Terry Teachout chimed
in yesterday on one of those low-level debates which never seems to get
resolved one way or the other: whether it’s a good or a bad thing to applaud
an orchestra between the movements of a concerto or symphony. Teachout finds
a 1959 interview with maestro Pierre Monteux to bolster his case, which is that
such applause is "the most natural thing" and that anybody who sneers
at it is a "spine-starched prig".
I’m not sure if Teachout realised, but his comment came less than a week after
fiasco at the Sydney Symphony. The piece in question was Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique,
which I’m sure has received more applause between movements than any other symphony
ever. (It’s got four movements, but the third is the one which ends with huge
bangs and crashes.)
Sydney’s conductor on that Thursday was Alexander Lazarev, who is firmly in
the no-applause camp. When the audience started clapping after the first movement,
"he asked the musicians to return the applause, mocking the ignoramuses
in the audience," according to a report
on the web. The audience had no idea they were being mocked, of course, and
when the inevitable thunderous reception greeted the third-movement finale,
things got rather out of hand. Lazarev, very pissed off at this point, asked
the orchestra to stand up, and some members of the audience took their coats
and left, thinking it was all over.
Now I’m sure that Teachout will think that Lazarev’s behaviour was abominable,
and I would agree with him. Conductors are, of course, within their rights to
get angry at rude audiences who let cellphones ring, talk over the music, or
decide to leave their mid-row seat in the middle of the performance. Simon Rattle
once stopped in the middle of a New York concert to berate noisy concertgoers,
earning himself the heartfelt thanks of most present. But ultimately it’s the
audience which is paying the conductor, and the maestro should not sneer in
public at the lack of sophistication of his patrons.
Besides, as Teachout and Monteux point out, it’s not only hicks who like to
applaud between movements. An increasing number of sophisticated classical music
lovers are coming around to their way of thinking, and while standard advice
is still to keep schtum, some pretty high-profile
symphonies seem fine with the practice.
Certainly, it’s easy to think of times when applause would be both warranted
and harmless. Teachout uses the image of "obviously excited concertgoers
shamefacedly sitting on their hands," while, in the
best article I could find on the subject, Stephen Johnson, in the Guardian,
cites the end of Mars, the first movement in Holst’s Planets suite, during a
CBSO performance at the Proms.
Johnson immediately notes, however, that the audience, emboldened by their
applause of Mars, felt that once they’d started they couldn’t stop, and went
on to clap at the end of the second movement, Venus, as well. Venus is a slow
and quiet movement, and anybody who was genuinely responding to the performance
would have kept their hands by their sides. This is the problem with being too
all-inclusive: it inevitably results in the same kind of grade inflation which
gives virtually every Broadway show receiving a standing ovation every night.
People might start off clapping between movements because the performance demands
it, but it takes no time at all before they feel obliged to applaud every movement,
whether they liked it or not.
I’m sure that neither Teachout nor Monteux wants a world where there are six
breaks for applause during a single performance of the Planets, or, to use Johnson’s
example, where the conductor has to stop and wait for the clapping to die down
12 times during a single operatic act. Audiences these days can’t be trusted
only to applaud the good stuff: give them half a chance and they’ll cheer the
downright mediocre as well. And there’s no doubt that too much applause in the
middle of a symphony, opera or concerto can definitely break up its drive and
Besides, if people get the idea that it’s fine to clap at the end of movements,
they’ll start clapping at every false ending as well, with disastrous consequences.
I’m having visions here of people bursting out enthusiastically half a dozen
times within ten minutes at the end of a Haydn symphony: something I’m sure
no one thinks is a very good idea.
If asked, then, I’ll continue to tell novices to classical music that, in general,
one doesn’t applaud until the end of the whole piece – and even then,
one stays still until either everybody’s applauding or the conductor lowers
his arms. I won’t get annoyed with them if they don’t follow my advice, but
the fewer people clapping, the more quickly the conductor can get on with playing
the music, and the less disruptive the applause is.
On top of all that, of course, there’s also the question of respect for your
fellow concert-goers, the majority of whom still subscribe to the notion that
applause between movements is always wrong. They might be mistaken in their
belief, but it’s genuinely and firmly held, and you should know that they will
be annoyed at you if you clap. It’s a bit like splitting infinitives in a newspaper:
while you’re more than welcome to go ahead and split away, you should be aware
that there’s a lot of Bufton Tuftons out there who will start fulminating at
how ungrammatical you are, and there’s no particular reason to gratuitously
So yes, if there’s a particularly fabulous aria or movement, and other people
are already clapping, and I know I’m not going to make a habit of it, and the
mood takes me, then I’ll join in the applause. And I’ll always clap at the end
of a performance: I vividly recall being completely flummoxed once after a long
ovation following a concert of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, when the woman
to my left turned to me, disgusted, and said that no one should have clapped,
because it’s a religious piece. It’s certainly possible to be too high-minded,
and I do disapprove of such an exclusive and unhelpful attitude. Equally, however,
I don’t think that encouraging more intra-performance applause at concerts is
a very good idea.