Let’s hear it for Applause

Posted on March 10, 2010

Extracts from this week’s lecture given at the Royal Philharmonic Society in London by critic Alex Ross who advocated a much more relaxed approach to Classical Music concert going.

“Last autumn, Barack Obama hosted an evening of classical music at the White House. Beforehand, he said, “Now, if any of you in the audience are newcomers to classical music, and aren’t sure when to applaud, don’t be nervous. Apparently, President Kennedy had the same problem. He and Jackie held several classical music events here, and more than once he started applauding when he wasn’t supposed to. So the social secretary worked out a system where she’d signal him through a crack in the door. Now, fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud. The rest of you are on your own.”

Obama was having fun at the expense of the No Applause Rule, which holds that one must refrain from clapping until all movements of a work have sounded. No aspect of our modern concert ritual causes more bewilderment. The problem is not that the Rule is so arcane that even a law professor turned commander-in-chief cannot master it. Rather, it’s that the etiquette and the music sometimes work at cross-purposes. The noisy codas of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” and the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique demand applause, even beg for it. The word “applause” comes from the instruction plaudite, which appears at the end of Roman comedies. Those climactic chords are the musical equivalent of plaudite: they almost mimic the action of putting one’s hands together.

Whether the format should change is by no means an easy question. I don’t plan to offer prescriptions. Indeed, in my view, the chief limitation of the classical ritual is its prescriptive quality; it supposes that all great works of music are essentially the same, that they can be placed upon a pedestal of a certain shape. What I would like to see is a more flexible approach, so that the nature of the work dictates the nature of the presentation – and, by extension, the nature of the response.

Mozart played to the crowd

The classical concert of the 18th century was radically different from the rather staid and timid affair of today. Famous evidence comes from a letter that Mozart wrote to his father after the premiere of his “Paris” Symphony: “Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures . . . and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement – and sure enough there they were: the shouts of ‘da capo’.” This kind of behaviour seems in line with what you find in jazz clubs, where people applaud after each solo, as well as at the end of each number.

In the first decades of the 20th century, mid-symphonic applause was still routine. When Elgar’s First Symphony had its first London performance, the composer was called out after the first movement. Around 1900, though, a group of German musicians and critics began promoting a code of silence, à la Bayreuth. Hermann Abendroth was among the pioneers: in Lübeck, where he led concerts from 1905 to 1911, he told his audience not to clap between movements. By the 1920s, several leading conductors were discouraging excess applause. At first, many listeners resisted, regarding this as a display of arrogance on the part of superstar maestros. Olin Downes, chief critic of the New York Times, campaigned against the Rule in the 30s and 40s. After describing how Koussevitzky had gestured disapprovingly toward his audience when they clapped after the third movement of the Pathétique, Downes exclaimed: “How anti-musical it is! Snobbism in excelsis!”

This may go too far. In many instances, the Rule seems in keeping with the music. I wouldn’t want applause between movements of, say, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Elsewhere, though, it has a perverse effect. Emanuel Ax, not a showboating pianist, complains on his website: “I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction.” It is the sound of people suppressing their instincts.

Worse is the hushing of attempted applause. People who applaud in the “wrong” place are presumably not in the habit of attending concerts regularly. They may well be attending for the first time. Having been hissed at, they may never attend again. And shushing is itself noise. I often hear a “shhhh!” from another part of the hall without having heard whatever minor disturbance elicited it. In an ironic twist, these self-appointed prefects have made themselves more of a nuisance than those whom they are righteously reprimanding.

I am both a lifelong classical-music lover and a member of a generation – the so-called Generation X – that, according to scary graphs recently published by the League of American Orchestras, has yet to show the midlife surge of interest in classical music that previous generations displayed. I went to college with extraordinarily smart people, who knew their art, literature and cinema. But few of them knew classical music. I bring such friends to concerts, and although they are pleased to be there, I often sense a slight disappointment. They admire the music, but the evening in some way falls short. And I ask myself whether the experience could be modified so that their admiration might turn to love.

People often ask whether classical music has become too serious. I sometimes wonder whether it is serious enough. Certainly, it has acquired a veneer of solemnity, but too often that veneer is a cover for business as usual. I dream of the concert hall becoming a more vital, unpredictable environment, in thrall to the wildly diverse personalities of composers and performers alike. The great paradox of modern musical life, whether in the classical or pop arena, is that we both worship our idols and, in a way, straitjacket them. We consign them to cruelly specific roles: a certain rock band is expected to loosen us up, a certain composer is expected to ennoble us. Ah, Mozart; yeah, rock and roll. But what if a rock band wants to make us think and a composer wants to make us dance? Music should be a place where our expectations are shattered.”

Click here to read the full text on the Royal Philharmonic Society website