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Give classical music a hand. Or don't?

January 31, 2009 |  8:00 am

ApplauseClassical music has a reputation, deserved or not, for being stuffy, fussily concerned with manners. The tuxedos don’t help. And then there are the glares when some poor, unsuspecting soul claps her hands between movements.

The issue of applause isn’t new, but it’s been raised recently by pianist Emanuel Ax on his blog. Many of Beethoven’s and Mozart’s movements, he says, end with a flourish, and the composers expected audiences to respond to the fanfare.

The highly regarded musician writes, rather sensibly, “I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty.”

I remember when the Orange County Performing Arts Center opened in 1986, The Times’ classical music critic Martin Bernheimer took it upon himself to educate the masses about concert etiquette. To this Orange County resident — who generally enjoyed reading Bernheimer — we were the rubes from the ’burbs. I just reread Bernheimer's piece and I am reminded that while he wagged a finger at Orange County’s “glittery throng,” he said that audiences elsewhere weren’t much better.

And Bernheimer wasn’t alone ...

Zubin Mehta and Isaac Stern separately showed their disapproval to audience noise from Orange County’s new stage. The attitude then, as now (Ax excepted), is that classical music should be appreciated in thought. Bernheimer concluded:

The general admonitions are simple: Listen first, and listen carefully. If cheering seems imperative, cheer. But, if possible, cheer at the end of the piece.

After years of enjoying classical performances, I know the deal. You’d better be aware of how many movements are in a piece. If that’s a bother, just wait till the whole auditorium is clapping and join in.
But I admit there are times when a lively movement ends and I wish I could show my appreciation.

This topic has been on my mind for a few months, since reading a fascinating New Yorker article by Alex Ross about how classical music became so serious. I learned that in the 1700s, members of the audience were royal or rich and socially roamed theaters during performances. As Ross explains:

The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé.

What changed, Ross says, is the decline of the aristocracy after the French Revolution:

The bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life, imposing a new conception of how concerts should unfold.... By applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural élite.

Ross writes that Cal State Long Beach professor emeritus William Weber  comes to the defense of the middle class in his book The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming From Haydn to Brahms.” Weber explains that the middle class was rejecting aristocratic values.

Two centuries later, those rules still apply. Can today’s audiences heed Ax and change? It’s tempting to borrow from our new president and glibly say, “Yes we can.” I’m not so sure. It feels like it will take new audiences to bring new habits. But please, if a movement moves you, clap. You might get shushed, but someone else might join in. It has to start somewhere.

-- Sherry Stern

Photo credit: Times file photo

Comments () | Archives (10)

Some people think it highly inappropriate to show up for a concert or play in casual clothes. In my financial situation, the cost of professionally performed cultural events is out of reach for any more than two or three occasions per year. Buying and maintaining dress clothes raises the cost. Then there is the matter of psychological comfort. I feel better about events where the music is the thing and the clothes are irrelevant. For others, formal dress is more comfortable - and that's fine.

As for concert behavior, we need to get over this problem about clapping between movements. Clapping should never be obligatory (it doesn't make sense to automatically clap after any and every movement), but silence shouldn't be mandatory either.

One exception: Some concerts (usually involving religious music) function as one extended moment, and clapping during the event just isn't suitable for maintaining the spirit (small 's') of the event. People (in Minneapolis, at least) are generally sensitive to this issue.

Generally the worst problems seem to be more or less under control. Most electronic devices are turned off most of the time. Most people don't chat during concerts. Concert halls hand out free cough drops with soft wrappers that don't make crinkly noise.

One matter I am not sure about is: Should the orchestra be dressed in black? I have found orchestras who dressed in individually selected clothes (no tux uniform) visually distracting some times. If the concert venue is less formal, it doesn't matter so much.

I go to classical music concerts, am young (32), and a working person (read: not wealthy or fancy) and it bothers me when the audience claps between movements. Regardless of the origins of the convention, not clapping between movements serves practical/aesthetic purposes: an interval of silence allows the listener a momentary rest from sound, allows us to savor the last few notes played and prepare mentally for the next movement; sometimes, when a piece is raucus, silence provides space for dramatic tension to build or dissolve, depending. Clapping disturbs those moments. Silence also lets the musicians remain focused on the music rather than breaking their focus to acknowledge applause. These interests have nothing to do with keeping classical concerts "exclusive"; it has to do with becoming a good listener, being courteous, and recognizing that we are entering a different and special context, rather than just behaving like we do everywhere else. It's kind of absurd to suggest that throwing in applause here and there would reclaim classical music for "the people" (however defined). Let's face it: any sort of entertainment that's non-verbal and not primarily visual, requires an attention span of more than 5 minutes, and usually costs a goodly sum to attend is going to have only a small audience (though I maintain we come from ALL classes). In short, there's always a chance to clap afterwards; I think it's best if newcomers learn that convention and save applause for the end of a piece. But more annoying than between-movement applause are (1) hearing jewelry (like charm bracelets and earrings with bells, for crying out loud) jangling every time your neighbor moves or, god forbid, as she unceasingly taps out the beat with her hand; and (2) hearing people breathing extremely noisily, as if they were snoring. People attend concerts to hear music, and sounds (especially repeated or rhythmic sounds) not part of the orchestration are annoying and distracting. The errant cough doesn't bother me as much because that's not as controllable and it's not continuous; but jangly jewelry and breathing akin to snoring? A little awareness and application of the golden rule would avoid these problems. Especially considering the price of tickets, it would be really nice to have just the music.

Sorry, Sherry, but I think that Martin's conclusion was correct for four reasons. First, why stop there? Most pieces contain exciting flourishes wihin movements — is it okay to applaud there? In most multi-movement concert pieces, there are themes and thoughts that run through the various movements and applauding after a movement can break the continuity. One obvious example: while the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ends with a flourish, the contrast of of the somber movement that comes immediately afterwards is seriously affected by wild applause for the bombastic ending. Second, the concept that applause can only happen after a flourish (to use Ax's words) is ludicrous. There have been countless numbers of quiet, introspective, delicate moments that might have also cry out for applause, some of which Mr. Ax has played. I don't think I have ever heard applause in those situations. Third, most of the times when people applaud they're doing so because they think it's required (concert halls aren't alone in this; churches have gotten in this habit, as well). The applause is not spontaneous appreciation for a moment; it something that those applauding feel as if they should do. Finally, there's nothing wrong with learning and accepting the discipline that comes with classical music. Part of that is to sit quietly and listen to the music, all the music. If, as Martin said, you absolutely feel compelled to cheer, do so but loud sustained applause at the end of a piece works just as well.

Jazz artists get applause at the end of exceptional solos as do rock musicians. Why can't a violinist get applause at the end of an exceptionally difficult violin concerto movement?

I've heard some musicians say it breaks their train of thought... but is applause really more disturbing than the coughs, sniffles and scraps of chairs between movements (which is typically what happens... making the atmosphere even more uncomfortable as everyone feels restricted in their silence)?

Yes... applaud, show your appreciation.

I've enjoyed classical music performances for more than 40 years. For the most part I think our current concert etiquette serves us well. It's a good compromise between allowing the audience to listen intently without distraction, and being able to show appreciation at the appropriate time with applause and hearty "bravos." And, once you've attended a concert or two, the rules aren't that hard to understand. That said, in the spirit of "understand the rules so you know how to break them properly," there's probably room for a little leeway along the lines Ms. Stern and Mr. Ax (whom I greatly admire) discussed .

First, there are some compositions where you have to be made out of stone to withhold applause betweeen movements. Due repsect to Mr. Thomas, the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony is certainly one of them, and I think every orchestra and conductor in the world understands and expects this. (Anent the tragic finale - it's the mood afterward, not before, that counts most. Some contemplative silence after the last notes and before the applause seems more appropriate). Another is the first movement of the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto. I double-dare you to hold back! The list is fairly short, but In those few cases - I say break the rules and show your sophisticaion loud and well.

Incidentally, I recently had the privilege of hearing Yefim Bronfman with the LA Phil in a stirring performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Mr. Bronfman gave a bravura performance of the famous first movement, and the entire audience responded with sustained applause. Most soloists just ignore between-movement applause, but Mr. Bronfman stood and graciously bowed to acknowledge the audience's heartfelt sentiment. Though the rules were broken, it was a lovely moment.

Part of the problem is that musical education in the U.S. has all but disappeared from the public schools. Sadly, there now exist one or two generations who not only have never learned good concert manners but, even worse, are just intimidated by the whole experience. For those who love this art form - we need them. (And their money!) When bringing a friend unfamiliar with classical music to a concert, I make it a point to run thru basic etiquette in a low-key manner, always with the proviso "don't worry about it" if you slip. The flip side is that some of that between-movement applause is the sound of potential new enthusiasts - and funding for an art that desparately needs it. So - I cut a little slack (though I draw the line at clapping after slow movements).

Finally - to Mr. Jefferis' point about dress, I agree that the cost of evening attire shouldn't be an obstacle to attending a classical music performance or other cultural event. Nothing at all wrong with casual - as long as it's clean and in reasonable repair, and exhibits some respect for the art that is being presented. I do draw the line at shorts, fliip-flops and T-shirts with messages - all of which, regrettably, may be seen most any night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Please, folks - it is not about you. Have some mercy on your fellow patrons.

A really interesting piece, and productive comments from different angles. I like Sherry Stern's historical points about the educational efforts of such people as Martin Bernheimer, for whom I worked as stringer. I would add that the tradition of applause became rooted in opera life and remains strong there today, if attenuated by the idealism begun in the Wagnerian movement during the 1850s. But I would like to point out that my book, "Great Transformation of Musical Taste," argues that both aristocrats and bourgeois influenced the rise of classical music, since the early patrons of chamber music were high nobles, and yet middle-class doctors or teachers made up most of the public. The mingling of values and traditions from the two groups was the key to how the idealism of classical-music concerts became firmly established in the middle of the nineteenth century.

I would also argue that many listeners in the eighteenth-century, whether aristorcrat or bourgeois, were quite serious. Even though manners were more diverse in the opera than now, people really did listen. Musical life indeed lost a certain vitality, and a fascination for the new, when its manners became more strictly serious in nature around 1850. Michael Jefferis states the new ethic--that very moral set of expectations--admirably. I hope this discussion can continue on this page.

I'm all for the tuxedo/black being standard concert dress. It removes what could be a visual distraction and allows one to concentrate on the music at hand. In addition, black is visually complementary to most stages and orchestral instruments. It's also safe: most classical musicians who choose to opt out of standard dress have horrible, risible tastes in fashion. Very distracting.

As to when one should applaud: the current tradition of waiting until a composition is over isn't bad. As one who has heard applause at inappropriate times (Ex: the finale of Tchaikovsky 5th - you know the spot I'm talking about) I prefer not having MY enjoyment interrupted by someone who doesn't know the piece.

Solo concertos are a different story. Certain movements end with a flourish and call out for applause. Others don't. At Segerstrom Hall, audiences tend to know their music and applaud after some movements in concertos. No one applauded at the end of the first movement of the Mendelssohn this year, and the bassoon solo was heard uninterrupted. Other concertos without such bridges do get applause at the ends of the first movements (depending on the virtuosity of the soloist, of course!)

I don't think you can compare applauding during a classical piece to applauding after a jazz solo. Jazz musicians will vamp until the applause dies down for one soloist before the next one launches their solo. It's part of their tradition of improvisatory performance. Classical music, on the other hand, is at the mercy of the composer, and most composers fail to write an applause-underlying vamp to handle any applause a soloist might earn for his playing midway through a composition.

Why not bring back the "capo de claque" and be done with it?

Noisy candy wrappers can drown out even the most zealous of brass sections, but the worst distraction, by far, is hearing aid feedback. Is there a polite way of letting someone know that they are about to shatter someone's spectacles?

One additional note about the orchestra musicians' attire. I agree with the previous entries suggesting that black attire works well and avoids visual distraction. But here in the early 21st century, I don't see a particular reason to continue with a strict white tie/long tails policy for the male musicians. Something more contemporary and comfortable would work well, while maintaining visual uniformity. A standard suit jacket, for instance, would be just fine. And I've noticed a number of conductors (Maestro Salonen being one) who have ditched the tie altogther. How 'bout the same thing for the troops?

Female orchstra musicians have always seemed to enjoy a bit more leeway in attire while maintaining the basic black theme. "Simpler the better" seems to work well for all involved.

What better orchestra than our forward-looking LA Phil to lead the way in "contemporary uniformity"?


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