Beethoven would have been shocked at a lack of applause between movements of his symphonies.

On behalf of those of us who love and believe in this music, I apologize to Ashley - and urge you to keep trying. The atmosphere you describe is, in fact less typical now than it was five or ten years ago, and it can only change if those of us who want to change it help to do so.
-Henry

All my life I tried to innovate the programming as well as all the traditional habits. I dressed less formally, encouraged the orchestra to do so, talked to the audience, never shushed the audience if they clapped between movements, even got some applause after really good solos (!) and lately I've been experimenting with changing the traditional Ouvertre-Concerto-Symphony scheme.



Just recently I conducted a concert that started with very serious 20th century symphony (the whole first half), and continued with a solo clarinet (the great Giora Feidman) and orchestra pieces. The second half started with solo clarinet improvisation with the soloist walking from the back of the hall all the way to the podium while playing and making contact with people. This was followed by Bruch's Kol Nidrei, some Chasidic music and a set of Tangos. We had standing ovations after the first half and a pandemonium after the end - about half an hour of applause and encores.

I don't know whether it is dumbing down, but I know that I would have to think hard to remember a concert I conducted that was not sold out. Somehow I can not see as a bad thing if a concert hall is full and new people start attending classical concerts.

Another issue that helps add to the intimidation factor is concert dress.

Who wears white tie and tails anymore? Only orchestral musicians! Why is it that the playing of classical music requires men to dress as if they're being seated at the Captain's table on the Titanic, and women to dress like Morticia Addams? No wonder people think the experience is going to be grim, with all those (often stone-faced) orchestral ladies in funereal black.

I think the big orchestras are going to have to lead on all these issues - applause, repertoire, concert dress. But I suppose they face the same issues we do at smaller orchestras - existing audiences, particularly season subscribers, that view the traditional concert ritual as "the way things are supposed to be" and finds departures from that ritual to be disturbing. The "dumbing down" phrase is often used. I'm afraid that for many, free encouragement of applause between movements, relxation in dress code, etc is of the same cloth as the light show during Brahms.

Paul is right that the "dumbing down" phrase is often applied with an absurdly broad brush - and it is up to us in the orchestra world to educate people about the complexities of this issue. The only thing Paul says that I might differ on is that I think the lead for changing may well come from the smaller orchestras. They are less tradition-bound, less openly tied to the old European habits, and often more flexible than the largest orchestras.

Henry Fogel

There's one issue (well, OK, several) that is lurking beneath all the interesting discussion here, and that is the fact that we're talking about applause between movements/sections in old, established music. If symphony orchestras were playing new multi-movement works all the time, and they found each segment so thrilling or compelling that they applauded after every movement, I'm OK with that. But with the older works, I fall into the "snob" category, I guess, and as a general rule would prefer to hear the works straight through. Granted, I can think of lots of exceptions; the end of the first movements of the Nielsen or Tchaikovsky violin concertos, just to name two.

With respect to jazz and rock, the applause during the music is different. This is because those big solos are more about the performer, not about the music as such. You admire the musicianship when a great sax or piano player does a great jam or riff, but are you likely to recall a note of what he/she played? In all likelihood, no. This is not to diminish the musicianship of great jazz or rock players at all, but just to illustrate the difference here: classical music has the composer as its heart, and thus the music as written, which differentiates it from jazz and rock, where there's more room for performers to cut loose on their instruments and not "stick to a script".

BTW, I was also at those concerts where Robertson gave the audience the OK to applaud when they feel it, and that's fine. But with respect to my learned colleague Sam Hack, to say that "applause disturbs the continuity of expression in a piece of music is absurd" is, quite simply, wrong. Just to give one example, if I am ever lucky enough to hear the whole of "Die Winterreise" live, I do not want applause between each of the 24 songs, to put it mildly. Many works need continuity, attention and focus from beginning to end, and applause for me distracts from that.

The idea that applause disturbs the continuity of expression in a piece of music is absurd. It is commonplace everywhere in the music world except classical instrumental and vocal recital concerts. Not only opera (as Sarah posted) but musical theatre in general encourages applause after set pieces within the whole. In jazz performances, audiences applaud each solo even as the music continues. If a vocal recitalist or conductor wants the audience to hold its applause until the end of a piece, he or she should so inform the audience at the beginning of a performance. I have heard Fredricka von Stade do this quite effectively without sounding pretentious or insulting. At the last two St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts David Robertson conducted, he prefaced performances of specific works (Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or Suite and Adams' Harmonilehre) with an encouragement to applaud after movements that were felt to be exciting.

Just imagine attending an opera and, after a great diva had sung some incredibly difficult aria, there would be only thundering silence from the audience, The singer would feel terribly disapponted. What is wrong with applauding the flourish of an amazing scherzo movement or a particularly beautiful and moving part of a piano concerto? With a decline in classical music listening across the U.S. (and the world?) we should be doing everything possible to give folks the opportunity to hear live music. One of my favorites has been the occasional live music concert on the Boston Common where thousands of people have experienced en masse great works like Beethoven's Ninth. Let's hear it for leitmotifs on the lawn!

Thank you for the comments. I agree that the no applause between movements ethic is worldwide, no question about that. As for the "entrance" issue, I'd actually like to see American orchestras do what European orchestras do, and the whole orchestra makes a grand entrance. They stay on stage to warm up until about 5 minutes before the concert, then they leave - and all enter as a unit. It adds a nice touch of theater, and it gets applause for the whole orchestra. And finally, I like your programming ideas very much.

Henry Fogel

I am all for reducing the stuffiness of symphony concerts, though I'm fairly indifferent about applause between movements. I would note, though, that this doesn't seem to be just an American phonemenon; having just spent two years in Moscow, I didn't notice the protocol being any different than in the U.S.. I would find it a bit annoying, though, if the pendulum were to swing too far in the other direction, especially with staff-directed applause.

One thing I would change if you want to reduce the stuffiness quotient? Get rid of the separate concertmaster entrance - that's one bit of easily-disposed-of artifice that I find useless, pretentious and annoying. They dispensed with it in Moscow and Montreal, and somehow orchestras still tuned and concerts started.

I greatly enjoyed Mr. Fogel's article on the demise of "light" classics on subscription programs. His theories on the cause sound entirely reasonable, but I would propose another: despite complaints about an ossified repertoire, since the 1920s we've seen the addition of Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich as regular presences on symphony programs (and these three mostly since the early 1970s). Add in Hindemith, Ravel, Stravinsky and others, and it might account for some of the displacement of lighter works, since those pieces weren't going to displace Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. No doubt orchestras (and conductors) taking themselves more seriously is also a factor.

I'd be interested in seeing some lighter pieces on programs, perhaps juxtaposed with more modern works on some kind of thematic program (e.g. Ligeti-Weinberger-Schonberg-Dukas-Wourinen-Offenbach). I would also like to see more often a program order flipped: instead of overture-concerto-intermission-symphony, do symphony-intermission-concerto-overture/light work. It would emulate some old-time recitals (and the type Itzhak Perlman still does). Most symphony concerts today follow the model Karl Schnabel supposedly described for his recitals: boring in both halves.

Oh, and I LOVE Bach orchestrations, and Weinberger's Schwanda the Bagpiper - which I learned about from a recording with Fritz Reiner and the CSO!

I couldn't agree more about changing the ritualistic atmosphere in the concert hall and starting with applause between movements is first on my list too. Sure there are moments where an initial (even extended) silence is a thrilling response to a work. There are also so many others where a rollicking ovation should be welcome as well.

This is a "no-brainer" and so easy to implement. The average symphony orchestra has numerous professional staff as well as ushers in the hall at any given performance. Direct them lead the applause between movements and your audience will learn the new habit in no time.

You are absolutely right. One of the most moving examples of the right silence after a performance was a Bruckner 7th that Daniel Barenboim conducted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Berlin. Barenboim kept his arms up in a way that everyone understood, then lowered them slowly, and the silence held for a full 25 seconds. It was a moment where silence actually produced goose-bumps. Sadly, sometimes applause that are clearly too early, considering the mood of the music, makes one suspect that the first clapper is trying to demonstrate to everyone that he knows the piece is over. On the other hand, when people want to applaud after an appropriate movement and someone shushes them, I always get the same feeling - that person is trying to show that he knows the piece isn't over. The music really does make clear what is appropriate.

Henry Fogel

I have no problem with people clapping between movements as appropriate. There are many pieces where it feels downright unnatural to sit on my hands after a stirring first movement. I just wish that orchestras could educate people not to clap until the conductor has let down his/her arms. I assume that's what Drew McManus is alluding to in his survey re. an indication from the conductor. I have performed in and attended concerts with works that are incredibly moving and end softly - for example, John Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls." Inevitably some person - no doubt eager to get to his/her car before the rest of the crowd - starts applauding when the conductor's arms are still up. Sometimes the music is still happening very softly, but the audience member isn't concentrating enough to hear it. That for me is the biggest disappointment of early applause.

And this comment is in response to Ben Clapton's posting from earlier today: Obviously this is a subject on which people can legitimately disagree. But given the documentation of practice until the early part of the 20th century, I continue to believe that composers of the 17th, 18th and 19th century generally expected applause between movements. I would agree that it may not always be appropriate; one has to consider the mood of the music that has just concluded and that which is about to begin. But, to give one example, the end of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto seems to me to cry out for applause - and the change in mood between that and the second movement is extreme. To me, lack of applause at that point feels unnatural. But my main point is not even whether one should or should not applaud - it is that those who do applaud should not be treated with derision or scorn, or made to feel inferior for doing so. I continue to believe that very strongly.

Henry Fogel

I've been travelling for the past few days and am just getting caught up with all the comments. This is in response to Larry Fried's comment from March 12: I wrote an article some time ago in Symphony magazine about the disappearance of lighter classics from the repertoire - something I deplore. Here is a link to that article: http://www.symphony.org/news/room/04mj_articles/04mj_lightclassics.pdf

Henry Fogel

I like Fluxus Artist, Richard Hayman's "Cool the Clap" on applause at concerts:
"Applause is Noise Pollution. Think before you clap: Do you beat your hands from habit or peer pressure? Why must every music performance have a manual finale? Wouldn't it be fine to enjoy the quiet after-resonance of music? Doesn't quiet music deserve the respect of a quiet appreciation? Is there a better way of showing gratitude? Aahhhh, hummmmmmmm, throw money? Send your suggestions to: Committe to Limit Applause." submitted by Daniel Goode

Now, I am a "traditionalist" - though Mr Fogel would have me believe otherwise - because I do not want to applaud after movements - only after the work. There are a number of reasons that I do this. First of all, I have been a performer. I know the concentration that is required for an entire work. Just because you've completed one movement, doesn't mean that you can let down your guard. If someone chooses to clap, and the whole audience then joins in, your concentration is broken, and it can take a little while for you to get back into it. Second - despite what Mr Fogel says - I believe that works are intended to be conceived as a whole. Even a work such as Scheherazade, which Mr Fogel claims to be four seperate tone poems, is in itself one tone poem that is split up into four different sections. But there is a common story line that runs through the whole work. Disrupting this through applause is like standing up and cheering during an ad break on the telly. There's still more to go, and it's just going to get better. In Scheherazade, the whole work is building up towards the last movement.

Read the rest of my post at my blog:
Top Left Hand Page - "Applause, Please"

Hmm... clapping is the positive response to what has happened onstage from people who have paid to hear your performance...

Twist my arm, but yes I'll take that!

Henry: how about these pieces which have, alas, almost disappeared from subscription concerts: "Capriccio Italien;" "Finlandia;"
"Capriccio Espagnole;" "The Moldau;" "La Boutique Fantasque." I'm old enough to remember when these were standard rep for every orchestra.

Speaking of overtures, there are tons of them. "Colas Breugnon," anyone?

The wonderful young violinist Timothy Fain opened the Bellevue (Wash.) Philharmonic's 2005-2006 season, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto. He got a standing ovation after the first movement - it stopped the show for 2 minutes. I've never seen anything like it before. People were screaming, cheering. When I mentioned this to a friend, a professional in the music business, he said: "Larry, your audience is so dumb. Don't they know they're not supposed to applaud in between movements?"

Clapping between movements is definitely a thorny issue. I attended many student recitals during my time as a music student at Carnegie Mellon. At the beginning of every recital the recital crew made a speech about not clapping until every set was finished. As an audience member, I always cringed when people would clap between songs because as a singer I know how disturbing this can be, especially when you are trying to tie different songs together to establish a dramatic "mood". I've also seen instances like this in the symphonic arena, with conductors and soloists alike.

In my opinion, I love it when people clap at orchestra concerts, because in general this means there are new people in the hall. I think that we should be encouraging people to clap if they feel moved to, especially those who may be seeing a concert for the first time. First impressions make a huge impact on people's perceptions of the concert experience, and I think that orchestras need to do everything they can to make people's first experiences memorable and enjoyable.

Frederick Starr, the former president of Oberlin College, wrote an article for Symphony Magazine about this topic nearly 20 years ago (S. Frederick Starr, "Why I Applaud Between Movements," Symphony Magazine 39, nos. 5 and 6 (October-November, 1988). In the article, he notes the origin of current classical-concert etiquette.

I really don't care whether people applaud between movements; I don't, if only because I want to conserve my efforts for the end of the piece. I do get really annoyed when people applaud before the final note has dissolved (usually at the opera when the curtain has fallen).

But I really think this applause-between-movements issue is overblown. Nearly every kind of entertainment has its behavioral norms that are known by the "regulars" and are a bit intimidating to newcomers. Rock concerts have their dynamics, jazz concerts (whether in clubs or concert halls) another. Sporting events? There's the national anthem, seventh-inning stretch, etc.. Even trying to order a beer in a bar, if you've never done it before, can be a scary experience. Or dealing with a snooty maitre d' at some high-end restaurant.

I agree that symphony concerts should be taken a little less seriously, and conductors shouldn't be shshing (sp?) applause. But there's a good guide to behavior that most sensible first-timers should be able to follow at any event: wait to see what everyone else does.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on March 9, 2007 4:20 PM.

It is Time for a Change was the previous entry in this blog.

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