Applauding the relaxing of rules of clapping in classical concerts

Applauding the relaxing of rules of clapping in classical concerts

As concert-hall etiquette evolves, many musicians say they don't mind premature clapping

Re-blogged from Post Gazette.

You are sitting in a concert hall, engrossed in the scintillating sounds of an orchestra. As the symphony builds to a stirring finish, the conductor passionately ends it with a flourish of his hands. Inspired, you throw yours together in vigorous applause.

Established concert etiquette says not to clap between movements of a symphony or concerto, but try telling that to these composers. Here are some examples among many of composers actually trying to end a movement or an aria with enough energy to provoke applause:

Mozart's Symphony No. 41, 'Jupiter,' First Movement, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Warner
Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, First Movement, Helene Grimaud, Kurt Sanderling, Staatskapelle Berlin, Erato
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, Fourth Movement, Mariss Jansons, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Chandos
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, Third Movement, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Cleveland Orchestra, Telarc
'Un bel di vedremo' from 'Pucinni's 'Madama Butterfly,' Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan, La Scala, EMI: The famous aria sung in a studio recording without and audience -- listen to the space Puccini gives to applause after the last note is sung.
'Un bel di vedremo' from 'Pucinni's 'Madama Butterfly,' Dorothy Kirsten, Dimitri Mitropoulous, Metropolitan Opera, EMI: Here the aria is sung live, with the audience breaking in with applause after the last sung note, while Puccini's music carries on.

One problem -- it's only the end of the first movement.

Longheld "rules" of longhair etiquette are notoriously arcane and frequently frustrating for casual concert-goers. These are usually unwritten rules. However, tucked in the penultimate page of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra programs, the one about holding applause until the very end of a composition is actually spelled out:

"In a multi-movement work, it is customary to wait until the end of the last movement to applaud, so as not to break the concentration of the performers."

That program note, rare among top American orchestras, has been used for as long as anyone at the PSO can remember. Its origin is a mystery -- as is, why is it still there? That's because even the performers it purports to protect say it's a bunch of claptrap.

The so-called rules about applauding at classical music concerts appear to be relaxing. Even in the bastions of classical music -- New York's Carnegie Hall, London's BBC Proms at Albert Hall, the Metropolitan Opera and more -- you are likely to hear premature clapping.

It appears the experience of an orchestra concert, opera or recital is becoming less restrictive -- and that deserves a round of applause.

"I think that if they are so taken with [a performance] and they want to show their appreciation, they should just go ahead and do it," says conductor Leonard Slatkin. He is an outspoken advocate for changing this stuffy aspect of concert etiquette.

"The inhibiting of the audience has made it more difficult to attract especially a younger audience, which is used to showing its appreciation for almost everything else it goes to," he continues. "At the end of the movie, if it is really exciting and exhilarating, people will applaud. Our culture has returned somewhat to the way culture was a century ago, when the acknowledgment of the performance as it was going on was normal."

"In the classical arts, we tend to worry about what happened 100 years ago, but we have been moving away from that," says Christopher Hahn, artistic director of the Pittsburgh Opera.

For much of the past century, stern looks and curt shushes from other patrons greeted the person who dared clap at the "wrong" time at a classical concert. Conductors, too, sometimes got carried up in the idea, acting like policemen of propriety.

Such was the case when conductor Pinchas Zukerman rudely chastised the Heinz Hall audience during a morning concert by the PSO in 2000. Frustrated by applause in between movements of Mozart's Symphony No. 33, he turned to the audience after the minuet, held out four fingers and shouted "four movements."

Stories like this abound. Conductors might find support for speaking out against ringing cell phones and loud talking during performances, but these days it is they who are criticized for suppressing audience praise.

"In Washington, the first year I was there, a conductor was doing Tchaikovsky Six and the applause started after the third movement," says Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. "He turned around and just glared at the audience.

"The orchestra came to me and said, 'He is a good conductor, but we never want to see him again, he insulted the audience.' He hasn't been back."

How should it have been handled? "Other conductors have skirted the issue by going [suddenly] into the last movement, which I actually think goes counter to the music," says Slatkin, who feels this moment "screams out for some sort of reaction. I would much rather have an outburst, give ourselves time to catch our breath and then really focus on the last movement."

What rules?

While the attitude toward clapping often appears to novice concert-goers as a secret code developed in ancient times, there's actually no historical precedent for it.

"It didn't used to matter -- people would clap whenever they wanted to, mostly," says Stephanie Tretick, PSO violist.

Centuries ago, applauding after movements, or even during pieces, was expected. Composers such as Beethoven ended first movements with potent cadences designed to incite applause. Brahms is reported to have complained about the lack of applause between movements when his Piano Concerto No. 1 premiered.

"Certainly, when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish ... the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed," wrote pianist Emanuel Ax on his Web site.

Ax, performing with the PSO this weekend, is another staunch advocate of applause.

There is ample historic proof of the expectation of applause. Mozart famously wrote to his family with pride in 1778 when one of his pieces was so well-received it needed to be encored. "At the premiere of Beethoven's Seventh, they applauded so vociferously they had to repeat it, right then," says Slatkin.

Opinions vary on when attitudes started to shift. Baron van Swieten, a contemporary of Mozart, was one of the first to impose the concept of silence during a musical performance -- often with an imperious, moralistic stare at an offender. There are instances of the issue arising in concerts of Wagner in the late 19th century.

But it was not until the 20th century that the pervading customs appear to have been set. Leopold Stokowski tried to get applause for the Philadelphia Orchestra abolished at the Academy of Music. The onset of live recordings for broadcast and for pressing onto records also may have played a role, as clapping could cost clarity, time and money.

Give them a hand

Many performers today are quick to dispel the notion that "errant" clapping breaks their concentration.

"In the middle of a movement it bothers me, but at the end of a movement I don't think it should be so staid and formal that people don't clap," says Christopher Wu, a member of the first violinist section of the PSO, whose section sits on the front lines of being affected by applause. "I have never been offended by someone clapping at the end of a big movement. It is not like we can't get the mood back."

"More and more people in the orchestra would like to know how the audience felt," says Tretick. "To ask people to hear this emotional and deeply moving music and just sit there is strange."

"They can't help themselves if it is electrifying," says PSO harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen.

One well-known point that usually leads to early clapping takes place in the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The rousing music -- a timpani roll and multiple chordal hits simulating the end of the work -- is followed by a "grand pause," in which the playing stops. Audiences the world over find holding their applause nearly impossible here. However, seconds later, the main theme of the symphony roars, squelching their approval.

Slatkin believes that if clapping does occur, that soloists and conductors should acknowledge it but not take a complete bow. PSO artistic adviser Andrew Davis is particularly adept at this.

In opera, where the action is frequently interrupted by cheering after arias, any acknowledgment is forbidden.

"That is the unbreakable convention," says Hahn. "We never take a bow. There is never any acknowledgment of the applause because that would break the drama." Instead the singers usually freeze in place until the conductor restarts the music.

Some composers were smart enough to build time for the applause into the music itself. In "Madama Butterfly," Puccini continues the orchestra in the famous aria "Un bel di vedremo" for half a minute after the soprano sings the final rapturous note, to accommodate the shouts of brava.

When silence is golden

Classical music does require silence from the audience during a composition.

"Within a piece [clapping] can be unnerving," says Slatkin. This occurred at the Pittsburgh Symphony's BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall in August, near the end of Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks."

"There are some pieces that the silence is so fragile that you hope no one claps," says Tretick.

But after a movement ends, most performers, conductors and composers would prefer that the audience feel so strongly about the music they can't hold back.

"All of us love applause ... it means that the listener LIKES us!" writes Ax. "I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music rather than a regulated social duty."

How liberating for the audience to know that a show of appreciation is appreciated on stage.

"I think you gradually have to bring people into the idea that those of us on stage really don't mind it," Slatkin says. "Maybe there are a couple of my colleagues that do, but for the most part we are more than happy when people applaud."