To Clap or Not to Clap in Classical Concerts; That Is the Question

A recent article on by William Randall Beard entitled “Clapping for Classical” delved into the debate over whether or not audiences should maintain silence during classical music performances. During a recent St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conductor Roberto Abbado glared when audience members applauded at the close of several arias.

Why is it that applause during the performance and between movements has become so taboo? Renowned music critic Alex Ross explored some possible reasons in his lecture “Hold Your Applause: Inventing and Reinventing the Classical Concert” (the link to the lecture can be found in this blog post). Applause was initially discouraged during certain opera performances in the 1880s. Ross cites composer/conductor Richard Wagner, who, during the first performance of his opera Parsifal in 1882, requested that there be no curtain calls after Act II so as not to “impinge on the impression”. Wagner had mixed feelings about the results, as he was unable to tell if the audience enjoyed the performance or not.

The official “no applause rule” for symphonic and chamber music performances originated in Germany at start of the 20th century. Early practitioners of the rule included the conductor Hermann Abendroth and Karl Klingler, the leader of the Klingler quartet. In America, leading conductors such as Toscanini, Stokowski, Klemperer, and Furtwängler had begun to discourage applause as well. After some bumps in the road, the “no applause rule” became the norm.

Another culprit may be the prevalence of recordings. Listeners may become accustomed to hearing their favorite classical music on a CD recorded in a studio (or record, depending on your generation) without the interruption of applause or audience noise.

These days, the “no applause rule” can be daunting to a first-time classical concert attendee. If a newbie claps at the wrong time, he is subject to dirty looks from other audience members. In this day and age, when classical music is struggling to maintain its audiences, frightening away new concertgoers with angry glares might not be the best way to grow our audiences.

I must admit that I used to be one of the snobs who would glare at other audience members at the least little noise. But all of that changed as I became more exposed to other types of music, such as heavy metal, where audiences are expected to show their enthusiasm. Another eye-opening experience for me occurred when one of my students performed a pyrotechnical piece at his church. Classical music was largely new to many of the audience members, and they had no hesitation in clapping and hollering whenever he accomplished a particularly difficult technical feat. Even though the noise covered up part of his performance, it was exciting for my student to inspire such an enthusiastic reaction. Looking back on some of my own performance experiences, I can’t help but think that it would’ve been wonderful to hear the audience applaud immediately after a notorious chord or difficult 16th-note run.

As for the Minnesota Orchestra performance, opinions were mixed when it comes to “inappropriate” audience responses. Concertmaster Steven Copes said, “I’m not sure the old tradition has much validity. Personally, I don’t have any problem with a lot of applause. I’ve gotten used to it.” On the flip side, veteran concertgoer Roger Burg felt that, “it breaks the silence that I need to let the music rest before we move on. I love the stillness. There is something about being in a room full of still people.”

In his lecture, Alex Ross suggests that the solution to the applause dilemma may lay in the relationship between the audience, the performer, and the venue. He discusses how classical pianist Jonathan Biss performs not only in prestigious concert halls but also in non-traditional venues which allow more audience interaction, such as Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. As a result, Biss is able to attract a variety of concertgoers to his performances. Ross also feels that classical performers should feel free to express more passion onstage. I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing could be duller than watching a jaded symphony orchestra trudge through their umpteenth performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Even though it’s been horribly overplayed, it’s still an amazing piece and deserves enthusiasm.

Perhaps the entire debate is best summed up by a quote which Ross used from the conductor Erich Leinsdorf:

We surround our doings with a set of outdated manners and even mannerisms, some of them detrimental to the best and most natural enjoyment. At the top of my list is frowning on applause between movements of a symphony or concerto… What utter nonsense. The notion, once entertained by questionable historians, was that an entity must not be interrupted by the mundane frivolity of handclapping. The great composers were elated by applause, wherever it burst out.

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  1. Pingback: This Is Me – My Music « Sam's Blogspot

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