You’ve had a hard day at work . . . you’ve been looking forward to the concert and you sink into your seat ready to be transported by the music. The first movement is fabulous and, as it ends, you burst into spontaneous applause to express your appreciation . . . and you are promptly chastised by your neighbour with a glare and a hearty “shhhh!”.
You are taken aback and annoyed by this response because, after all, what you were doing was expressing your enjoyment. Were you wrong to do so?
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, applause between movements, and even during movements, was the sign of a knowledgeable audience. Here is an excerpt from one of Mozart’s letters to his father which describes his delight with the reactions from the audience. It was written in Paris on July 3, 1778:
“. . . and just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a passage which I felt sure would please. The audience was quite carried away – there was a tremendous burst of applause. But as I knew, when I wrote it, what effect it would surely produce, I had introduced the passage again at the close – when there were shouts of “da capo“. The Andante also found favour, but particularly the last Allegro because, having observed that all last as well as first Allegros begin here with all the instruments playing together and generally unisono, I began mine with two violins only, piano for the first eight bars – followed instantly by a forte; the audience, as I expected, said “hush” at the soft beginning, and when they heard the forte, began at once to clap their hands. I was so happy.”
We know that Brahms lamented the absence of applause at the premiere of his first Piano Concerto: “The first movement and the second were listened to without any kind of emotion.” When talking about his performances of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Hans von Bülow stated “I have always had applause after the cadenza”. And there are many more examples.
In short, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the relationship between the audience and the performer was similar to the one enjoyed today in a jazz concert.
So when did all this change and why? Many people feel it all started with Wagner when, according to Cosima Wagner’s diary, at the premiere of Parsifal:
“he told the audience that the performers were not going to take curtain calls at the end of the second act. The public misunderstood him and thought that he was asking them to not applaud at all. Wagner is distressed by this and attended later performances where he himself called out “bravo” and was hissed!”
Debussy stated that he felt applause was artificial: he felt he would not applaud a beautiful sunset and a fabulous concert should be no different. Leopold Stokowski felt that “applause was a relic from the Dark Ages” and intruded on the “divinity” of the concert experience. On the other hand, we know that there was applause between movements when Toscanini recorded with the NBC Symphony.
There is no easy answer as to why performers are now put on a pedestal and the audience no longer interacts with them. Are recordings to blame? Is it the fact that orchestras today are “aural museums” performing predominantly historical pieces as compared to the concerts of Mozart’s day which featured new works all the time?
My conducting training comes from the Pierre Monteux School and, although I never met Monteux, his philosophies were handed down to me by my mentor Charles Bruck, so it is no surprise to me that I resonate strongly with a statement that Monteux made in 1959: “I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements of a concerto or symphony. I don’t know where the habit started, but it certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions.”
As a performer, I am not bothered by applause between movements. It does not “destroy our concentration” or affect the flow of the piece (though there are some instances when applause is not appropriate but, if you follow your instincts, you won’t go wrong). What does bother us is noise while we are performing: rustling of programmes or candy wrappers is particularly disturbing, as is chatting and, of course, cell phone rings are very distressing. These are all indicators that you, our audience, are not involved in our performance. Applause is a completely different “dynamic” (no pun intended) – it is your reaction to our performance.
So my advice to MCO audiences is to simply follow your heart: my musicians and I enjoy knowing how you feel about our music so please applaud if you feel like it!