the Music Master

When is it appropriate to applaud at a classical concert?

A rose, by any other name, is still a rose. But it is not that simple in the world of the classical orchestra—or is it symphony, or philharmonic?

The world of "classical" music is fraught with a most peculiar social restriction: almost no clapping. Whereas audiences for most forms of "popular" music take every opportunity to voice approval, "classical" audiences tend nearly always to be outwardly reserved. Applause and cheers are withheld until the music is finished. But don’t be fooled by outward appearances; many classical music aficionados deeply internalize the artistic experience, and not uncommonly to a state of ecstasy.

This can be very exasperating and even embarrassing to newcomers at the concert hall. After all, isn't music meant to be enjoyed and reveled in? Can you imagine a massive crowd of five thousand people at a rock concert sitting quietly for upwards to sixty minutes without clapping, yelling, dancing, or stomping? Yet that is exactly what "classical" music lovers do, waiting until the end of the music to clap and cheer "bravo!" with ecstatic approval (every musician's dream).

The biggest question for newcomers in the concert hall is "When is the most appropriate time to applaud -- without embarrassing myself?" There are serious theories on this. One states never to applaud during a symphony or concerto (or any piece that is performed) until all the movements (sections) are finished. Supposedly it breaks the continuity of a magnificent work of art. Yet that very same rule is constantly broken during live opera performances at the conclusion of a solo song (aria). Doesn't this break up the continuity of the music and drama as well. Of course, it does; but that's opera. Perhaps singers are insecure and need immediate reinforcement? Whatever the reason for the exception, it is a great excuse–and lots of fun–to let out those pent-up emotions.

This strange rule about clapping—of voicing approval in any audible way—is relatively new to this world of “classical” music. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, when music concerts became more of a free enterprise and open to more social classes, audiences were known to spend entire evenings in the concert hall; some would bring food, and conversations during performances were a familiar norm. From the opera houses we have stories of dissatisfied audiences hurling food at the singers on stage!

Up until the end of the 19th century it was common practice for audiences to stand and cheer at the premiere of a new work. It is said that at the premiere of Antonin Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 (from the New World)” the audience not only applauded and cheered, but they also demanded to hear each movement (section) repeated before moving on to the next. Perhaps this would be unthinkable at a premiere these days, but hopefully the music would warrant it and the audience would feel unfettered, gratified, and satisfied.

If you are concerned about when to clap, the general rule of thumb is to wait until much of the audience voices approval. Make sure their applause is long and loud, though. You never know when the first solitary clap you hear might be from another newcomer, as yourself, who forgot they weren’t supposed to express their appreciation—too soon.

the Music Master

String Quintet

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