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.



Filed under applause, concert ettiquete

12 responses to “Life without the sound of silence

  1. I can certainly accept the idea of the first chord of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th as a way to silence any possible applause. (And he couldn’t hear applause by that point.)

    I love the way Mendelssohn, through his writing, made it impossible for an audience to clap between movements in many of his multi-movement pieces. It goes far beyond the idea of a written request in the music, and goes far beyond–and before–the Scottish Symphony: consider the Violin Concerto.

    I suppose that the idea of “recent developments” should include the middle and later 19th century as well as the 20th and 21st, but the musical record (the stuff written into the music itself) is, for me, more important than the cultural one.

    Perhaps that is the area where I fundamentally (and repeatedly) tend to disagree with Alex Ross. The view from the ears of a performing musician and a composing musician, as you know, develops in different directions from those who spend the majority of their professional time as musically-biased cultural critics. I find that a great deal of musically-based cultural criticism I have made (while wearing my critic’s hat) has been proven wrong by something that I subsequently noticed in the music itself.

    Every notice how easily most of us accept (and even enjoy) that idea of restaurants being smoke free? Silence between the movements of a multi-movement work is, to me, like clean air.

  2. Janis

    But that seems to imply somehow that … well, even the presence of the audience is a pollution of some sort. Applause is how we’d show that we liked something. Is our appreciation to be tolerated as an unavoidable unpleasantness?

    In some ways, it feels as if the cultural norm of the current classical world is that they really wish that they audience weren’t even there. Don’t make eye contact with us, don’t applaud, don’t remind us of your presence. We’re here communing with Beethoven. That world can’t be surprised when the audience rejects it back and attendance falls. 😦 The message is that the classical world doesn’t even want the audience there.

  3. Janis

    BTW, I’m not accusing you of THINKING this … but I am saying that that “no eye contact with me and no applause unless I say it’s okay” comes across to an audience as “Don’t remind me you’re here.”

    The message that the performer intends may simply be, “I want to perform as well for you as I can and this helps me concentrate better,” but the takeaway message for the audience is, “I’d enjoy this a lot more if you weren’t here.” It comes across as if the audience is a necessary evil. 😦

  4. Tay

    I wonder if this is why so many (particularly in the younger generation) are no longer interested in attending symphonies. There’s this sense that everything is uptight and uncomfortable, and judging from the inability to know when and when not to clap that seems to be expressed in many blogs of late, I can see why.

    I have gone to symphonies. I love music. But if you gave me a choice of tickets between going to a symphony or going to Lord of the Dance, I’d pick Lord of the Dance. The environment was fun, relaxed and there was never a moment of “can I clap now” in sight.

  5. Terry

    My wife really likes Andre Rieu. Classical? Depends on who you ask, I guess, but I can see the appeal. He fills an important gap in the world, where such etiquette questions are irrelevant. Sometimes people clap, sing along, and dance in the aisle during the music, yet alone between movements (Actually, I think even the concept of “movements” might be irrelevant to that sort of presentation).

    Who’s the concert for, anyway? It’s not for Beethoven, he didn’t buy a ticket, so who cares whether he would approve of clapping between his movements?

  6. Three thoughts:

    1. Janis – I love your perspective/agree about the message of classical music towards the audience.
    2. Tay – I am one of these young people who generally don’t want to go to classical concerts (and there are all sorts of reasons for this) … One of the biggest reasons is the presentation … recently, I saw a group called Anti-Social Music ( … they do very cool avant-garde/contemporary classical music … they also dress in everyday clothes & tell me something about the genesis of the piece or what makes it cool/interesting to them or me.

    Classical concerts are not visually interesting (everybody is dressed in a matching suit & barely moves around), they are not auditorially interesting (well they are to a degree, but in the last 50-60 years, we have created so many different tones/timbres, and exciting sound combinations/new musical ideas, and classical concerts almost always only feature the “standard rep.” or the really out there, incredibly abstract & intellectually challenging 20th century pieces … there is a limit to how many different sounds an orchestra can produce & generally also to how many different styles of music they’ll actually play), and they are not interactive … I generally don’t feel like the folks up on stage are people, or that they care about connecting with me at all … like Janis said, they’re busy communing with Beethoven & I’m interrupting them. Also, the ethos of classical music (currently) is focused around doing something that has already been done … why do I care if you’re playing Beethoven’s 5th symphony? I’ve played it a dozen times & tons of people are playing it at any given snapshot in time (I actually do care, and have never played Beethoven’s 5th, but that’s besides the point…)

    When I do go to classical concerts, it’s usually for one of three reasons:

    1. They are one of the incredibly rare classical musicians who makes my eyes light up (Steven Isserlis is an example for me, but I have met non-famous musicians who do this for me as well)
    2. It is in support of a friend/colleague/fellow professional musician/teacher who’s personal growth, creative output and development I am interested and invested in.
    3. It is some kind of free or not-expensive concert that is near to where I live that I can go to & analyze/learn from.

    3. Being able to not be distracted by clapping (or flashes for that matter) is a skill. It can be learned. Many musicians in different genres of music have learned this skill. If you are a musician & you have determined that you are distracted by clapping, then it is your obligation to evolve your skill-set to include non-distraction from clapping … or a nicer way to put it … we are only distracted by clapping, because we haven’t conditioned ourselves not to be.

    Now all that being said, I would go to more classical concerts if I had money for it (I’ve never had a lot & have to be very choosy about what I do/don’t go to) & I do think there’s value in this music (academically & musically & historically) … but the people playing it for me are doing a crappy job of making it relevant to my life and interests. I’m also incredibly grateful to have had the chance to study classical music on a college level – it’s made a huge difference in my life!

    All the bestest & with the hopes that my thoughts trigger other constructive and progressive thoughts (and I don’t mean progressive in the political sense) … Also, appologies for writing an essay …


  7. Yeah, I don’t think it’s so serious. Or rather (Eee! this is totally going to be a SRCB post) I’m deadly serious about playing my Beethoven or Kodaly or whomever with intention and vibe and respect. But what could be so horrible about applause? Let’s say it jars you and raises your blood pressure and creates ripples in your headspace. Performing music is not about repeating the same thing, the same gesture, the same feeling over and over, is it? (To me, that’s practicing.) Isn’t it creation? Fraught with the thrill of risk anyway? I would say that an unwanted interruption is an opportunity to re-conjure the mood. To stun the audience with a feat of concentration and musical sorcery, if you really need your mood to be uniform. I, for one, enjoy a volley back and forth with the people who show up to hear me. We are professionals, after all. We’re in charge. Let them enjoy the thing and show us as best they can. There are serious matters. Earthquakes and wars, disaster and tragedy. Music is, in my opinion, a little glimpse into the divine. And if one doesn’t believe in divinity, then maybe just “really good stuff”. That deserves a little ruckus, I think.

    Live music should be called *alive* music.

  8. One of the interesting things that happens at bellydance shows that I often play is often a portion near the beginning where the MC will actually teach the audience how to give appropriate “applause” (or rather, verbal recognition).

    This usually consists of different kinds of verbalizations that are peculiar to American bellydance culture as it’s been exapted/adapted from various Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures.

    For example, one (and this is kinda ironic) verbal gestures that can be given for an audience member approval of what’s happeneing on stage is a barely audible “sssssss” much like a hiss in Western performances, though it has the exact opposite meaning. It’s a contrast to the louder vocalizations that are used in more energetic sections of portions of the dance where the music is louder.

    Also, the MC will teach various Arabic or Turkish phrases of approval (much like “Bravo” or even “Encore” is used in the West).

    What is also mentioned is that it’s ok to use these anytime you feel the need to show your approval during the performance. in other words, what is not taught is when you can or can’t do it.

    I’ve played many shows where there are audiences that know these things, or where audiences are “taught” them near the beginning of the shows–AND–at shows where the audiences don’t know these things (usually more general audiences at more public venues) where they can be as “politely quiet” as they would at any classical music concert.

    Point is, sometimes you really do have to teach an audience that it’s ok to participate actively even during performances.

  9. Janis

    “Live music should be called *alive* music.”

    Problem is, when they are doing the “communing with the dead spirit of Brahms” thing, it’s not a concert. It’s a seance. It’s the opposite of alive.

    Not that that stuff can’t be played in a lively, engaging fashion — but the attitude that demands total rapt silence reminds me of “everyone keep perfectly silent, concentrate, and keep your fingertips on the table” admonishments at seances.

  10. Janis, I love the seance analogy. And it’s so true to the classical-music experience that analogy is probably too strong a word. What you’ve done is put a really apt label on it. “Great artist” performers have been thought to essentially channel the spirit of the “great masters.” Thanks!

  11. Janis

    Even if people want to do the “channeling the great master” thing, I think it can be done well with vigor and liveliness … I remember Virgil Fox getting people whipped up about Bach and proclaiming that, “Sebastian Bach is GLAD YOU ARE HERE!” It’s a merrier version of a seance, at least. 🙂 Like a New Orleans funeral. The way we do it now is a testament to the late Victorian morbid fascination with mourning.

  12. Pingback: “…it is often the quietest person who achieves the highest degree of ecstasy.” « Mae Mai

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