Clapping between movements
November 16, 2011 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Re the decline of applause at symphony concerts: are there any classical/symphonic works that are still regularly applauded between movements, whether by convention or by spontaneous upwelling of feeling?
posted by flechsig to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a New York Times article from 2008 discussing the tradition through history, which in turn references this book.

According to these sources, major performer/composers such as Liszt would have been offended had there NOT been applause between movements. Of course, they were operating in a salon setting, particularly one tied to the cult of the performer.

The main exception (which may not fall under your criteria) is that in opera, individual arias and segments are still applauded. At a major opera house, with major performers doing legendary arias, the applause can last long enough to disrupt the flow of the work, and some performers may discreetly (or not-so-discreetly) acknowledge the audience. The biggest recent disruption I can think of is when Juan Diego Florez sang the "nine high Cs" aria ("Ah, mes amis") in La Fille du Régiment at the Met (NYTimes). I believe he actually performed it again because the clapping was so wild.

Similarly, check out this post for an account of a rare encore of "Va pensiero" -- definitely due to an upswelling of feeling.

I think some oratorios, such as the Messiah, might be more relaxed in their clapping standards, particularly due to the length. I want to say that I've experienced it both ways, but I'm not sure.
posted by Madamina at 9:50 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I sing with the Houston Symphony, and yeah, this sometimes happens, but I've not observed such spontaneous emotive applause. I've only ever observed pieces that are written deceptively. For example, Arnie Roth recently conducted a multimedia performance of music from the Final Fantasy video game series with the symphony. Several of these pieces - very dramatic - have false ends. The audience, already very excited for the subject matter (because they're fans of the games), applauded exactly where they thought the end was. Unfortunately, there's a pianissimo a cappella coda immediately following that false end. So through the roar of the crowd, we had to barrel right through and keep the pitch or instead of ending with energy and bravado... we'd end on an atonal clusterfuck of disaster.

That said, there are some well-documented recent-ish "classical music riots" which might fit the bill for this type of behavior. That said, classical music riots are relatively rare in history.

I suspect as Madamina suspects, that this is more common with opera repertoire, but may have some spillover into symphonic repertoire that is opera-like. (Think: Verdi's Requiem.) I haven't personally observed this, but it doesn't strike me as an impossibility. When we did Verdi last winter, the applause was instantaneous and thunderous and the ovation was very very long, but nobody interrupted the piece.

Finally, it all depends on the audience. We regularly have educational concerts where there is a relatively young audience that doesn't understand the applause conventions and therefore applauds between movements. Adult audiences do this from time to time, but very rarely and usually it is limited to individuals.
posted by jph at 9:56 AM on November 16, 2011

I don't know if this post (by Alex Ross, author of the popular book The Rest Is Noise) has the answer, but you might find it interesting. Sample:
Here is everything I have been able to discover about the history of applause between movements of symphonies and concertos . . .

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause. . . .

It’s not surprising that conductors were intent on stamping out spontaneous clapping. To refrain from applause heightens focus on the personality of the conductor. Silence is the measure of the unbreakable spell that Maestro is supposedly casting on us. A big ovation at the end salutes his mastery of the architecture of the work, or whatever. Whereas a burst of applause after a first movement or a Scherzo is probably inspired by a soloist’s brilliant playing, or by a powerful collective effort by the musicians, or by the infectious energy of the music itself. . . .

I have never heard a practicing musician say that applause between movements breaks concentration. Emanuel Ax, for one, says that the absence of applause sometimes makes him uncomfortable. As a listener, I don’t need total silence to help me to understand the music, even less to register its emotional impact. To the contrary, I find this ponderous silence forced, unsettling, and in places absolutely anti-musical, as after the big movements of concertos. It’s crazy for three thousand people to sit in Carnegie Hall contemplating Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if it were some Buddhist monument, rather than a rousing, passionate entertainment.
He quotes the conductor Pierre Monteux, who said:
I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements or a concerto or symphony. I don’t know where the habit started, but it certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions. Of course applause should be spontaneous, not dutiful, but often it is the most natural thing to applaud between movements.
posted by John Cohen at 9:59 AM on November 16, 2011

I recently went to the symphony and actually felt compelled to break out in applause in between movements. I didn't, but a few others did and I caught some others in the audience giving dirty looks to those persons. I wish I had because frankly, one of the middle movements was better than the last one.

Very interesting that applauding between movements used to be the standard. I wouldn't mind if they brought that back.
posted by superfille at 10:11 AM on November 16, 2011

Our MD, imported from So Cal, specifically encourages his Canadian audience to applaud whenever they want. It's been a tough slog for four years but people are starting to feel a little okay about showing some support after particularly good movements. He makes a point of turning around and smiling when that happens to encourage it. People are standing a little less frequently too (80% instead of 95%) which is also great.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:32 AM on November 16, 2011

I agree with John Cohen that an environment that inhibits applause is anti-musical. Classical music is a niche world that's unfortunately perceived as stuffy and rule-bound. It's really sad. People who might otherwise enjoy the concerts get turned off by what they see as an exclusionary, elitist culture that'll pounce on you if you clap in the wrong place. The thing is - some audience members are pompous assholes who congratulate themselves on knowing the protocol, and they unfortunately perpetuate the notion that you have to know all the rules before you can take part in the music.

This hideous attitude is only ever taken by non-musicians in my experience. The artists (I get to interview them in my job) are always unpretentious and real and warm. They don't care about this stuff. They want the audience to enjoy the music. That's all, and they LOVE it when people applaud in between movements.

Symphony orchestras especially are under the gun to attract new audience members all the time - it's vital, because their older ticket holders are dying (lol!). Any sign of newcomers in the audience is cause for rejoicing.

I saw a violin concerto performed recently by an exciting violinist, and the audience broke into enthusiastic applause after the first movement. I had the chance to chat with the conductor after, and I asked him how the violinist had reacted to that.

He said, "Oh, he loved it! When the audience applauds in between movements, in means they're new!"
posted by cartoonella at 10:32 AM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh - in answer to the OP's question - I'd say the first movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto regularly gets applause, at least in my town :)
posted by cartoonella at 10:36 AM on November 16, 2011

Actually, my question was prompted, in part, by the Ross thing, the New York Times article, also Terry Teachout, and a few other pleas for restoring the convention. I find the idea charming (and like superfille recently had to suppress an urge to applaud between movements). Maybe I should rephrase my question like this: what pieces include individual movements that are so much more impressive than the rest of the work that they SHOULD be applauded separately? -- individual movements I and superfille could get away applauding to, and to hell with the philistines. The first movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto is likely. Maybe, say, the first movement of Mahler's 3rd...
posted by flechsig at 11:55 AM on November 16, 2011

It's not quite the same as applauding between movements, but I can recall Rene Pape at Dorothy Chandler asking the audience to hold its applause between individual lieder and to allow him to finish each set before applauding (that is, before intermission the audience was lustily applauding at the end of each individual song and Pape was looking deeply pained--and after the intermission someone came onto the PA and asked the audience to refrain from applauding). It was interesting, because the program was not entirely made up of established song cycles; in some cases he'd just assembled a little group of miscellaneous lieder, but was still clearly very troubled by interstitial applause.

Here in Southern California I have often noticed audiences applauding after the first movement (especially if it ends in a rousing way) and thereafter saving their applause for the end. I'm not sure if this is because only half the audience is applauding and the rest of the audience twigs that this is not the "proper" thing to do or if it is an emerging tradition.

As someone who goes regularly to ballet, opera and classical concerts I find the radically different applauding customs amusing. Everything one might say about why one "naturally" does one thing or the other at one venue gets exposed as pure convention at the other. Why applaud a wonderful aria any more/less than a brilliant cadenza? On the other hand, I do, personally, rather like the hushed anticipation of that silence between movements--it's a rather unique experience where we get to recapitulate silently what we've just heard and anticipate what we're about to hear.
posted by yoink at 11:57 AM on November 16, 2011

I hadn't thought about that, yoink, and I don't know why, because I'm a singer myself. (Love Rene Pape!)

Especially in a solo recital (at least with current performance practice -- see my Liszt example above), the performer carries so much responsibility for the success of the performance on his or her shoulders. Think about "being in the zone" as an athlete. Would you want someone to take your focus out of that?

The spots between the songs were where Pape could recharge his batteries, get the words of the prior song out of his head, get the next ones in as well. Even if he made up this set himself, he has practiced the set as-is over and over. He knows he can't let his guard down until he gets fully offstage. His physicality, even the length of his non-singing breaths and the way he stands -- whether he holds out an arm or rests it on the piano -- are all part of his concentration and preparation.

Clapping gets his internal rhythm off because he is forced to acknowledge the audience's appreciation -- something he didn't and couldn't prepare for, since he can't know how much people will clap! He likely assumes a character while he sings (even in lieder, such as the Dichterliebe -- sung by a poet). So if people clap, he has two choices. He can stand still, thus risking being stuck in the same position (neutral or otherwise) for as long as his audience chooses to clap; alternately, he can "relax" and smile/bow/nod, again for as long as his audience claps. And of course if he acknowledges them, they might get even more excited and keep on clapping.

Either way, it breaks his character, and the rhythm he has set for himself. It's like being in a play when someone flubs a line: whether you keep on going or wait for the person to catch up again, you're still jarred, because your control of the situation has slipped away and you don't know what else could throw you off around the corner.

Clearly, this matters much more in a more intimate context (one or two performers, instead of an orchestra). Even when you're dealing with a concerto performer playing with an orchestra, the soloist will likely have a longer break and more time to collect him or herself.


Now, I'm not saying that this is the CORRECT way of treating it. But, as a singer, I can see why that might mess with things.
posted by Madamina at 12:13 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Love Rene Pape

Oh man--what a voice! And what a complete artist. I do want to stress that I wasn't at all suggesting that Pape was out of line in the concert I described above--just offering a counterpoint to the idea that performers are always happy to welcome applause during the silent bits.

Thanks, by the way, for your account of this from a singer's POV.
posted by yoink at 12:46 PM on November 16, 2011

Like someone else above, I've only seen it be commonplace at operas after a particularly rousing or demanding aria.

Personally, I rarely clap until the end. Not because of convention, but because I'm not there to clap; I'm there to listen. And I don't go to classical concerts to hear people clap any more than I go to hear them cough. (I don't scream or sing along at rock concerts either, so I guess I'm an outlier).
posted by coolguymichael at 12:53 PM on November 16, 2011

Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony, third movement, every time I've played it audience go nuts or really WANT to go nuts at the end. It's sad, because it IS FUN I want the audience to let go an clap sometimes.

And I love it when I give a big whistle at the end of a piece and some granny turns around gives me a snooty look. Because I know her life is dull, and mine is full of expressing enjoyment.

To derail a little.... I do hate the opposite, people clapping CONSTANTLY. Not listening, just clapping like morons because they think that they should like it, or show that they like music? I don't know. But sometimes it feel like people aren't listening for clapping. I get frustrated with constant clapping after jazz solos sometimes.
posted by jujulalia at 1:46 PM on November 16, 2011

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