It’s OK to clap between movements at the symphony

June 9, 2018 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Imagine this: You’re at your local symphony hall and the orchestra has just delivered a spectacular performance of the first movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

As the notes fade away, you close your eyes, basking for a moment in that majestically solemn aftermath — but then, a small smattering of applause breaks out and quickly dies away.

What do you do? Do you glare at the perpetrators of this heinous concert hall crime? Do you shush them for daring to disturb the sanctity of Brahms’ music? Or are you the one clapping, perhaps reddening at the ears as others sneer at your supposed foible?


Classical music concerts have engendered idiosyncratic behavior for centuries, from shouting “bravo” (a homage to the popularity of Italian opera) to presenting soloists with flowers in the vein of Olympic athletes.

Stifling applause between the movements of a symphony is not one of those deep historical traditions.

This particular practice originated in the early 20th century — in Germany, some scholars think — and spread like wildfire. It’s now an entrenched practice in concert halls, with some listeners giving the evil eye and shushing concertgoers who dare to break the silence between the movements of a larger work.

But why? Why is classical music the only genre that demands such restraint? And is this a good tradition?

Applauding history

“If it’s really hot music, how can you keep it back?” said Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “People should react to what they hear onstage. You should let it go. Let it happen.”

In the time of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, concertgoers regularly applauded between movements of larger works, even demanding encores at times. Of course, they’d also hiss and yowl and chuck things at the stage if they didn’t care for what was happening — music history is rife with riotous premieres.

Classical audiences used to engage more directly with the music, voicing their pleasure or displeasure with equal abandon. Today’s conductors are advocating something of a return to that relationship between performer and listener.

“Classical music didn’t used to be such a stuffy kind of art form,” said Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “The thing to me about applause is that if it feels spontaneous and comes as a result of the music, I don’t mind at all.”


In the 19th century, there are instances of composers writing consecutive movements without pause — “through composing” — to maintain the mood of the symphony (e.g., Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scottish”), and Wagner informed audiences at the premiere of his opera “Parsifal” that there wouldn’t be curtain calls between the acts to maintain the seriousness of the opera. But these were isolated moments.

In the early 1900s, several noted conductors including the likes of Toscanini and Stokowski, began insisting on the sanctity of the symphony and the concert hall, demanding that audiences remain silent until a work’s conclusion.

″(Clapping) should be more a spontaneous part of the performance” said Gianandrea Noseda, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. “Exploding in applause after a movement of a symphony — this does not bother me. We are trying to reach the heart of the people.”

Scholars and critics have advanced various theories about why this practice caught on so thoroughly, whether due to the controlling ego of the conductor, who enjoyed rock-star status in the early 1900s, or the relegation of classical music as “high art” in response to radical shifts in popular culture in the 1920s and ’30s.

But no matter why, symphonic music remains the only musical genre wherein audience reaction is so completely dictated by a set of rules. Popular genres — rock, country, pop and so on —tend to be noisy affairs both on- and off-stage. Listeners often applaud after solos at jazz concerts and even after particularly fine arias at the opera or a show-stopping Broadway hit.

“I am not opposed to clapping after a movement,” Honeck said. “Music is emotion. If it makes you feel, you should clap.”

Modulating tradition

Today’s conductors and performers are largely not opposed to applause between movements, though they make distinctions between obligatory clapping and real, spontaneous audience reaction.

“If it feels forced or obligatory, then I mind,” Alsop said. “As long as it’s organic I don’t mind at all.”

The music directors also agreed that cell phones ringing, a bag falling or loud shuffling between movements breaks the mood just as much as applauding between the movements, and that a movement or work that ends softly or contemplatively should not immediately be met with loud cheers. (“This is up to me as a conductor; it’s my job to signal this,” Honeck said.)

So why do audiences uphold the rule of silence?

A Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra social media poll distributed through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram received 1,264 cumulative responses, with 976 against clapping between movements and 288 for.

“Concertgoers take it upon themselves to uphold the tradition,” said Noseda, a frequent guest conductor of the PSO. “I think it’s a point of pride, a ‘we-know-how-to-behave-and-you-don’t’ sort of thing. But we should not silence the people who feel that they should applaud. If new people face censorship, why would they come back?”

A 2016 Telegraph article in the United Kingdom confirms that listeners themselves at the BBC Proms, one of the most venerated concert festivals in the world, strongly insisted on holding applause until the conclusion of a multi-movement work, with some even calling clapping during movement breaks “barbarous.”

The director of the Proms said at the time that he loved hearing applause between movements. The three conductors in this article — who have all conducted at the Proms — welcome honest enthusiasm and reactions. But still, the tendency is to stare at someone who claps or shush them if they don’t clap at the “right” time.

None of the maestros is advocating a radical change in concert etiquette. But all expressed a wish that audiences would respond more naturally, pointing to the now perfunctory standing ovation as another example of tradition gone awry.

“I think it’s changing,” Noseda said. “The number of traditional concertgoers is shrinking, and if we want to remain strong, we must accept new people. I think shushing is becoming less and less. I think it will disappear altogether in another 10 years or so.”

“I like that we have rules,” Honeck said. “But tradition changes, and that is good. We are aiming to have people experience emotion. This calls to mind my favorite quote from Gustav Mahler: ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.’”



Paid to clap? ‘Claqueurs’ date back to ancient Greece

A notable quirk in the history of applause, the “claqueurs” were audience members paid to applaud at theater or opera houses.

The practice — which dates back to ancient Greece — was institutionalized in Paris in the 1820s, when an agency in that city began peddling claqueurs to performing venues, and before long the practice spread to Vienna, London and New York. Some claqueurs would try to extort singers or performers, threatening to boo performances if they weren’t paid a fee.

Mahler and Toscanini vigorously discouraged the practice, and it largely died out during the 20th century, though the Bolshoi Ballet still employs claqueurs to this day.

In modern times the practice is analogous to using a laugh track or canned applause on television or radio programming.




Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,