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A Semi-Brief  Explanation of When to Clap

   Midway through a performance of a flamboyant encore* by one of Classical Music's latest celebrities, a large section of the audience felt impelled to show its appreciation for the proceedings by smashing its forelimbs together in the time-honored fashion. You know, applause.

     I said it was midway through the performance--in fact, he still had about five minutes left in the piece. If he had been playing a jazz solo this would have been quite alright, but in the context of this particular recital the rules were different. The audience, having no cause to consult those embarrassing social norms, and having heard a loud chord issuing forth from the piano, innocently assumed the piece must be done, and began to show the executant its gratitude for that by reminding him that there was only one of him and many more of them, and after all, they appreciated his efforts, but really now, collectively they could make a lot more noise than he could. We like to keep our artists humble.

   As there was no referee present the recital went on without penalty or loss of down, and the pianist continued to perpetrate sound throughout the concert hall until he, not his fellow men, decided that he was finished. What cheek.

Nevertheless, instant replay clearly showed that a rule had been violated. Normally this is punishable by death stares from the crankier and therefore more knowledgeable members of the audience, but not in this case. Ahh, yes. Those pesky rules. Personally I always like to see to it that the term rules is in lower case and that it is understood only to refer to the general effect intended, not as a set of customs that must be rigidly followed even though we have no earthly idea why. But as I have often witnessed people violating the, uh, suggestions, of classical music's most hallowed (for a century or so) traditions, I thought it might be nice to weigh in on the perilous position that society has found itself in, the chaos that ensues when people don't know just when to clap. This will be a study of the attitudes and thought processes of the creature human as well as a simple thesis on what the--er, rules are and how they developed.


To begin. The North American clap, as we all know perfectly well, produces a lot of noise. Well, generally. There are less virile breeds such as the Half-hearted Attempt, or the Don't Wantastandout, but the clap is mostly considered a member of the phylum "noise". It is usually given as a response to the energy of the performer, as if it were an echo with interest, the final sonic assault multiplied by the size of the crowd. It could probably be calculated in terms of  x:



  x = energy x volume x number of notes per minute              x   size of the hall
       square root of the tempo - boredom ( year of composition )   number of people25



This is the way the crowd thinks of it. An artist is bound to see it in some completely confusing way, such as the following by legendary pianist Artur Schnabel: "Applause is a receipt, not a bill." He was explaining his refusal to play encores, but his argument seems simple enough: I play for you, you pay me for it afterward by pushing your hands together. For much of musical history this was considered the standard currency for the payment of artists. We don't eat much.

What seems simple enough, that applause is a combination of enthusiasm and courtesy, is actually an enormous conundrum. A person who is responding to energy will tend to clap more readily when a piece ends (or doesn't, as we have just seen) with a bang. A piece with a soft ending is more a candidate for polite applause, if any. The question, as always, is whether we do what feels right according to our senses, or what our brains tell us is an appropriate cultural response. Logic, or feeling.

Enter the artist. Before about 1780 there simply weren't any public concerts. People could sit on their hands in resplendent comfort. There was very little resplendence to go around among the general population, of course, but the potentates of the various little kingdoms all had their hireling musicians to provide the royal music. Haydn worked for a prince. Mozart chafed in the service of an archduke. Bach spent a portion of his life in the employ of a lowly duke. It was probably considered sufficient for the prince or whomever to express his appreciation with a well-timed "bravo!" Eventually, music began to move outside of those regal establishments and certain musical societies sprang up. What their behavior was like after a splendid sonata I don't know. But with the rise of the middle class public concerts sprang up, and it seemed necessary that some sort of demonstration be made not only of the artist's merit but the audience's recognition of his worthiness. It became customary to applaud.

Life was simpler in those times. Notwithstanding the constant wars, the short life-expectancy, or the complete inability to keep disease or discomfort at bay.  A brief look at what the public concert would have been like, say, in Mozart's Vienna, will reveal a couple of interesting things. First we have to remember that the concert was a pretty new toy in those days, and the rules, those seemingly immobile guides to behavior, were just getting written. Second, we have to remember that the public concert included the participation of the rabble, by which we mean everybody who wasn't the aristocracy. The unsophisticated multitudes! They innocently assumed that anything worthy of their admiration was worthy of applause. Listen to Mozart boasting to his father on the success of a recent piano concerto:

"a few measures into the piece there is an effect wherein the orchestra explodes in a sudden fortissimo. When the people heard this they broke into enthusiastic applause!"

In the middle of the piece, no less! Apparently there was no point in waiting; the audience wanted to let the composer know right away what portion of his composition pleased them, and the best way to do that was to let loose immediately upon hearing it. There was no great air of discreet silence in those days.

Mozart knew that he was writing for two distinct groups of people; those who knew music, meaning those who had studied it and acquainted themselves with its traditions and conventions and who could, in all probability, make their own, either in executing it upon some instrument or in composing it themselves, and those who didn't know much about music, but knew what they liked, a rather large group that is still very much in vogue and adds drama to our society even today by carrying a similar attitude about making important political decisions. 

Those less informed persons were probably more likely to go in for immediate feedback because what they were looking for was a passage which dazzled them, a sound or an effect which pleased them. In fact, Mozart takes some pride in a letter to his father over a concerto of his which contains some passages written, he says, in a manner that not only will the connoisseur appreciate, but the less knowledgeable also "cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing the reason why."

It has always been the manner of the more civilized among us to hold off on vigorous demonstrations of that sort for fear of looking foolish. But there soon rose an artistic reason for holding applause. That artistic reason's name was Beethoven.

Beethoven changed the world of music dramatically. He lived in a time when the political world was also in ferment--the United States was born when he was six years old; the French revolution waited to happen until he was 19. Democracy was afoot, and he loved it. But in shunning the old world of counts and countesses, princes and dukes, he didn't leave the authoritarian world entirely; he simply replaced it with his own system. In his world, it was what came from within a man that made him a nobleman, and Beethoven was nothing if not able to recognize his own genius.

Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies, as opposed to Mozart's 41, or Haydn's 104. Sometimes he labored for years over a single work. Some have made the mistake of substituting spontaneity for genius; Beethoven was simply working under a different rubric. His symphonic creations are almost like philosophical systems of thought; everything that occurs in the opening measures of a symphony is explained later, every prophecy fulfilled, and every major event foreshadowed even twenty minutes before it occurs. It would not do to applaud in the midst of such an unfolding.

He went further. The symphonic animal in those days consisted of four pieces, or movements, which meant that the orchestra got to stop and wipe its brow on three separate occasions before going on. In Mozart's time, these pieces weren't even played contiguously; sometimes, after the first movement had been aired, the maestro would trot out a singer, or a horn player, or himself, and tick off several short, unrelated numbers in the manner of a variety show before getting back to the sober business of the symphony's last three movements. With Beethoven, this would not do. Not only do the movements have an internal cohesion which is startling, but he begins to connect the movements themselves, sometimes literally, by instructing the orchestra to attack the following movement without a pause, or sometimes in a more subtle, thematic way. In either case, the symphonic argument isn't over, and applause is not the coin of the realm, but a polite silence, which, in our time, has been supplemented by hacking fits from several corners of the hall.

When Wagner came to complete the tendency a generation later, he required his congregation to remain silent throughout an entire act of his epic music-dramas, which after all, contain no musical breaks, no separate "songs," but a continuous texture. It was Brahms, the symphonist, who produced music for the orchestra after the spirit of Beethoven, even approaching the act of composing a symphony anxiously and in fear, aware of the high-minded seriousness of the task; but it was Wagner who made listening to his music a cult of subservience to its holy purpose.

Both of these men lived over a century ago, and the era of enlightened clapping has since calcified into a custom, which is sad. On the barbarian shores of America, classical music devotees came to this sacred attitude much later than their Wagnerian forebears at the annual Bayreuth festival in central Germany.  Certain traditions have risen up in which the audience was expected to clap at the "wrong time". For instance, it was long thought perfectly acceptable to applaud at the end of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. The first movement is nearly a piece by itself and concludes with such a jubilant finale that it almost needs an applause chaser. This is really a leftover from the days when each movement was an occasion for clapping, and, if that segment of the work pleased the folks greatly, they would demand an encore before going on to digest the succeeding portions. Musicians would often record that they had had to repeat the second movement before going on to the third, or the first before playing the second. In the days before recordings, the audience might not get to hear that piece again for a while--when Mozart had been impresario he had written new pieces for nearly every concert, so listening experiences really were one-time deals. You had to speak up then and there if you liked something.

Every Christmas during performances of Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus is capped off by healthy applause, whether it comes before an intermission or not. Usually, however, people are seized by dopophobia, which is a fear of clapping at the wrong time, and looking like a dope, or worse, like somebody who's never been to a concert before. Although I feel that it is important to allow silence to bridge the gaps between movements in a symphony of Beethoven or Brahms (and, not incidentally, allow the artist to control how much time he wants to have until the next movement begins), I wish people were more at ease to just applaud when it seemed natural to do so. There are exceptions, but they can be eliminated by paying attention to the people bringing you the music. Watch the conductor! When he is holding perfectly still, with his arms in the air, he wants to preserve the silence. Wait until he relaxes his posture. If he doesn't hold a pose, it is alright to begin clapping immediately. And of course, applause in the middle of a piece, as any jazz soloist knows, means you are drowning out the next several measures of music, and unlike a trained comedian, the music cannot wait until you are finished responding to the last bit.

Taken in sum, my suggestions would result in a slight increase in applause across the board, and a concomitant relaxation of the fans in the seats, but unfortunately, they are not quite in keeping with the present-day customs of those in the know--the ones who like to keep the rest of us ignorant ones in line.

Simply stated, the rules of twenty-first century concert-going America (both of you) are that applause should be saved for the end of any multi-movement work such as a symphony, or even a suite (although there again I have to express a difference of opinion because a suite consists of different pieces which are generally not philosophically connected in any deep and meaningful way--I don't see the matter with sometimes applauding between selections here). Anybody who is confused by this can of course revert back to the custom of waiting until the rest of the Romans begin clapping. In Baltimore there were always a few show-offs who wanted you to be aware that they know every piece on the concert backwards and forwards, and were eager to boldly begin the applause immediately after the last note was executed, even if it was still ringing in the hall. This applied not only to pieces with an animated finish, but even those that end mournfully, such as the finale of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony, whose last notes fade away slowly into oblivion. Although I've not seen the score, I would not be surprised if the composer had indicated a measure of silence with a fermata above the rest to show that the concluding silence is an important part of the music, something that composers often do, while their accomplices with the baton hold their pose for five or ten seconds in order not to break the spell of the piece. Finally, they relax their pose and the well-trained audience lets forth the rivers of applause. This is a good way to respect the music. But these know-it-alls would rather you be impressed by their veteran ears that have absorbed all the right pieces again and again.

I wish we could get rid of those people!


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