John Frayne: When to applaud at concerts? Some answers

When should you applaud at concerts? A simple answer might be, when you like the music! But life in or out of concert halls is never simple.

The usual injunction of those who run concert venues is that in multimovement works of classical music you are requested to withhold applause until the end. There is much to be said for such a clear view.

A sonata or symphony may build up an intense mood which should not be broken by applause. In vocal recitals, especially, the singer may choose a series of songs for a special effect, and applause after each song would undermine the effect. Instrumental recitalists seem to assume, if not encourage, applause after short, disconnected pieces in a program, but not between movements of a sonata or a suite.

But a pianist may program, for example, three mazurkas by Frederic Chopin and want them not to be interrupted by audience reaction. A pianist might control audience reaction by not relaxing after playing a short piece. I have known performers to tell an audience to withhold applause until the end of the group of pieces.

In a way, the composer and the music might tell you when to applaud. Highly exciting music tends to evoke the highest level of applause, and composers know how to lead up to a cliffhanger of a finale to produce the most powerful response.

Which brings me to what I call the "Tchaikovsky Effect." The composers of virtuoso display concertos of the 19th century frequently built up to a peak of excitement at the end of the first, usually fast, movement. And to add to that effect, the soloist usually has a cadenza, an unaccompanied insert of brilliant technical display music, before the soloist and orchestra bring the movement to a rousing conclusion. Thus, composer and artist seem to be begging for a direct response from the audience.

I single out Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky because the end of the first movement of his first piano concerto reaches such a peak of excitement that audiences frequently break out into applause. And, in my private opinion, when they do not applaud after than movement, I suspect that something is wrong.

On the other hand, applause at the end of the following, slow movement of that concerto seems to me inappropriate because it is the interlude, the relaxation point, between two highly charged movements. Applause releases tension, but clears the air for the build-up of new tension.

Beethoven settled the problem of applause in his "Emperor" concerto (No. 5), by having the slow movement lead, without pause, into the finale. And, by the way, audiences frequently do applaud after the monumental first movement of the "Emperor."

Felix Mendelssohn, in his famous violin concerto, left no room for applause by having movements flow without pause from one into another. But this leads into another problem. When the music is continuous, how do you know what movement you are in?

Franz Liszt's piano concertos are played without pause, and there may be some confusion about which of the movements you are in.

In the opera house, things are different. In an old-fashioned "numbers opera," wherein each aria, or ensemble, has a clear ending, applause is welcomed after each one. But in England, at Covent Garden, applause while the music is in progress is discouraged. American opera houses are more indulgent in allowing applause within operatic scenes.

In Richard Wagner's music dramas, which are "through-composed," applause is avoided because of the lack of clearly defined arias. By unspoken tradition, one does not applaud at the end of the first act of Wagner's "Parsifal," and, in my opinion, if there is any music that leaves an audience in a state of religious awe, it is at the end of that act.

The decision to applaud or not is both individual and communal. Sometimes you have to give up your personal spontaneous response so as not to disturb the mood of others.

But my reference to "Parsifal" prompts me to say that the concert hall is not a church. Great classical music can produce a powerful, mesmerizing spell, but treating symphonies as if they were sacred rituals tends to drive many people away. In some ways, I envy ballet audiences; they even applaud within musical units, if the balletic movements are stunning enough.

I can appreciate the need for a clear and simple rule, and "no applause between movements" is quite clear, but I would like to add "except when the music draws from you the irresistible urge to applaud."

Finally, we Americans are very polite. We applaud even when we are less than enchanted, and rarely actively express displeasure. For contrast, go to an opera house in Italy on a bad night.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

Topics (1):Music

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