Premature concert clappers: let’s give them all a round of applause
There’s not much point in frowning on ‘ill-timed’ applause. What’s unusual today used to be the norm
‘Applause between movements? Whenever I hear it, I welcome it, because I take it to mean that there’s someone in the hall who probably hasn’t been to a classical concert before.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
Do you remember the first time you went to a classical concert? And how you viewed its peculiar rituals and formalities? Nobody talks during the music, and even an overly loud whisper can be you frowned upon by the people sitting near you.
Applause follows rules too. You’re not supposed to clap between movements, only at the end of a piece. Which, of course, assumes you always know when a piece is over. And the performers look like they might have wandered out of the kind of upper-class dinners represented in 1930s movies.
I get my ear bent from time to time by people who want to punish or banish transgressors. I have a good friend with whom I’ve been sparring for years over the business of premature applause, and I’m still not sure that we’ll ever fully agree.
It’s time to put my cards on the table. Applause between movements? No problem. It can be disturbing, and there are certainly times I wish it didn’t happen. But whenever I hear it, I welcome it. That’s because I take it to mean that there’s someone in the hall who probably hasn’t been to a classical concert before. And not only are they there, but they’re also eager to show their appreciation. If we can’t embrace newcomers and somehow make them feel welcome and at home, then the problems of audience renewal are guaranteed to be insurmountable.
A matter of tradition
The timing of applause, of course, is simply a matter of tradition. I’ve been in major halls in major cities around the world, venues where you would imagine everyone already knows the ropes, and I’ve heard people there applaud at inopportune moments, too. After the exciting close of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony is an obvious trap for the unwary. And if you keep your eyes on the heads around you in the shocking change from pppppp to ff in that symphony’s first movement, you’ll see quite a few of them bounce from the unexpected impact.
I’m sure that at least some of the people who complain about applause between movements are not even aware that it was once the norm, and, unless I’m mistaken, persisted in France until some time in the early 20th century. Other practices have disappeared, too.
The composer Paul Hindemith, who was also a virtuoso viola player, wrote a vivid letter to his wife, Gertrude, when he gave the premiere of William Walton’s Violin Concerto at the Proms in London.
“Walton is conducting the concerto himself,” he wrote. “It won’t be up to much. So far he has had only one rehearsal in which he managed to play the first movement just once. The orchestra is bad, consists mainly of women, and English ones at that . . . And at the concerts themselves there aren’t even seats. The audience stands around – smoking permitted – and can do as it likes. Notices all over the place. Please don’t strike matches during the music. One can really feel homesick for Zwickau or Bielefeld.”
There was also a time when the recitals at the RDS carried signs warning “Knitting strictly prohibited”, and I recall reading that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra had to do the same during the first World War, when some of its subscribers took to knitting during concerts as part of the war effort.