Classical style: Some thoughts on the so-called applause ban at classical concerts

A few years ago, I attended an Omaha Symphony concert that featured violin legend Itzhak Perlman. Unlike the Nashville Symphony, which often sells out its classical concerts, Omaha Symphony performances usually attracted a painfully small, older crowd. But on the evening of Perlman’s appearance things were different.

perlmanOmaha’s acoustically marvelous Holland Performing Arts Center was filled to the rafters, and there was a lot of electricity in the air. The audience, many of whom were surely in the concert hall for the first time, were clearly enjoying themselves, and they applauded lustily between each movement of the opening Mozart symphony. As soon as the symphony ended, Perlman walked onstage, and he quickly put a stop to the merriment.

“I just got a call on my cell phone from Mozart,” said Perlman, who spoke in a booming baritone that curiously belied little humor. “He said he was very unhappy about all the applause he was hearing between the movements of his symphony. Now, I said it was OK by me if people want to applaud between movements, but he said it was definitely not OK by him.” After that, you could almost feel the air being sucked out of the concert hall. Perlman spent the next 25 minutes playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 to a hall filled with awkward silence.

Perlman’s scolding probably didn’t surprise symphony regulars, who were familiar with classical music’s unwritten rule discouraging clapping between movements of symphonies and concertos. But Mozart would have been shocked as hell. The great composer not only expected you to applaud between movements. He wanted you to react viscerally during performances. We know from his letters that he spent considerable time thinking about how to elicit maximum ovations.

applauseiii“The Symphonie began…and right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures – there was a big applaudißement,” Mozart wrote in a famous 1778 letter to his father. “But the final Allegro pleased especially…I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars – then suddenly comes a forte – but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte – well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royale – bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged – and went home.”

Needless to say, classical concerts have changed considerably in the past 230-some-odd years. Mozart’s symphonies and concertos are now played to listeners who sit in their chairs like so many silent and inert frozen fish sticks. And not everyone is happy about it. In a recent Huffington Post column titled “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained,” Brooklyn Philharmonic managing director Richard Dare blamed the so-called applause ban for much of classical music’s current woes.

ApplauseAfter attending one particularly somber concert, he wrote, “I found myself a bit preoccupied – as I believe are many classical concert goers – by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star were about to be swallowed by a black hole.”

Dare went on to describe classical concerts as a kind of “musical North Korea” and conductors as “Dear Leaders,” proving that egregious overstatement isn’t limited these days to partisan political journalism. The Washington Post’s thoughtful culture critic Philip Kennicott wasn’t buying it.

“I tried to muster some sympathy for Richard Dare’s Huffington Post piece,” Kennicott wrote on his blog, “but found it a long straw-man argument with no redeeming insight.” Kennicott then went on to make an appeal for silence. “Silence encourages close listening, and not clapping between movements gathers a multi-piece musical work into an organic whole, allowing its parts to be appreciated together (each movement revising the one before, subtly altering the memory of the experience) rather than as disconnected parts. The reason people sometimes sush noisy audience members is because music lovers deeply value the experience of listening, and don’t want it ruined by thoughtless and rude behavior.”

CraigNFelixWKennicott makes some good points – in this age of internet-fueled instant gratification, does anyone really read, listen to or think about anything closely anymore? And in certain kinds of concerts, I think Kennicott is exactly right. Earlier this week, I attended a chamber music concert at the Blair School of Music that featured cellist Felix Wang and pianist Craig Nies performing Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata. The auditorium was filled to capacity with music lovers who listened intently and in breathless silence – not because of any misguided sense of classical decorum but rather out of a desire to hear every note, every nuance. Premature applause would have ruined the mood, and everyone knew it.

Next weekend, pianist Olga Kern will join the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to play a very different Rachmaninoff piece, the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. This is a rapturously romantic work that surely deserves some close listening. But it is also, by design, a big, over-the-top virtuoso Russian display piece. Rachmaninoff intended for you to be wowed, and even a Vulcan would probably show some emotion at the end of the first movement. I for one expect to cheer.

carnegieclapSo where did this no applause rule come from? New Yorker critic Alex Ross and his co-researcher Barney Sherman looked into it once, and they came up with as many questions as answers. Not surprisingly, they trace it to that late-19th-century citadel of quasi-religious seriousness – Wagner’s Bayreuth and the premiere of Parsifal in 1882. Then in the 20th century, the conductor Leopold Stokowski (of Disney’s Fantasia fame) encouraged silence, believing that concert halls should be temples of reverence for the classics. Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra went so far as to put his proposed applause ban before the ensemble’s subscribers for a vote. The ban lost 710 to 199. Between-movement applause continued at many symphony concerts until the 1960s, when it more or less disappeared.

What happened? Ross and Sherman didn’t find a definitive answer, but it seems likely that there are two related reasons. First, classical music is now mostly a repertoire art form. The 1778 audience that cheered Mozart’s forte were hearing that music for the first time, and they were delightfully surprised. Audiences today have heard that same piece numerous times, so they’re listening closely and comparatively – how does tonight’s forte compare to the forte four seasons ago or to the one on my favorite record?

Second, there’s been a change in the audience itself. Up until the 1960s, classical music was dominated by what Virgil Thomson referred to derisively as the “appreciation racket.” Classical concerts often attracted a more general record-of-the-month-type audience that had little sense or interest in protocol. Fewer of those kinds of listeners now attend classical concerts, unless, of course, a big star like Perlman draws them in. The smaller audiences that now attend most symphony concerts know the music and want to hear the details – in silence.

That said, classical concertgoers shouldn’t feel obliged to sit on their hands all season. Classical and jazz are both detail music, so close listening is necessary to catch nuance. But intelligent listening isn’t passive. When the music surprises or titillates, it demands participation. It demands applause. Mozart understood that clearly, which probably explains why he has since taken Perlman off his speed dial.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.