Falling Into the Claptrap

I’ve just gotten back from an all-Mendelssohn program at the Philharmonic, which has certainly left me feeling more German than I have any right to. Not the hippest concert, but although I did greatly enjoy it, I can’t say the same for the two AA guests who accompanied me. One of them even told me that the entire experience had been “ruined” for her.

So what was the culprit? Surely not the quality of the performance, or Mendelssohn’s inoffensive Italian Symphony. No, it was audience members clapping at the wrong time. Right after the first movement, a group of younger audience members (you know, students, probably—after all, they’re in the cheap seats) conducted themselves most boisterously: being foolishly uneducated as to proper concert decorum, they rudely interrupted the last eighth note’s-worth of the concluding tonic chord with their sincere and grateful applause. Gasp.

Now I’m not a fan of people bothering each other during concerts, but compared to, say, slowly unwrapping a Ricola, clapping between movements seems pretty benign. It’s only recently that the practice has become socially unacceptable; I even remember reading reviews of certain 19th-century works that reference audience applause as a kind of gauge, including a review of Beethoven 7 that comments on the second movement receiving the most applause, etc. And with classical music’s current plight, we have to ask ourselves what kind of person is likely to clap between movements: probably someone who doesn’t normally attend classical music concerts, or maybe even a first-timer. These are the people that orchestras most need to attract in order to make up for dwindling ticket sales; so maybe when they do show up and through their “improper” clapping express genuine delight and appreciation, we could try not making them feel like undereducated, outclassed screw-ups.

My concert guests, who were not particularly well-versed in music but were otherwise smart, culturally-aware individuals, might be excused for not considering the points I mentioned above. But I find something surprisingly puritanical in the intensity of their outrage and offense. Maybe it was one of the few things this couple knew about classical music concerts and they were just eager to show off. Or maybe they clapped at the wrong time once, and that’s why they’ve steered clear of the orchestra ever since.

Today it’s easier than ever to listen to music in the privacy of one’s own home, where you can filter out all the extraneous clapping, whispering, and cough drop-unwrapping. If the orchestra is going to survive, it will have to change, and a large part of this change will most likely involve a whole bunch of features designed to reach out to new audiences, hopefully without resorting to gimmickry. But we “in the know” aren’t doing this developing audience—or ourselves—any favors when we use our knowledge to make others feel less welcome.

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11 thoughts on “Falling Into the Claptrap

  1. colin holter

    Amen. I’m 1000% with you on this one.

    Do people who cluck at intermovemental clappers think they’re sending some sort of message to the illiterate masses by withholding applause until the end of the piece? If some of the audience starts clapping after an especially good movement, hell, I’ll clap too. Why not? The world needs more enthusiastic demonstrations of approval. Such sneering is the kind of ancien régime BS that turns people off of classical music for reasons that have nothing to do with music at all. The hell with them.

    Reply
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    Reply
  3. rtanaka

    Alex Ross has an interesting post written about this subject here. There’s kind of a funny quote:

    It’s not surprising that conductors were intent on stamping out spontaneous clapping. To refrain from applause heightens focus on the personality of the conductor. Silence is the measure of the unbreakable spell that Maestro is supposedly casting on us. A big ovation at the end salutes his mastery of the architecture of the work, or whatever. (“Or whatever” is in his own words, not mine, hehe.)

    It seems like the “no applause during concerts” thing is a modern invention, established by orchestral conductors which eventually spread into mainstream practice. This allowed for composers to experiment with “quieter” gestures that would otherwise get drowned out due to the audience’s background noise. It’d be hard to imagine something like Cage’s 4’33” being possible without this type of tradition to keep the audience in-line.

    Meanwhile, jazz and other types of popular musics took advantage of amplification in order to cut through the audience’s chatter. The technology was especially good for vocalists and singers, because they were able to amplify subtle nuances in their voice without having to rely on the bel canto style. Miles Davis was able to bring out the “quieter” side of the trumpet without neccessarily losing any volume.

    Should the audience be quieter or should the musicians get louder (or visa versa)? Much like you would find at a bar or cafe nowadays there’s plenty of accounts that classical music in the past were often talked over, with audiences giving applause whenever they heard something they liked. Are classical musicians really willing to give up this tradition of demanding the audience of their focused attention? I think some people get in a hizzy about “inappropriate” clapping because in it they can see their medium decending into the anarchy of the popular musics, or whatever.

    Reply
  4. aaronhynds

    I have to say, I agree with both this article and the first comment. Like many people, I looked down on this practice when first attending concerts and the like. But, as I’ve grown up a little more, and as I’ve gone to my own fair share of shows, I’ve come to accept this type of behavior. True, I don’t always join in with the “offensive” clappers. But I do appreciate and understand their approval.

    Reply
  5. philmusic

    Its interesting that in Opera mostly you can applaud after every aria, duet etc. There are some exceptions of course, later Wagner for example, and certain theaters.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  6. Matthew

    It’s encouraging that I haven’t felt an uncomfortable stifling of inter-movement applause in some time. (In Boston, at least, people seem pretty casual about it.) On the other hand, in the past few weeks, I’ve experienced a mini-epidemic of quiet endings ruined by premature applause. Have people really become so uncomfortable with silence that they can’t let that Schumann song hang in the air for a few seconds? I’m all for audience demonstrations—between movements, within movements—but herd-behavior applause can be as bad as herd-behavior silence. I can’t help feeling that this need for applause is really a need for insecure audience members to have an opinion on the performance provided to them ready-made.

    And don’t even get me started on the grade-inflation cheapening of the standing ovation.

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  7. jhhl

    I generally have a problem with concerts where the audience’s job is sit in their seats, shut up and clap, (and presumably listen), but for concerts held in those constrained circumstances, perhaps a simple text message to the conductor would suffice.

    Reply
  8. Leos

    re: Claptrap
    I understand the history of applause between movements, and recognize that discouraging such demonstrations of approval is a recent phenomenon; in many cases I don’t think serious harm is done by such an honest display of enthusiasm. I would like to know, however, if anyone on this forum believes it is ever possible that, rather than being exclusively a creation of a cabal of conductors and other evil elitist bastards, that there is a less simplistic, less black-and-white explanation, that a case could be made with regard to certain works for not shattering the mood with applause, and with allowing some thoughtful silence between the movements for reflection. Is it even possible in our time that anyone can suggest such a thing these days without being branded a snob? For instance, in a concert performance of a work such as the Brahms German Requiem (as opposed to one taking place in a church, for example), is applause between movements welcome or distracting? Is raising the possibility that it could be distracting inevitably to be associated with being a pretentious jerk? I know that applause between movements is here to stay, but are we throwing out the baby with the bath and imputing bad intentions where there may not be any?

    Reply
  9. rtanaka

    Ross mentions in the article above that listening to music in “silent contemplation” is something that can be done on recordings nowadays, so people generally want a communal experience when they go to a concert. I’m not really one to enjoy going to loud clubs or bars, but I tend to side with him on this one because I think the enforced quietness has done more harm than good overall. I think jazz musics do a very good job of balancing between the two spectrums, which a lot of chamber musicians nowadays are trying to emulate.

    If you’re into the meditative concert type of thing that’s fine, but keep in mind it’s largely a personal preference and has nothing to do with the audience’s intelligence level or ability to concentrate. (I think this where some classical musicians tend to get snobby, but it’s unfounded most of the time.) Some people choose to do their reflections outside of the concert hall, in private.

    What’s the rush, anyway? There’s lots of time to think about a piece — after the concert, the day after, a week after — it’s not like the experience itself ever leaves you. The idea that reflection can be done within the span of a concert performance is kind of, ironically, un-reflective in a lot of ways.

    Reply
  10. Frank J. Oteri

    Sound Out
    This entire fascinating thread (plus a recent bad concert experience) has triggered so many thoughts that, rather than posting a gigantic essay here, I hijacked this into my own thread-starter for this week. But feel free to keep posting in either place if so moved.

    Reply
  11. crkasprzyk

    Devil’s advocate…much of this assumes that the audience in question is actually aware of being frowned upon, so to speak. Does anyone actually voice such discouragement to those who ‘clap at the wrong time?’ Perhaps these laypeople* do not attend such concerts because they don’t like the music. Our long-term efforts should lie in educating them of this music!

    *Visconti’s bio refers to them in this manner.

    Reply

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