Our Masterworks concert last Friday caused quite a stir amongst us musicians. The audience applauded between each and every movement during the concert. They even made the review in the News Sentinel. This sparked a somewhat heated backstage debate on audience etiquette. Musician's opinions on the subject fell on a wide spectrum from some really enjoying applause between movements to others who couldn't stand it and felt the symphony should post signs instructing audiences to wait. Who knew applause could be so controversial?!
The practice of holding applause until the end of a multi-movement work is relatively young. In fact, up until the late 1800's, it was common practice not only to applaud between movements but also to clap DURING the movement. Composers rejoiced with audience applause and were upset when it was withheld. The seeds of silence seem to have been planted in the late 1800's with the premier of Wagner's Parsifal when the singers agreed not to take a curtain call to avoid disrupting the flow of the opera. Mahler also played a role by policing claques, which essentially were people paid to enthusiastically applaud often to the point of disrupting the performance. (At that time, people were also paid to laugh, cry and boo. Guest artists were often exhorted to pay a fee to the concert house to avoid having the booing audience present at their performance.)
But perhaps the biggest champion of squelching audience applause between movements was Leopold Stokowski in the 1930's. Actually, Stokowski was opposed to applause at any time during the concert. He felt it was as absurd to applaud at a concert as it would be to stand in front of a great work of visual art and applaud. It was such a hot topic that eventually the Philadelphia audience was put to a vote. Applause overwhelmingly won out.
The practice of not applauding between movements was slow to spread and didn't really take hold until the 1950's. I haven't been able to find out why that happened at that time. Perhaps people were becoming accustomed to silence between movements through the recordings they were playing at home. I think another real possibility is that it was a way that classical music could distinguish itself as being more civilized than the emerging popular music of the day.
Personally, applause between movements doesn't really bother me. To me, "inapproprate" applause means that we have new audience members (yay!) who will hopefully come back. Besides, I don't really understand how you can be upset with someone who is paying you a compliment. Audiences applaud out of appreciation. I can't imagine anything much worse than getting to the end of a performance and standing up to stony silence. Likewise, if I were an audience member who was glared at for applauding I would not be likely to return for another performance.
In my view, rules such as this are a major contributor to the decline of classical music. Going to a concert shouldn't be a difficult experience fraught with random unspoken rules. The thing I hear most from people who have never attended a symphony concert is that they are intimidated. Symphonies around the country have tried to combat this by offering blue jeans concerts, rush hour concerts, concerts of lite classics, etc, etc, etc. This is a good start, but I don't think there will be a true mass cross-over of audience until the unspoken rules of concert-going are either clearly defined or abolished.
What do you think about applause between movements? Is it a random rule or does it serve a purpose?