Thursday, January 21, 2010

To Clap or Not to Clap

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?


Anonymous said...

After last Friday's concert, I wrote a post for CLASSICAL JOURNAL with much the same title and with similar historical background. However, with my finger poised on the mouse button ready to hit "publish," I chickened out. Did I really want to open the inevitable can of worms? So, thank you for the can opener.

Although there are those that seek to justify applause between movements with specious historical claims, or with the belief that it is some kind of populist uprising against the evil elitists of culture, it is not. My personal view is that applause is a distraction to the coherence and continuity of the performance, not only for possibly the orchestra and conductor, but also for the listeners. I've got no problem with wild, maniacal, or extended expressions of approval (or disapproval), but save it for the very end and avoid inadvertently affecting the momentum of the performance.

I sat next to a first-timer at the concert last week who indicated that the concert was not at all stuffy or restricting as he had been led to believe. People were dressed in everything from evening gowns to jeans. And he clearly understood how interrupting a performance with applause could be distracting, just as talking or rattling candy wrappers would be. It's just a matter of respect for others who want to perform or hear the music intact--not an attempt to enforce formality or subject anyone to arbitrary rules.
--Alan Sherrod

Robyn Allegra said...

My feelings are similar to Mr. Sherrod's--I do not enjoy applause between movements because of the break in continuity.

As a performer I am always conflicted when members of an audience clap before a work is over. I'm happy that they like what they hear but I don't like interruptions. I know I've been guilty of a few rude glances into the darkness of the house... I just try to remind myself of what Katy said--the applause might mean that we have a new audience member!

Rebecca Henry said...

While in a Music Aesthetics course at UT, we read something Debussy said about applause: "a genuine appreciation of beauty can only result in silence," and applause could even be unnatural. But, like Katy said, that would be unnatural for the performer! but only at the end of the work. If it happened consistently, a program note about holding applause wouldn't offend me as an old (or new) concert-goer.

KSO blogger Katy Gawne said...

I can completely understand how applause between movements irritates and distracts some people. I just don't happen to be one of them. To me there are some pieces that cry out for applause in the middle. The end of the first movement of the Brahms violin concerto is one of them. Now, if I attended a performance, would I be the first to start the applause? No, but sitting in silence after that big ending feels completely unnatural to me.

My biggest concern is that we don't alienate our audience. They are, after all, writing our paycheck. Glaring at the audience member who rustles a candy wrapper, forgot to turn off his cell phone, or claps between movements of a symphony is something that we've all been guilty of. Answering rudeness (whether intentional or not) with rudeness is never productive.

Alan, I'm glad that the 1st timer you sat near at last weeks concert had a nice time.

Anonymous said...

Overwhelmingly, it is the concert novices who applaud between movements, simply because they probably equate all types of music performance and believe that they should applaud when a piece appears to be over to show their satisfaction. However, classical and contemporary works with movements are unique in that they are more than just a collection of individual tunes. They are works that deserve to be played and listened to in their entirety. Most rational people, when asked to wait till the end for applause, have no problem at all with it. Granted, the end of the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto is a big finish that could say “I’m done” to someone unfamiliar with the music—or someone unwilling to read the program.

As far as “rules,” every art has them, like it or not. Shouting “rock and roll!” at a rock concert won’t gain you a second look, but shouting “jazz” at jazz concert might seem a little odd. People don’t wave their lighters at a Bob Dylan concert, and few people wear tuxes to play salsa. I don’t run my finger across oil paintings in a museum, or play with a contemporary installation unless the artist has invited it. So why should we dumb down a concert performance merely out of fear of “alienating” a paying customer? There are ways of being audience friendly and informal without sacrificing the performance.

As far as equating audiences and performance practice of the 18th or 19th century with that of today, I just don’t buy the argument. Today, there are many more kinds of entertainment and genres (and sub-genres) of music than existed then. To pretend that nothing has changed is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I was embarrassed that I clapped after the 1st movement. I did know better, but I got confused thinking that it was the end. It truly is one of my favorite pieces of music and the reason I came. I spent a good part of the concert wrapped up in that shame at interrupting the flow and , also, at showing my confusion. So I appreciated reading the idea to give people a break.

But, instruction isn't bad "there will be 2 movements to this piece." Obviously I will read the program to program myself.


Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra said...

Our community orchestra has education as one of its goals. Performance etiquette should be included in education. It does irk some of the musicians and audience members to hear between movement clapping, but as Robyn said, it means that we have new audience member. Classical music has been around for ages everyone's heard it, but not everyone has experienced it.

We are performing both Carmen Suites this Saturday (so there will be many opportunities for clapping). We hope through program notes, 'veteran' fan prodding and after concert chat we can illuminate and not scold.

Mark's Ephemera said...

I'm on the fence about clapping or not between movements. Protocol says that I shouldn't, but sometimes the music moves me so much that I want to.

If I attend a Béla Fleck and the Flecktones concert and I'm moved my a Victor Wooton solo, I'll probably clap. But that music almost is an instantaneous creation and my response to it. Sure, there is a framework of chords that he plays with, but the same song on the next night might produce very different results.

To my ear, the music that is performed at a symphonic concert doesn't allow for that much artistic creativity on the musicians' part. They are following the conductor, who has in his (or her) mind what the piece should sound like and coaxes the music from the musicians. Not that the musicians aren't talented. They are. Extremely. But I know that I'm listening to a whole piece, not just movements. So I wait to express my gratitude and appreciation.

Now, what if the musicians play Movements 1, 3, and 4 of a work, leaving out (for whatever reason) Movements 2, 5, and 6? Is the audience allowed to clap? It is not being presented in the intended manner of the composer. Are all rules off?

Next thing you know they'll be combining music with spoken word on top of it. Egads! It is okay "step on the music" with poetry and verse but not to clap after the audience is moved?

Let's hope that we soon not see that day come to the KSO.

I will abide by the societal norms that say we don't clap between movements. But I'd also like to see a big red APPLAUSE sign that can light up over Maestro Richman's podium when it is okay.

(And yes, part of that was tongue in cheek. I'll be attending the Shakespeare in Love performance as part of the Blogger's Night on Thursday.)