Note: This online essay was written in 2005. In 2010, I gave a lecture at the Royal Philharmonic Society in which I added new information on the history of concert-hall applause. You can download the text here.
Here is everything I have been able to discover about the history of applause between movements of symphonies and concertos. I’m sure there’s a musicologist somewhere who’s done an exhaustive study of the subject; Leon Botstein’s eagerly awaited History of Listening will probably reveal more. Below, I’ve combined some old posts with new material that I’ve dug up in libraries. Bernard Sherman has been very helpful in pointing me toward sources. The post rambles on at a length that will surely exhaust the attention span of all but the most terminally bored readers. Descend into the quagmire at your own risk.
To recap: Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause. Mozart's famous letter to his father in 1778:
Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures — there was a big applaudißement; — and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement — and sure enough there they were: the shouts of Da capo. The Andante was well received as well, but the final Allegro pleased especially — because I had heard that here the final Allegros begin like the first Allegros, namely with all instruments playing and mostly unisono; therefore, 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. [Sure you did, Wolfie, sure you did. From Robert Spaethling, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life, p. 160.]
Brahms lamented the absence of applause at the failed premiere of his First Piano Concerto in 1859: "The first movement and the 2nd were listened to without any kind of emotion. At the end, three hands attempted to fall slowly into another, whereupon, however, a quite distinct hissing from all sides forbade demonstrations." Hans von Bülow gives advice to pianists in his master classes: "The opening cadenza [of the Emperor Concerto] is very difficult; senza tempo means without rigid counting. It must be played in an overall steady tempo. Therefore, divide the notes into measures, and you have twice the effect; at least I have always had applause after the cadenza." And so on: there are countless examples of cadenzas being applauded, movements encored, shouts of approval and disapproval, and so on.
The great change in audience behavior began, I believe, at the premiere performances of Wagner's Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882. From Cosima Wagner's diary: "When, after the second act, there is much noise and calling, R. comes to the balustrade, says that though the applause is very welcome to his artists and to himself, they had agreed, in order not to impinge on the impression, not to take a bow, so that there would be no 'curtain calls'. ... At the end R. is vexed by the silent audience, which has misunderstood him; he once again addresses it from the gallery, and when the applause then breaks out and there are continual calls R. appears in front of the curtain and says that he tried to assemble his artists, but they were by now half undressed. The journey home, taken up with this subject, is a vexed one." Two days later: "After the first act there is a reverent silence, which has a pleasant effect. But when, after the second, the applauders again are hissed, it becomes embarrassing." Two weeks later: "R. had a restless night. He feels so languid that he does not attend the performance, just appears during the intermissions, and the only thing he hears all through is the flower scene, since the excellence of the performance always refreshes him. From our box he calls out, "Bravo!," whereupon he is hissed.”
By around 1900, a portion of the public had embraced the idea that certain works should be heard in rapt silence. An Encyclopedia Britannica article in the pre-World War I period, which Howard Shanet quotes in his history of the New York Philharmonic (p. 144), observes: “The reverential spirit which abolished applause in church has tended to spread to the theatre and the concert-room, largely under the influence of the quasi-religious atmosphere of the Wagner performances at Baireuth [sic]. In Germany (e.g. the court theatres at Berlin) applause during the performance and ‘calling before the curtain’ have been officially forbidden, but even in Germany this is felt to be in advance of public opinion.” The “Bayreuth hush” — the silence that descends on the house before the performance begins — became the gold standard of audience sophistication. One young acolyte who absorbed the Bayreuth ideal — which, we know, Wagner himself discouraged— was Anton Webern. In a diary devoted to his "Bayreuth Pilgrimage" of 1902, he wrote: “Hardly has the crowd left the temple when laughing and idle chatter start again, when each one inspects the other’s wardrobe and behaves as if he had not experienced something that transports our kind out of this world. And then! There was, on top it, applause!”
Was Webern's hero Gustav Mahler responsible for the “ban on applause”? I hinted as much in a previous post, but I was confusing symphony with opera. Mahler, like Toscanini, opposed the “claques” that delivered explosions of applause to favorite singers and routinely stopped performances in their tracks. He worked hard to root out that often corrupt practice, to the point of hiring detectives to patrol the theater. But he does not seem to have been exercised about applause during symphonic performances. He certainly welcomed the increasing rounds of applause that greeted each movement of his Third Symphony at its Krefeld premiere in 1902. (Richard Strauss tipped the audience in Mahler's favor by applauding ostentatiously after the first movement.) In the score of his Kindertotenlieder, he declares that the piece is a unified conception and should not be interrupted by clapping; clearly, the notion of an unbroken continuum interested him. But I have not been able to find any mention of him squelching applause at concerts, nor has my co-researcher Barney Sherman. Toscanini, likewise, evidently did not care much about the issue, as the scholars Harvey Sachs and Mortimer Frank report to me. Applause can be heard after the first movements of concertos on the NBC Symphony broadcasts. No doubt if the practice had displeased Toscanini we would have heard about it.
So who is the culprit? Barney Sherman came forward with the apparent answer: Leopold Stokowski. A surprising development, given Stokowski’s well-earned image as the showman of music, the populist preacher, Deanna Durbin's costar, and so on. But, at the end of the nineteen twenties, he convinced himself that applause during symphonies intruded on the divinity of the concert experience, and he began trying to convince audiences to stop. From Oliver Daniel’s biography Stokowski: A Counterpoint of View:
When the audience burst into spontaneous volleys of applause after the pizzicato movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony during a concert on November 8, 1929, Stoki turned, signaled for silence, and explained that his remarks were not intended as a rebuke for their appreciation. 'But,' he added reflectively, 'I have been considering this matter of applause, a relic from the Dark Ages, a survival of customs at some rite or ceremonial dance in primitive times. When the request program blanks are circulated toward the close of the season I may incorporate a questionnaire on the applause topic and ask for you opinion.' He then proceeded to conduct the last movement , and as if to show their attitude, the audience again applauded lustily. (pp. 278-79)
As Herbert Kupferberg’s Those Fabulous Philadelphians reveals, Stokowski then went even further, proposing that audiences stop applauding altogether:
He declared that manifestations of either approval or disapproval were out of place at concerts of ‘divine’ music: all that was required of an audience was to listen in spiritual silence and then return home refreshed and strengthened. He didn’t make this suggestion casually: on November 22, 1929 in the green room at the Academy, he actually held a secret meeting of 100 women — if there is such a thing — to announce his revolutionary idea. Somehow word managed to leak out to the press, which gleefully described how the handsome conductor, nattily clad in a matching combination of cream, tan, and brown, pleaded with the women’s committee to withhold their applause at all future concerts. “But how are we to let you know we appreciate your programs?” one bewildered matron asked. Stokowski’s blue eyes took on a faraway look. “That is of no importance,” he said. “When you see a beautiful painting you do not applaud. When you stand before a statue, whether you like it or not, you neither applaud nor hiss.” Eventually it was decided that the applause question was of such importance that only a full vote of the subscribers could decide it. The right to applaud won out by a vote of 710 to 199. Presumably the right to hiss went with it. (p. 78)
Do not assume that Stokowski did this in a spirit of modesty. The kind of concert that he had in mind would hardly have concealed his role as the genius of the scene. In another meeting with the women of the Academy he said: “It has been the dream of my life to have a Temple of Music. This very minute I have the plans for such a temple completed at my House. Each of the audience would sit alone in a stall-like seat. No one would see his neighbor … Just before the music begins the light will be slowly dimmed so that the entire temple will be in darkness and the audience will be literally drenched in beautiful music.” (Kupferberg, p. 75). Stokowski actually made a trial run at the Temple of Music, and it turned out that the darkness was not quite total, as Abram Chasins relates: “Stokowski ordered the house lights extinguished and allowed only infinitesimal lamps over the orchestra stands, while a huge spotlight played upon the conductor from below so as to project mammoth shadows of his flashing, expressive fingers and hands onto the walls and ceiling of the stage.” (Chasins, Leopold Stokowski, pp. 104-5)
It’s not surprising that conductors were intent on stamping out spontaneous clapping. To refrain from applause heightens focus on the personality of the conductor. Silence is the measure of the unbreakable spell that Maestro is supposedly casting on us. A big ovation at the end salutes his mastery of the architecture of the work, or whatever. Whereas a burst of applause after a first movement or a Scherzo is probably inspired by a soloist’s brilliant playing, or by a powerful collective effort by the musicians, or by the infectious energy of the music itself. Perhaps that’s a cynical theory, but orchestra players might be able to back me up. By the way, I’ve noticed a new trend —Thoughtful Celebrity Conductors holding their arms motionless for ten or fifteen seconds after the end of some vast construction by Bruckner or Mahler. “Do not yet applaud!” those frozen arms say. “Do not profane the moment!” If a truly wonderful performance has taken place, it’s nice to savor the silence. But if it’s only a mediocre run-through, then that priestlike call for silence becomes pretentious and absurd.
The other factor that deserves to be mentioned is that just a few weeks before his no-applause experiment Stokowski conducted the first commercial radio broadcast of a symphonic concert (Oct. 6, 1929). Whether the audience applauded or not during that program I don’t know; it would be interesting to find out. The notion of a Temple of Music, each listener cocooned in solitude, is a mirror image of the new, non-communal modes of listening that radio and recording were in the process of creating. More on this topic in the New Yorker soon.
Stokowski’s campaign against applause aroused immediate opposition, as the “vote” in Philadelphia indicates. The composer Daniel Gregory Mason spoke out against it in his 1931 book Tune In America, which I quoted in “Listen To This.” Mason, a sometimes obnoxious, sometimes constructive polemicist who was arguing for a less hidebound concert experience, began a chapter on audience behavior by talking about different philosophies of rearing children — the “repressive” method and the “responsibility-delegated method.” The silence campaign, he said, represented
the repressive method with a vengeance. It deprives the audience not only of all active participation in the artistic experience, such as might well be thought essential to the healthy progress of art itself, but even of psychological and physical relief after the strain of attention. To sit through a long symphony without any overt reaction to the music, as Stokowski and a number of other conductors now require, is alike discouraging to artistic enthusiasm and highly fatiguing to body, nerves, and mind. After the Funeral March of the Eroica, someone suggested, Mr. Stokowski might at least have pressed a button to inform the audience by (noiseless) illuminated sign: “You may now cross the other leg.’” (p. 52)
Mason notes that the pianist-conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch took another view, announcing his approval for “those countries in the south of Europe where they shout when they are pleased and when they are not, they hiss and throw potatoes.” Gabrilowitsch also said: “It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets.”
Mason goes on to say: “Musical art, in other words, cannot be bought, but has to be co-operatively, socially created by all concerned: that is a truth that is hard for our plutocratic and culturally timid America to learn.” He ends his chapter with the delightful anecdote about summertime stadium concerts that I quoted in my piece last year. A notice was handed out at one of them: “We would respectfully request that the audience refrain from throwing mats.” Mason responds, “There is an audience for you! How infinitely more promising for the future of American music is an atmosphere of mats than an atmosphere of decorum!” We've been having this argument for a long time.
The no-applause rule was slow to spread. It was not in force in Vienna, in 1938, when Bruno Walter conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in one of the last concerts before the Anschluss. Barney Sherman pointed out to me that the audience applauded after some or all movements of the piece, and that the noise was subsequently removed from the famous LP that was issued of this concert. Here is one of the most “serious” audiences that ever existed. Many of those in the hall had attended Mahler’s legendary Viennese performances. Some had known Mahler personally. Yet they applauded during this most searching and death-haunted of Mahler’s works. (Sherman found this information in a reprint of Fred Gaisberg’s Sept. 1944 Gramophone article "Recording from Actual Performances," included with the Dutton Laboratories reissue of the Walter recording.) You can also hear intermittent applause on American orchestral broadcasts into the nineteen fifties. A very kind reader sent me a tape of a 1954 Boston Symphony broadcast of the Bartok Second Violin Concerto, with Tossy Spivakovsky as the soloist and Pierre Monteux conducting. There is warm applause after the first movement, none after the second. It was Monteux, incidentally, who five years later made the statement that Terry Teachout quoted on his blog a few months back: "I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements or a concerto or symphony. I don’t know where the habit started, but it certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions."
That’s as far as I’ve got in my investigation. How and why the Rule became universal in the fifties and sixties remains to be discovered. It was probably tied to the influence of technology on listening habits: these were the years of the LP, with neat bands of silence between each movement. It was almost certainly related to the transmogrification of classical music into a purely “highbrow” form of entertainment, as opposed to the middlebrow, music-for-the-masses ethos that had prevailed in the nineteen thirties and forties. I cannot divine any strong musical reason for it. I have never heard a practicing musician say that applause between movements breaks concentration. Emanuel Ax, for one, says that the absence of applause sometimes makes him uncomfortable. As a listener, I don’t need total silence to help me to understand the music, even less to register its emotional impact. To the contrary, I find this ponderous silence forced, unsettling, and in places absolutely anti-musical, as after the big movements of concertos. It’s crazy for three thousand people to sit in Carnegie Hall contemplating Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if it were some Buddhist monument, rather than a rousing, passionate entertainment.
If I want to contemplate the music in perfect silence, I can listen at home. In the concert hall, I want a communal experience, and applause is one way I feel the presence of fellow listeners, form a common bond with them. The elimination of applause and other passionate gestures turns concerts into yet another solitary, private activity. Christopher Small’s book Musicking, a brilliant assault on the assumptions that have gathered around modern classical performance, has apposite words to say on this subject, and with those I’ll end:
The silence that will greet tonight's performance while it is in progress suggests a different attitude [from the audience behavior of past eras]. Those who wish perfect communion with the composer through the performance can have it, uninterrupted by any noise that may signal the presence of other spectators. On the other hand, while our attention is without doubt active, it is detached; we no longer feel ourselves to be part of the performance but listen to it as it were from the outside. Any noise we might make would not be an element of the performance, as were the sighs and murmurs of the Parisian audience, but an interruption or distraction. I have even known the minute clinks and jingles of a female listener's Charm bracelet to put its wearer's neighbor in a rage. Who we are, then, is spectators rather than participants, and our silence during the performance is a sign of this condition, that we have nothing to contribute but our attention to the spectacle that has been arranged for us. We might go further and say that we are spectators at a spectacle that is not ours, that our relationship with those who are responsible for the production of the spectacle—the composer, the orchestra, the conductor, and those who make the arrangements for tonight's concert—is that of consumers to producers, and our only power is that of consumers in general, to buy or not to buy.
Is it any surprise that a lot of people aren’t buying?