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August 09, 2004

Clap Happy - The Rise & Decline of Audience Applause

Posted by David Conway

David Conway considers the rise and decline of audience applause.

My mention of inapposite applause a few days ago has brought an interesting response from Alexander van Ingen. He writes of the spontaneous appreciation given by audiences to jazz musicians today and of the informal audience manners of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and wonders whether the 'rigid silence' of the 'well-behaved' audience, clapping only at the end of a piece, may not be responsible for keeping younger audiences away?

I doubt the last point; from my observation at recent Prom concerts, the intercalary attempts at applause emanate from middle-aged folk in the stalls, earning glares from the youthful Promenaders. I will return to this phenomenon below. But first let us consider why people applaud at all. Unfortunately I find no books on the general topic of applause, or even an entry in the Grove Dictionary - so this article could be the source of a whole new area of academic research. In the great academic tradition, by the way, I am writing this off the top of my head with minimal research, allowing plenty of opportunity for the disagreement, complaint or contempt of readers.

Applause of course has its origins in the theatre, and migrated to the world of concert music via opera. By the eighteenth century, the aria form had developed so that it offered wonderful opportunities for the singers to show off, and finished with a definitive cadence that allowed the fans to express their appreciation before the next number began. Instrumental concert music grew out of the forms evolved in opera and, like the aria, the concerto offered virtuosity that could likewise solicit applause.

This applause performed various functions apart from genuinely encouraging and (spiritually) rewarding the soloists involved. It was partly self-praise of the audience itself, who until the early nineteenth century consisted largely of the wealthy or aristocratic. They wished to demonstrate that they were people of taste who appreciated the dainties they were being served – like Browning’s effete Venetian –

'Brave Galuppi! That was music! Good alike at grave and gay!
I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!'

Eventually it also came to perform an important commercial function. Opera was already big business in the eighteenth century and with the advent of Grand Opera in the 1820s, and with the increased borgeoisification of audiences, it became even bigger. Fees for singers and the costs of staging were enormous. Success was worth paying for and supply came forward to meet demand in the form of the claque, who could be hired to boo or applaud. In France and Italy the claque became an institution and there were set fees for guffaws, expressions of horror, levels of ecstasy, and so on.

The excesses of audience-empowerment to which these attitudes led would be condemned even by the most inclusively-minded of arts administrators. One such incident occurred in Paris in 1841 when Liszt was playing Beethoven's 'Emperor' concerto, with Berlioz conducting. After the first movement, the audience loudly clamoured for Liszt to play his spectacular solo piano fantasy on Meyerbeer's opera 'Robert the Devil', and he was forced to comply (much to the disgust of Wagner, who was present).

Such demonstrations were demeaning to the new romantic status of the artist. In Mozart and Haydn's time of course, musicians basically just did what they were paid for, but now every musician aspired to the veneration for their art that had been engendered by the worship for Beethoven. After Beethoven, a symphony was no longer perceived as an assemblage of four movements put together for the delectation of its audience, but an integral Work of Art. (It had been so in the hands of Mozart and Haydn as well, of course, but no one had thought of it as such). Composers of the new generation, particularly those who felt music should be taken seriously, began to demand some control over their works.

Prominent amongst these was Felix Mendelssohn. He had the temerity to insist, for example, that players in his orchestra ought to attend rehearsals themselves, rather than send deputies, and that freeloaders and other nuisances should be excluded from rehearsals to enable proper concentration. Whilst that gave him command over his troops, it didn't tame audiences until he hit on the cunning ruse, in his Violin Concerto of 1844, of the solo violin sustaining a note at the end of the first movement, leading straight into the slow movement, thus stifling the urge any idiot might have of applauding after the solo cadenza. The cadenza by the way, which in a concerto was originally an opportunity for the soloist to show his skill in improvisation, Mendelssohn had completely written out, further exerting his control over what was heard and how his music was responded to.

But Mendelssohn and his school had another, more subtle, way of intimidating audiences. Under his influence, and that of his followers, concerts began to contain far more music by dead composers than by the living. (At the start of the nineteenth century, about 80% of the music performed by Mendelssohn's own orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, had been by living composers; by the end of the century they formed less than 20% of the repertoire). Beethoven was seen as a peak to which music had risen, and the best that future generations could hope for was to approach it. The canonic repertoire was even given the name 'classical', (a term unknown in music before the 1830s), investing it with the status in music of the Latin and Greek classics in sculpture, architecture and literature. Audiences were expected to listen in awe and applaud only at the approved moments, at the end of the piece when the composer's sublime inspiration could be acknowledged. The new musical clerisy was only too delighted to be told the proper idols to respect. As the conductor von Bulow is said to have thundered later in the century 'Il n'y a que trois 'B' dans la musique, Bach, Beethoven et Brahms – les autres sont crétins' (to which the witty Jewish pianist Moszkowski responded 'Il n'y a que trois 'M' dans la musique – Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer et Moszkowski – les autres sont chrétiens').

In opera meanwhile the battle against the audience was carried to its furthest extreme by Wagner, whose 11 hours-long Ring Cycle contains only one aria, the Spring Song in 'Walküre' which he seems to have left in by mistake from an earlier draft. Sure enough audiences still try to applaud it – it is the only opportunity they have except for the ends of acts, for otherwise the music is continuous.

And it is in the thrall of mid-nineteenth century concert-hall standards that audiences have remained ever since, until the trend has appeared over recent years for some to attempt applause every time the orchestra goes silent.

The easiest question to address is, whether this is a 'bad thing'. The answer must be, unequivocally, yes it is. As it happens I agree with Van Ingen that some 'show off' music could be interrupted by applause without much loss of overall effect. The problem here is that different folks would disagree as to which pieces would fall into this category. I myself couldn't care less if people applauded in between movements of the music of Delius or the Rachmaninoff concerti (or for that matter if they chattered or munched crisps all the way though them) – but I concede that others may feel differently. De gustibus non est disputandem. Certainly virtually all concert music written after, say, 1850, was intended to be listened to as integral, whether divided into movements or not; admirers of such music will generally want to hear it as the composer intended they should, and not be subjected to breaks of mood or concentration imposed on them by the waywardness of others. Over recent days I have heard on the radio or at the Albert Hall a symphony of Dvořák, a song cycle of Ravel and a concerto of Martinů (the one which started my whole thread of thought on this topic), the atmospheres of all of which were diminished or ruined by the desultory dribbles of hand-clapping from a small number in the audience in between sections. The true feeling of the audience as a whole could easily be noted by the contrastingly thunderous applause after the end of each piece.

This raises the question – why do they do it? It is possible that people new to concert-going might applaud at, say the end of the first movement of a symphony – but you would imagine that, realising that hardly anyone joined in, and that it was clearly not the done thing, they would then refrain until they could see that everyone else was clapping. But this is not the case: at the (very fine) performance of Dvořák's Eighth Symphony by the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra, with Maurits Jansons at the helm, the sickly trickle of claps issued forth after the second and third movements as well – even though the conductor had been moved to adopt a protective stance warning against interruption by holding his baton high (as if conductors didn't have enough to do just controlling the orchestra). And it was, as noted, always from middle-aged seat-holders.

What on earth did they have in mind? 'Probably Americans' said my companion, perhaps only because it is fashionable to apportion blame across the Atlantic. But I would suggest that the villain here is Classic FM radio. It consistently broadcasts bleeding chunks of music – odd movements of symphonies and concerti, snatches of opera – interspersed with inane and/or ill-informed chit-chat. Those who have become 'hooked on the classics' by its means probably do not even realise that these items have contexts. Listeners to Classic FM will follow its implicit lead the way the bourgeois of the nineteenth century followed the leads of Mendelssohn, Hiller, von Bulow and other gurus of their day. Coming to music late in life as many of them have done, they will not even understand that they are causing aggravation to their fellows in the audience (as well as to the musicians on stage).

But there is a simple remedy to this growing plague – and I cannot understand why it has not been adopted. It is to put uncertain members of audience out of their misery by letting them know when it would be appropriate to clap. This can be done in two ways. You can print it in the programme (as one sees even in 'highbrow venues' like the Wigmore Hall) - 'Please withhold applause until the end of the last movement', or 'There will be break for applause after section 3', or whatever. And you could announce it at the start of the concert, at the same time as the universally accepted reminder about mobile phones and bleepers: 'To render the composer's intentions with fidelity, the orchestra kindly asks the audience to refrain from applause until the completion of the symphony'.

It is really in the interests of concert halls to adopt a policy of this sort. Otherwise they will find their audiences shrinking as those who prefer to listen to music rather than the percussion of others' hands withdraw to the less spontaneous, but less interrupted, pleasure of their CD collections. Now that we are beginning to admit that even the British Empire wasn't all that bad, perhaps we can also adopt a positive attitude towards Victorian concert etiquette.

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