We need to revise a lot of what we think we know about classical music and its history. For instance, how the audience behaves. We take for granted our current practice, which of course is that the audience sits silently, not even applauding between movements. Of course, we’re starting to ease up on that — applause between movements doesn’t seem completely forbidden any more.

But what most of us don’t know is how recent our current rules for the audience are. They may date only from the middle of the last century. I’ve made a great fuss about Mozart’s famous letter, about the audience applauding the moment they heard something they liked in his Paris Symphony. But that’s just the tip of this iceberg.

My faithful correspondent Barney Sherman, from KSUI/WSUI in Iowa City, who has educated me about many things, offered these fascinating — and most important — bits of history in an e-mail he sent both to me and Alex Ross. With his permission, here’s what he said (slightly abridged):

1) Re Mahler: I notice this passage from Fred Gaisberg in a Sept. 1944 article for Gramophone, “Recording from Actual Performances,” quoted in the liner notes of the Dutton reissue of the 1938 Mahler 9 by the Vienna Phil led by Walter. Regarding that session, Gaisberg writes, “A switchboard control box was in the charge of the senior engineer, Charlie Gregory, who was advised by a musician who followed the performance with a full score and indicated the traps that had to be avoided, such as sudden forte timpani blows or extreme pianissimos and fortissimos; also when at the end of a movement the current had to be closed off before the applause began.”

Wait –applause in Vienna, less than 30 years after Mahler’s death, at the end of each movement? Of the Ninth?? Led by Walter????  


(2) Oliver Daniel’ s book Stokowski: A Counterpoint of View (New York, 1982)  reveals the true culprit. In chapter 31, which recounts in fascinating detail how Stokowski browbeat the audiences in Philadelphia for arriving late etc., there’s a discussion of applause on pp. 288-89. First, there’s the following, based on the author’s conversation with Henry Pleasants:


“Henry Pleasants remarked, ‘When we go to concerts today and late-comers are not admitted and there is no applause between movements, I think that Stokowski was very largely responsible for that. He objected to applause. He used to say why do they make all that terrible sound and he scared the audience into not applauding between movements and to coming on time and not leaving before the end of the concert, and that was back in the 1920s.'”


Daniel continues, based on Musical America in Nov. 25, 1929, and on Herbert Kupferberg’s Fabulous Philadelphians:


“When the audience burst into spontaneous volleys of applause after the pizzicato movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony during a concert on November 8, 1929, Stoki turned, signaled for silence, and explained that his remarks were not intended as a rebuke for their appreciation. ‘But,’ he added reflectively, ‘I have been considering this matter of applause, a relic from the Dark Ages, a survival of customs at some rite or ceremonial dance in primitive times. When the request program blanks are circulated toward the close of the season I may incorporate a questionnaire on the applause topic and ask for you opinion.’ He then proceeded to conduct the last movement , and as if to show their attitude, the audience again applauded lustily.


“Along with a questionnaire sent out by the management soliciting suggestions for an all-request program that Stokowski would conduct as the last concert of the season, there were ballots on the applause question. Over a thousand were returned: the applauders won by a vote of 710 to 199. When Stoki returned he accepted his defeat gracefully, ‘Thank you for the frankness of your vote,’ he said, ‘I lost. Perhaps you were right. The votes were overwhelmingly in your favor. But it’s still a question whether these sounds are appropriate, and next season I should like to ask you some other questions and have your frank thoughts.'”


If I had a little more patience I’d look up what happened next. But still, it seems enough to support my listener – Stoki, the man I think of as the friend of Garbo and Mickey Mouse, was the man who banned applause between movements. (The listener also put part of the blame on Theodore Thomas, about whom you know a lot more than I ever will. But I couldn’t find any references when I glanced around.) Amazing to hear him call it a relic of “primitive times” – when Robert Philip informs us that even Brahms was not at all surprised or taken aback when the audience applauded immediately after Joachim’s cadenza in the first movement of the violin concerto – while the coda was starting. We don’t even have to go back to Mozart for that.

To which I can add something I just discovered, quite by chance — at the premiere of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in 1869, the audience roared with delight when they heard the first-movement cadenza.


All of which suggests a curious, tricky question. Are we hearing the music the way the composers intended, if we don’t applaud in the middle of it? This is tricky because of many issues. Can we ever hear a piece music the way it was heard a hundred or two hundred years ago? And if we think it’s good to allow performers lots of freedom, doesn’t that include the right to do what the composers might never have intended — which, paradoxically, might include the right to ask for silence in music that, when first composed, was never heard silently?

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