Category Archives: applause

Life without the sound of silence

There were two comments, each well written and making good points, on my Go Ahead and Clap Between Movements post.  Elaine Fine points out, quite rightly, that applause can be distracting to the performer’s concentration, and that it changes the effect of a subsequent movement.  She gives the example of applause between the first two movements of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony.

Consider my wording: the applause that happens after a first movement also happens before a second movement. Applause between those movements nullifies the impact of the first chord of the second movement. You may as well start with the theme!

But the end of the first movement seems quite obviously to have been written, among other things, to elicit applause.  Beethoven, based on everything I know, would have expected it.  And that wonderful opening chord of the second movement would still have an impact if it comes after the applause dies down, even, perhaps especially, if it interrupts and cuts off the last bit of applause.  This of course would mean that we accept a new-to-us paradigm in which the performance is an audience-inclusive social experience in which audience response is welcome.  It’s not out of the question that given the conventions of his time, Beethoven intended that chord to silence lingering applause, rather than emerge from silence.

I certainly cannot prove that Beethoven would not have preferred the currently-traditional silence-between-movements culture of professional symphony concerts.  I imagine that he would have gladly thrown out any piano he ever played in favor of a nine-foot Steinway.

Underlying both of Elaine’s points, with which I personally sympathize, and the larger opposition to applause between movements, is, I believe, the idea that silence between movements is part of the work. Performers who are used to that silence, and experience it as part of what is supposed to happen, as part of what is, are going to be discomfited, just as many audience members are offended.

It will be interesting to see how our musical culture evolves.  As Alex Ross has documented so well, the “musical assumption” that silence between movements is part of the work is a fairly recent development.  It will be interesting to see how classical-music culture evolves;  silence between all movements may well be an idea whose time has come and gone.

Having experimented a bit with inviting applause between movements, I can say that applause after a quiet end of a slow movement can be jarring.  Janis wrote,

I was happy to see this article as well — the “ohgodshouldiclap?” anxiety is annoying to audiences, and even to me when I’m sitting there and I know the etiquette. If it’s a slower, quieter work, most people will subdue their applause anyhow — it’s just the fear of looking uncouth that makes people make mistakes. Short of throwing things, I’ve never seen a rock audience applaud “incorrectly.”

At my fall DePauw recital where I invited the audience to clap between movements but told them they didn’t have to, applause after the first movement of the Brahms F Major Sonata felt fine and natural.  After the second movement, it felt a bit forced, as if some felt they had to applaud and perhaps others were enjoying the opportunity to break a rule.  By the time we did the Kabalevsky First Concerto (with piano, which I think is fine on professional recitals, especially since so few of us get to perform concertos with orchestras), there was a natural silence after the slow movement which I appreciated.

Last week, I heard Stephen Hough do an electrifying performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony.  Absolutely sensational, and there was enthusiastic applause after the first movement in which I has happy to join.  There was a slight disdainful look from a man a few seats down!  But what could be more natural than applauding after the rousing finish to that movement.  If I remember correctly, there was no applause after the second movement. (I had thought about initiating applause after the first movement of the Beethoven Second Symphony, but didn’t quite have the leadership energy to do so.)

This can work.  But not for everyone, not everywhere.

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