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Hold Your Applause. Or Don't

In his fourth classical music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson writes about the rules of applauding after movement. Basically, there are no rules.

published Monday, December 18, 2017



One of the great privileges of making music professionally is getting feedback from the community. Said feedback comes in multiple forms. People come to the stage at intermission in orchestra concerts to chat, stop by backstage after the concert, say hello at restaurants or ferret you out at markets. In my case when I was picking out the fennel most fit to be grilled, a charming, petite lady came up to me and said, in a conspiratorial stage whisper, “I saw your concert Friday. It was great if it was not for a feckless couple sitting behind me who did not know when to clap.” Then she came closer and with great determination delivered the punch line, “But don’t worry, I let them have a piece of my mind at intermission!”

It got me thinking about what must be an issue for the casual concertgoer, along with what to wear to the hall, whether it’s wiser to have dinner early and valet parking lines. So when is it appropriate to clap? Common knowledge would say it is only at the conclusion of a work, never between movements. But are there exceptions? Let’s take a quick retrospective at the tradition.

The history of applause (the word comes from the the Latin pladite,  "to strike," and "to explode") started with military purposes. Legend has it that the Roman emperor Heraclius, in order to intimidate the enemy leader, hired a group of men to applaud Heraclius’s grand entrance into the chamber where the two were to negotiate. Applause was used to convey acclamation and psychological power over the opponent.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Gary Levinson

The next major marker was in the theater. From Cicero who famously said, "the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater,” to the Shakesperean actors who would milk entrances and exits for all they could, applause was a gauge of popularity and a bargaining chip for the actor that enjoyed it.  Jumping to 1778, Mozart was so excited by the applause the Paris Symphony had received at its premiere, he wrote to his father about the success of the first and last movements (which received applause) and the relative cold reception of the slow movement (which received no applause). Brahms, at the premiere of his first piano concerto in 1881, was so discouraged by the absence of applause following the fiery conclusion of the work’s first movement that he proclaimed the concerto to be a dud and almost withdrew it from his catalog.

So was there a diametrically opposite movement for silence during concerts? Robert Schumann wrote in 1835, “I have dreamed of organizing concerts for the deaf and dumb, that you might learn from them how to behave yourselves at concerts, especially when they are very beautiful. You should be turned to stone pagodas.” Wagner had another valid idea which was hardly a success at the premiere of Parsifal in 1882. In order to preserve the somber mood of the opera, he ordered no curtain calls at its conclusion and announced this prior to the start of the opera. The audience at Bayreuth, fancying themselves experts in all things Wagner, interpreted his wishes to have no applause at the end of the opera. So when the 265 minute opera was received with graveyard silence, Wagner surreptitiously yelled “Bravo” from a discreet location in the theater and was summarily hushed by his own adoring fans.

Perhaps the tradition of silence between movements is, in part, American. In the early 20th century, members of the upper and middle classes embraced the symphony orchestra as a faux-European bastion in a world of vulgar commerce. The Carnegies and Vanderbilts of society had musicales in their magnificent mansions just for their 1,000 closest friends.  The orchestra became the pride of the upper crust and the chief beneficiary of its largesse. In the face of a rising popular culture, the concert hall was remade as a refuge—a respite from the madding crowd. The dying out of applause may have been considered one marker of that evolution.

Not everyone was into it. Even in the 1950s, conductor Pierre Monteux called the lack of applause between movements “artificial restraint.” Pianist Arthur Rubinstein proclaimed the notion of dictating to others when to react with applause “barbaric.” Even today there is no stigma attached to applause after an aria in the opera house or a particular solo in ballet. So why is it different for orchestra and chamber music concerts?

For me it depends on the work being performed. Every time I have played a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, there is a spontaneous ovation after the first movement. It never bothers me personally, because the first movement is a broadly conceived work and it ends dramatically. It also feels like a natural release of energy which makes the charming Canzonetta which follows it that much more poignant. Looking at the other side of that coin, the transition from the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto to the third is a magical moment. The opening of the third movement is an evolution of the final notes of the second movement and a relief from the conversation between the French Overture rhythm of the orchestral statements and the piano contrasting answers. I am not aware of anyone ever breaking that mood with applause so it is safe to say audiences feel that elision.

Do we need applause police at concerts? That is a tough nut to crack. The Italian opera tradition says the audience gets to boo, hiss and throw tomatoes when they are not pleased at what is happening on stage. Then there is the idea of respecting the music and cluing into what the composer and performers are trying to communicate. Simpler still would be the notion of giving the audience a choice to clap or not to clap when the movement ends loud and no clapping when it ends soft. But then I would get hate mail after Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto performances because the entire concerto concludes softly.

Most performers will tell you that applause is only inappropriate between movements if it breaks the mood and consequently the concentration of the performers. Some do feel like it is at times akin to loud whispering and cellphone ringing during the work itself. I am not so draconian with respect to spontaneous genuine reaction. In the end, the performer is there to move their audience. If their genuine reaction is to jump and cheer after a dramatic end of a movement, I am all for it. If they do it when the movement is pensive, they may need to reconsider. But it should not be a federal case study. My friend from the market can rest easy. 


» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.

» Guts & Rosin runs on the third Monday of the month on TheaterJones.



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Hold Your Applause. Or Don't
In his fourth classical music column Guts & Rosin, violinist Gary Levinson writes about the rules of applauding after movement. Basically, there are no rules.
by Gary Levinson

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