The power of history

The hurricane is on my mind — the devastation in NY and NJ, which (though this is a minor part of it) hits me, even while I’m safe in Washington. I go to NY weekly, and my normal transportation (for a three-pronged trip, between DC, NY, and my home in Warwick, NY) just isn’t available. I’ll cope, while my heart goes out to people whose problems are much worse.

And meanwhile…

One problem we have, when we try to imagine the future of classical music, is that we don’t know enough about its past. Take something that ought to be simple — the age of the classical music audience. I’d always assumed, like many other people, that the audience going back generations had been the age it is now. But then I found studies from the past, showing that in fact the audience used to be much younger. And I realized there was endless anecdotal evidence pointing the same way.

You can find my work on that here. But there’s so much else we don’t know. Take, for instance, the idea that applause should come only after the end of a piece, and never after each movement. We’re starting to change our view of this, but where did the idea come from? When did we embrace it?

It’s easy to see that the prohibition has to be, in historical terms, fairly recent, since we know that people applauded during the music during the 18th and some of the 19th century, and that they even talked while music was performed. But when did we stop applauding between movements? A famous scene in E.M Forster’s 1904 novel Howard’s End shows — as well as a very young audience — people applauding between movements without a thought that this might be wrong.

So the prohibition came in after 1904. Richard Schickcl, in his 1960 book The World of Carnegie Hall, says very briefly that the rule didn’t become more or less universal until the 1950s. When I read that, I wondered where he got that — most likely from his own observation, I thought, but I wanted to know more.

Finally i’ve found more data. It’s from a 1951 book by John H. Mueller, The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste. I’ve found that old books on classical music can open a window on times so different from ours that we might be in another universe. And here, on page 357, Mueller tells us about when people applauded:

The growing tendency to consider a symphony as one continuous number, which should not be interrupted by applause, first became a matter of editorial comment in American musical journalism about 1925. Some conductors, notably Stokowski, Toscanini, and Koussevitzky during the thirties, aroused controversy by their insistence on abolishing such interim applause. These new manners have not yet found complete acceptance among all audiences, and listeners are frequently beset by uncertainty unless the gestures of the conductor at the close of a movement are unambiguous.

The contemporary public objection most commonly heard is that the uninterrupted symphony is a pretty long endurance test. This is balanced by the conductor’s claim that applause breaks the spell and snaps the continuity of an integrated whole. It should be observed that intermediary applause has long been deteriorating into the merely perfunctory. In the nineteenth century individual movements were considered units in themselves, individually applauded and individually encored. But in more recent times, no audience has considered the pause between movements as anything more than minor punctuation marks; applause at this point has become a vestigial convention without much meaning, often downright embarrassing in its listlessness. The conductors who wish to eliminate it are only pruning what has already withered away.

That seems entirely convincing. Not applauding after each movement became a subject of discussion in the 1920s, and in 1951 seemed on its way to becoming the general rule, though it hadn’t yet been fully enforced.

Knowing these things, I think, frees us. If we know how classical music has changed in the past, we’ll more easily see how much it can change in the future. Mueller’s picture — of an audience thinking it ought to applaud at the end of each movement, but not fully sure that was right — is worth its weight in gold.

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  1. Joe Bates says

    Hi Greg,

    I’m doing a lot of work on this type of thing at the moment for my dissertation. Your work has been a very helpful jumping off point!

    A friend of mine is doing their dissertation on modes of reception in classical and jazz, so may get some good stuff about the history of applauds. I could forward you both when we’re done?

    • says

      Hi, Joe. Nice to hear from you. Please do forward, connect us, whatever. I’d love to know more, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.

  2. Karstein says

    Interesting scene from the Forster novel. Also interesting that they (the audience) are talking and discussing the music between the movements.
    Wasn’t it Mahler who famously didn’t like applause between movements? Maybe indicating that it was normal in his time.

    • says

      Mahler surely was the kind of superserious musician who’d want a symphony listened to in perfect silence. I wonder what Wagner thought. I know he objected when people applauded during Das Rheingold. Which is fascinating to know, because it means that people _did_ applaud in the middle of that opera, even though the music doesn’t stop.

      Forster wrote wonderfully about music. In one of his early novels, there’s a scene at a small Italian opera house. During the first scene of Lucia di Lammermoor, people in the audience shout hello to their friends in the chorus onstage.

      • says

        I like this story from Alex Ross’s book “Listen to This” (page 12): “At the premiere of Parsifal, in 1882, Wagner requested that there be no curtain calls for the performers, in order to preserve the rapt atmosphere of his “sacred festival play.” The audience interpreted this instruction as a general ban on applause. Cosima Wagner, the composer’s wife, described in her diary what happened at the second performance: ‘After the first act there is a reverent silence, which has a pleasant effect. But when, after the second, the applauders are again hissed, it becomes embarrassing.’ Two weeks later, listeners rebuked a man who yelled out “Bravo!” after the Flower Maidens scene. They did not realize that they were hissing the composer. The Wagnerians were taking Wagner more seriously than he took himself–an alarming development.”

        • says

          I love that story, John. Read it long ago in Cosima’s diaries. Thanks for sharing it here. Reminds me of another story, about Mendelssohn and his reaction to Donizetti. Daughter of the Regiment was playing in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn’s friends were outraged at what they thought was cheap Italian music. So they outdid each other at denouncing it to him. But (according to a British writer who was present) Mendelssohn answered, “Oh, but I like it! It’s so funny, and the tunes are so lovely.” Or something like that. I guess the old expression “more royalist than the king” covers a lot of these situations.

    • Scott Lindroth says

      At the end of the first movement of the Resurrection Symphony Mahler writes “here follows a silence of at least five minutes.” I heard Bernstein attempt it with the NYP in 1987.

      • says

        I love that marking in the score. Clearly the first movement is supposed to be so overwhelming that the silence will be not just justified, but necessary. What happened when Bernstein tried it?

  3. Laurence Glavin says

    As I began listening to “classical” music, first on FM radio during live concerts and then after I got my first car, in the concert hall itself (Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA at first because it was more convenient than Symphony Hall, then I took the leap to Symphony Hall later) , non-applause after individual movements was the norm of course and it seemed as natural as breathing. One piece that ALWAY incurred inter-movemental (is there such a word? ) was Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony’s third movement, because it whips up so much enthusiasm from audiences. Many concertos (I pluralize it this because it’s the customary English word for the genre) cause audiences to applaud because the cadenza occurs just before the end of the first movement, and is usually followed by an orchestra flourish. It’s possible that Mendelssohn indicates that some of his symphonies and concertos should be played uninterruptedly just to keep the audiences of his time from applauding in the “wrong” place. It may be why Brahms put the cadenza of his Double Concerto near the beginning. I would have it no other way, but then again I have no influence anywhere, not even on my cat.

    • Herbert Pauls says

      Recalling comments of how audience members spontaneously broke into immediate applause when Mozart dispatched a particularly exciting passage, I cannot imagine how slightly later performer-composers like Mendelssohn or Brahms were necessarily trying to forestall immediate audience reaction simply by connecting movements or putting a cadenza earlier.

      Or take Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. I am willing to bet that the opening cadenzas were met with at least a smattering of immediate applause in the early 19th C.

      Even after a cadenza situated toward the end of a movement, earlier audiences probably did not always, strictly speaking, wait until the very end of the movement to make a move. There may have been reactions during the cadenza itself, or certainly at the final trill or flourish that signaled the re-entry of the orchestra (just as live opera audiences still do not always want to wait until the final chord of an exciting aria has died away).

      This is a great topic and I love it when Greg Sandow takes it up from time to time because it relates directly to how we developed our idea of “classic” or “classical” music – objects of veneration to contemplate silently rather than something to interact with directly (and maybe lose some control and get them a little “dirty” in the process!).

      A closely related topic that would be interesting for this blog would be more discussion of the “urtext” mentality (scores somewhat antiseptically scrubbed free of any sign of human involvement – i.e. performance history – after they were written.) How did that worthy goal (fine in itself) influence the way we ended up performing classical scores? Should we be encouraging students and professional performers to monkey with the text a little more, and even occasionally dispense with their latest Bärenreiters. Does training musicians to be overly respectful of the score still inhibit the re-growth of improvisation in the contemporary performance of older classic music? Improvisation was, after all, something that all of the old classical masers were completely fluent at and probably practiced on a daily basis. Something to ponder, at any rate.

      • says

        Very good thoughts, Herbert. Even in the 19th century, audiences often applauded the moment they heard something they liked. The cadenza of the Brahms violin concerto, in the first movement, was applauded at the premiere. When Beethoven’s symphonies began being performed regularly in Paris, sometime in the 1820s, the audience would sometimes gasp audibly, or cry out, at striking passages. An account from Germany talks about the violinists in the orchestra making eye contact with the audience during downward scales in the finale of the fifth symphony.

        Good point about the urtext. It can be fascinating to find out what composers originally intended — for instance, that the orchestration of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri was more shrill originally than the version we’ve normally heard. But on the other hand, the veneration of the urtext also becomes another way that classical music is reified — turned into an icon of itself. We lose the gut impact the composers intended, while we worship the added staccato dots we’ve learned should have been on three notes in the viola part.

        And of course a lot of things changed in performance, or were improvised. Beethoven used to add a lower octave, sometimes, to the bass in his piano sonatas, when he played them. So much for the urtext! And orchestral musicians would improvise. Once at the NY City Opera, a conductor urged the orchestra to improvise during a performance of Don Giovanni. This wasn’t announced publicly, but I went to the show, and heard a wonderful flute trill during Leporello’s first act aria that’s not in the score. I inquired, and found that the conductor was delighted that I’d noticed the trill, and had, as I said, encouraged the players to add such things.

        So concentration on the urtext actually leads us away from the composers’ intentions, which (at least before the 19th century) were to have a lively performance, with a lot of freewheeling changes.

  4. says

    . . . and in Paris, Mozart loved that audiences applauded during the music, particularly when things went quickly from soft to loud and back. Knowing this, Mozart wrote the finale to his Paris Symphony (no. 31) in such a way that invited the audience to applaud during the abrupt changes in dynamic. In a letter to his father Leopold (I believe), Mozart reported the audience responded just as he had hoped — wild applause, while the music was still going.

    • says

      Nice to see you here! I love that letter of Mozart’s, and I assign it to my students in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. It was indeed to his father, and has a fascinating context. Mozart’s trip to Paris was the first time he’d left home without his dad to shepherd him. He did have his mother along, to keep him out of trouble. Before the Paris Symphony letter, there’d been an exchange between Wolfgang and Leopold, more or less to this effect:

      Leopold: For God’s sake, Wolfgang, this is your big chance! Don’t blow it. Don’t write fancy music. Find out what they like in Paris, and write exactly that.

      Wolfgang: I don’t have to write down to their level. I can write music they’ll like, and at the same time add things that only sophisticates will notice. I can do both things at once.

      The letter about the symphony was, in this context, Wolfgang’s vindication. “See, Dad?” (This is the unspoken meaning of what he wrote.) “I did it. I wrote the symphony I wanted to write, and also put in some things especially for the audience. And they loved it!”

      He also talks about a passage in the first movement that he knew would please, so he repeated it, and brought it in at the end of the movement one last time. And sure enough, the audience applauded. During the music, of course.

      Three footnotes. The end of the letter about the symphony is a classic, in my view. Wolfgang says that after the successful performance, he went out and had an ice, and then went home, because after all what he wants is to live a Christian, God-fearing life. Or words to that effect. Translation: I didn’t go out and play around with girls.

      Second: The impresario who commissioned the piece saw Mozart later on, and told him that the second movement had been too complicated. Wolfgang obediently wrote a simpler movement to replace it. That’s why the Paris Symphony has two slow movements. And so maybe Wolfgang’s success wasn’t as great as he’d thought.

      Third, and very sadly: His mother got sick and died during his stay in Paris. So the entire visit had to be tinged with unhappy thoughts.

  5. Anthony Princiotti says


    I’ve tried the 5 minute silence on a couple of occasions when conducting the Mahler 2nd, and it just doesn’t work, for practical reasons. First of all, even though the 2nd is one of those pieces that can literally change a person’s outlook on music, and even life itself, the instruction is a bit of a manifestation of Mahler’s megalomania (and this is coming from someone who is not only a bit of a Mahler fanatic, but became one as a result of playing in a performance of the piece in my teens; it completely changed my life path).

    I see Mahler envisioning that after 21 minutes of struggle between heaven and hell, the uneasy faux-calm of C-Major that sets in near the end that is soured by the nasty E-to-E-flat/Major-to-minor shift in the Trumpets and Oboes (like the motto in the 6th), the mocking, nihilistic fortissimo chromatic scale that rushes downwards and leaves nothing but a couple of final pizzicato heart-pulses before complete blackout, that Mahler could well have assumed that everyone would be so shattered that they would have NEEDED five minutes to recover. But of course, that’s not the case, given the diversity of the way people experience things, and in a utilitarian sense, the fact that the piece is now a mainstream repertoire makes the experience of playing/singing/conducting/listening to it a bit less apocalyptic.

    When I’ve tried to observe the five minute pause, I’ve found that the silence can be held for about 30 to 45 seconds before it starts to be broken by audience noise (program booklet shuffling, coughing, feet shuffling, you name it). And getting an orchestra/choral ensemble that large to not only remain silent for a full five minutes, but also to remain visually “quiet” is next to impossible. And once this subtle commotion starts, a certain sort of “ok, isn’t it time to get things rolling again?/what are they doing? atmosphere can develop that is vaguely impatience-inducing, and definitely not the sort of atmosphere you want for setting up the lovely A-flat major Landler that follows.

    The most absurd attempt at this I ever saw was in a performance of the piece by the Boston Symphony in Carnegie Hall, with Ozawa conducting. After finishing the first movement, he stepped off the podium and sat in a chair that had been placed in the space between the 2nd violins and cellos (they were using the standard BSO setup Koussevitzky implemented, with the cellos on the inside and the violas on the outside). Shortly after he sat down, the orchestra started to noodle/warm-up individually in the manner that precedes an orchestra’s tuning. And of course the audience joined the din by talking. After what I assume where five minutes, Ozawa stood up, everyone quieted down, and they began the 2nd movement. The whole thing struck me as oddly symbolic of Ozawa’s tenure with the BSO. I’m guessing that his observing Mahler’s instruction was something he considered an imperative example of his deep devotion to Mahler, and to music. But that devotion took place in a weird bubble, and it wasn’t transmitted to the orchestra.

    In spite of his megalomania, Mahler was a very practical musician, and we know that he was concerned about “seams showing” when he decided to make his tone-poem “Totenfeier” the first movement of a symphony; he supposedly felt the change in atmosphere from the first to the second movement would be jarring, and that the second movement might sound trivial in that context. I think that a pause of about a minute makes the transition work. It’s also the only real opportunity for a between-movements pause in the piece, as all the other movements are begun attacca from the previous.

    Finally, I’ve seen different iterations of this instruction. For instance, I have an old score in which it says (translating) “There should be a pause of AT LEAST (caps mine) five minutes”. And my favorite is “Pause five minutes here for serious thought”.


    Tony Princiotti
    Dartmouth College

    • says

      Bless you for this, Tony. So good to have so much practical info about how this pause works. Or, rather, mostly doesn’t. The Ozawa story makes me both laugh, and cringe. I agree that it shows how unfocused (to use a kind word) his leadership was for too many years of his BSO reign. More simply, it’s a jaw-dropping case of obeying the letter, and missing the spirit.

      But more generally about a five-minute pause: I’ve been at performances of Cage’s 4’33” (and maybe you have) where a nearly five-minute silence not only worked, but was magical. I did a performance of the piece myself (more on that later), for a non-specialist audience, one not familiar with Cage, and it worked.

      And of course an audience of meditators (or Quakers) wouldn’t have a problem sitting still, with inward focus, for five minutes. So in principle, or under some circumstances, the five-minute pause could work. (Leaving out questions of whether the performance of the first movement would justify the long silence. Your point about the repertory status of the piece is well-taken — the more the symphony becomes a known quantity, something regularly encountered without much surprise, the less sense a five-minute silence might make.)

      I would then wonder what might be done to make the pause work, without thoughts of Cage and without many meditators present. I can imagine a conductor — one with great inward authority — preparing both the audience and the orchestra, saying in advance that there would be a long pause, in which it would be good to sit silently and contemplate what had been heard.

      The conductor — and I think this is crucial — would then have to lead the silence, by maintaining some kind of authoritative stillness with her body language. The pause might not want to last five minutes. The conductor should gauge that as the time passes, and end the pause whenever it starts to feel uncomfortable. It’s easy enough to sense such things from the audience.

      I’ve certainly seen conductors do amazing things with body language. Giuseppe Patane hushing a full house — of people who mostly weren’t watching him! — at the Metropolitan Opera with one simple gesture from the pit, when he thought there had been applause at an inappropriate place. Hans Vonk in Carnegie Hall, holding an audience absolutely still (I’d swear there was barely a breath taken), while he paused between the third and fourth movements of Beethoven 7. Or Ozawa, in a Boston performance I was at, holding a magical stillness with his body, before the last movement of Mahler 3. (Sadly, that was the only magical moment, and also the only commanding one, in the performance.)

      Whether these things could be done for five minutes is another question, of course.

      Though here’s my experience. At one time, I hosted and helped program a concert series with the Pittsburgh Symphony, aimed at the proverbial new audience. I had the idea, at one concert, of doing the shortest of the Webern Five Pieces for Orchestra, followed by the Cage silent piece, and then a repeat of the Webern.

      What I told the audience was that the true difficulty of the Webern piece wasn’t that it was atonal, but that it was so very short. By the time we quieted our minds enough to listen, it was over. The question, then, was whether a long and meditative silence before the piece would help us to listen better.

      Of course I also explained what Cage had in mind. I have to say that both the audience and the orchestra took this seriously, and maintained a very fine silence. I had people from the audience tell me later how much they’d enjoyed sitting silently, though of course some didn’t like it.

      This suggests to me that a five-minute silence is doable, if everyone understands why it’s happening. Of course, doing the Cage is in a way a special case, because the silence is now organized, so to speak — it’s not simply a silence. It’s now an enterprise.

      Very good to think about these things, Tony. Thanks so much for opening a space for them.