Mozart writes about the 1778 premiere of his Paris Symphony: “Just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a Passage I was sure would please. All the listeners went into raptures over it — applauded heartily. But, as when I wrote it, I was quite aware of its Effect, I introduced it once more towards the end — and it was applauded all over again.” Mozart here describes an atmosphere similar to that of modern jazz clubs: the audience demonstrates its sophistication not by remaining silent but by acknowledging the composer's best ideas with bursts of applause. What would Mozart think of our modern concert culture? I'm guessing he'd admire the precision of the performances, and he'd appreciate the relative lack of chatter and noisemaking, but he might well be disturbed by the generally passive, frigid demeanor of audiences. An artist who imagines in the throes of his creative process a give-and-take with a responsive crowd would have a hard time adjusting to the intellectual solitude of contemporary composition. He might look around for other opportunities.
Concert-hall managements often insert little etiquette codes in their programs. As Richard Taruskin sardonically notes in his new history of music, the most familiar of these litanies takes the form of Biblical commandments on the order of "Thou shalt not...," accentuating the fake churchiness of the ritual. Some organizations, thankfully, are starting to send a different message. Here's what the Houston Symphony says in response to the question "Is it proper to applaud between movements?":
As music in the schools wanes and technology and popular culture become ever more engulfing, symphony orchestras are trying to attract the widest possible audiences to classical music to ensure we have music-lovers for the future. Therefore, today's audiences consist of young and old, novice and experienced listeners, first-time visitors to Jones Hall and subscribers who have been with us for decades. While we believe in presenting the best possible musical experience, we also want to encourage spontaneity and comfort. Applause between movements can be seen as an encouraging sign of new and enthusiastic additions to the classical music fold.
Notice that the Houston Symphony stops short of endorsing applause between movements. Instead, it gently implies that experienced listeners might want to think twice before going ballistic on the issue. Wouldn't it make more sense to be happy that new people are in the hall? Perhaps be friendly to them if they're sitting next to you, instead of scowling? Just a thought. Let the last word for now belong to reader Roberto Lizondo:
In your "More applause" post you say that you have "often been to orchestral concerts where the audience supplies a standing ovation that to my taste isn't warranted." While that is certainly so, I would like to make the case that warranted and unwarranted ovations (if not standing ones), as far as classical music concerts go, are really inspiring for musicians, and a great reward in a a lonely profession full of ups and downs. Here in Buenos Aires, the audience at our Teatro Colón may not be very discriminating, but they surely know how to clap at the end of a performance. I've seen the look of disbelief in the face of some eminent musicians playing here: the endless clapping, going on and on, calling the musician back into the stage over and over again. And when after the fourth or fifth curtain call the "rhythmic" clapping starts, boy, isn't it great to be in that place with all that people, just wanting to thank the lonely figure on the stage and show them how grateful we are that they flew all the way down to spend that couple of hours (extended, if we audience are going to get our wish, a further half hour) giving us their music, even on a night when inspiration deserted them a little bit. I've been lucky enough to attend concerts in some of the world's foremost venues, and nowhere have I felt such communion between artist and audience, caused simply, I guess, by the fact that the minority of us down here who still care about (and can afford) classical music are willing to show our thankfulness to the person on the stage without the restraints of propriety.
As for clapping between movements of a piece, it surely disturbs me, but it is an argument often used by those who, at least here, want to keep "serious" music as their exclusive terrain, inaccessible to those who are not "educated enough." A few years ago I attended a lieder recital by Bernarda Fink, and next to me there was a group of high school students, who were obviously coming to a concert of this type for their first time in their lives on some school assignment. She was singing some Schumann cycle, I believe, and after the first Lied some people in the audience, conspicuously among them my student friends, started to clap. The hissing from all over the theatre started immediately, but she, very graciously looked in our direction, put a finger to her mouth, as in one of those old hospital posters, and made a gesture indicating that the applause had to be deferred until later, while looking at the hissers not unkindly, but at the very least impatiently. The students acknowledged the gesture: they seem to absorb (or try to absorb) their first Schumann, waited to start clapping until they saw everyone else doing it, and I am sure at least one or two of the group went home thinking that perhaps this music was worth investigating a little further.