Applause between movements

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

a minor

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

aggravate them.

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.

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8 Responses to Applause between movements

  1. Stefan Geens says:

    Applause is such an ugly noise too, unmelodious and completely destructive of whatever mood is generated by the music. But I reserve my unmitigated disdain for clapping along with the music. Does the conductor need help? If not, then why?

  2. Michelle says:

    I’m in the no-clapping camp, only because I like to get on with it, hear the music and stop wasting time. Go to a dance performance and there will be clapping all over the place (understandably the dancers need more breaks) but let’s move it along. Also, waiting to clap until the end builds up enthusiasm/tension in the audience and makes it more pleasurable for the audience and the orchestra. Otherwise the audience is simply over-doing it and dumbing down the experience.

  3. erika says:

    Please turn your mobile phone off, please don’t applaud at the end of individual movements, applause at the end is appreciated.

    A message that needs to get through to concert goers. I fear that we are getting so used to listening to bits of music, on radio, in the car, etc that the feeling for the whole is getting lost.


  4. sy klopps says:

    I think the venue has something to do with the clapping being acceptable.

    Outdoors in Central Park, Ok, less so at the Concert Hall.

  5. jkcohen says:

    On the other hand, there *is* an operatic tradition of applauding at the end of particularly beautiful individual arias, for the performer herself. Claqueurs as such don’t arise until the 1830s, but the tradition goes back much earlier; the earliest attestation of which I am aware is in the period of Handel’s Italian operas.

  6. David R. says:

    Why don’t we applaud after every loud section WITHIN each movement? Wait – let’s not stop there! Maybe there are some who would be moved to applaud after QUIET sections of music – after all, those quiet sections are SO moving, they TOO deserve applause! How about CONTINUOUS applause, since every NOTE is so beautiful! Where does this all end? Seriously, I don’t know where the no-applause-between-movements tradition started, but it makes more sense. A symphony, whether it is in one movement or four, was conceived as a single opus – a single work. As for leaving it up to the audience to decide where to applaud, that is endless claptrap. May the sound decision of no-applause-between-movements prevail. Regardless of venue.

  7. Karla Nagy says:

    I just interviewed a conductor who noted that it wasn’t all that long ago that when concert listeners DIDN’T applaud between movements, the orchestra knew something was very wrong with the performance.
    This cultured gentleman noted: “The only appropriate response to applause is to aknowledge them and say ‘Thank you.'”
    What a gracious attitude. How will people learn to appreciate the music if they’re belittled and made to feel uncultured when they do venture to attend?
    He also noted: “If someone claps between movements, it means he’s a new audience member. Isn’t that what we want? And the more he comes, the more he’ll understand how things work.”

  8. joe says:

    For the most part, I am firm in my belief that there should not be applause between movements. However, the Pathétique is an exception. It has a tradition that has been welcomed by great conductors such as Leonard Bernstein. I have seen it performed live twice now (once with the Philadelphia orchestra and once with the Boston symphony orchestra). Both times there was applause after the march. The conductors quickly started the fourth movement. The eruption of applause followed by the sudden reigning in of the noise by the sorrowful sounding strings, in my opinion, adds to the effect of the symphony.

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