Lately, I’ve been thinking about applause, which I wrote about in a recent review. The New York Philharmonic played Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, under a guest conductor, Simone Young. It was an excellent performance. But I want to get at this idea of applause. Let me quote a paragraph:

After this movement [the second] was over, many in the audience applauded, as they had after the first, and as they would after the third. The audience was stocked with students. I think they found it natural to applaud, and Mahler would have agreed with them. Simone Young never turned around to acknowledge the applause, even with a nod. Some old-school conductors do this—for example, Neeme Järvi. I like this school.

True, I do. Earl Wild was very old-school. The pianist-composer-arranger was born in 1915. When he was playing a multi-movement piece, and the audience applauded after one of the movements, he would not only acknowledge the applause but stand up, however briefly. A much younger pianist, Yefim Bronfman, born in 1958, does this too. He has an old-school soul.

“My guess is that these customs got started in the nineteenth century and have a lot to do with audience behavior in opera houses (mainly Italy) versus concert halls (mainly the German-speaking world),” Robert Marshall says.

Joshua Bell, the violinist, has a nice habit, or practice. When the audience applauds after a splashy movement of a concerto, for example, he will nod in acknowledgement. It’s as though he’s saying, “I see you. I hear you. Thanks.”

Earlier this year, I received a note from a reader, who said,

Why, after an aria, is applause not considered inappropriate? In fact, I would guess, for the performer, the more enthusiastic, the better. But after a symphonic movement, applause is considered inappropriate. Why?

Being unsure, I tossed the question to Robert Marshall, the musicologist, who is a professor emeritus at Brandeis. He too was unsure, but he could make an educated guess (a very educated one).

My guess is that these customs got started in the nineteenth century and have a lot to do with audience behavior in opera houses (mainly Italy) versus concert halls (mainly the German-speaking world). Opera was still mainly entertainment, especially in Italy, but public concerts in halls built for that purpose became events in something like secular temples to art. People were supposed to show reverence for the great artists—performers and, especially, the almost divine composers. (The genius cult in art was taking on unprecedented importance in this period.)

But it definitely wasn’t always thus.

In the eighteenth century, even the aristocratic audiences at the opera didn’t really go to hear the music. They went to hear their favorite singers sing arias. Probably no one at all paid attention to the plot or listened to the recitatives, or even the arias of the other singers. Instead, they chatted, played cards, ate dinner in their boxes, and stopped only when the favorite began to sing an aria. Don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the audience would then often applaud wildly and shout and even demand an immediate encore of the aria.

As for concerts: For one thing, it was often the case that the individual movements of a concerto or symphony weren’t even performed directly one after the other. A concert could begin with one movement of a symphony, followed by some aria, or piano solo, then another movement of the symphony, etc. Mozart describes such concerts. He also mentions that the audiences not only applauded or shouted “bravo” between the movements of a concerto or symphony, but even during them—not unlike at a jazz concert after a riff—and indicates that he had no objection, so long as they paid attention and understood.

I report about this in my book Mozart Speaks.

That book can be found here, let me say.

“The listeners must have an emotional outlet and for this the applause between the movements of the symphony gives them their opportunity,” Ossip Gabrilowitsch wrote.

Earlier this month, Anne Midgette circulated a tweet from Mark Stryker, which shared a letter from Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Born in 1878, Gabrilowitsch became the music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1931, he took the trouble to respond to a concertgoer in a lengthy letter. (That itself is touching.) Indeed, he responded the day after the concertgoer wrote the initial letter. I will excerpt the response from Maestro Gabrilowitsch:

. . . I am strongly opposed to applying the “played without pause” rule to compositions of great dimensions and monumental scores, such as some of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Tschaikowsky, etc. In such cases, an interruption is not only permitted but decidedly necessary. The listeners must have an emotional outlet and for this the applause between the movements of the symphony gives them their opportunity. It has always seemed to me that the demand made recently by some directors in Europe, as well as in New York and a few other places, i.e., that the audience should sit in a cramped position and not dare to breathe for forty-five minutes, or to show any sign of emotion, pleasure, appreciation, or disapproval, is an unreasonable demand. It is not based on any desire expressed by the composer himself; on the contrary, Beethoven, Brahms, Tschaikowsky, as well as all their contemporaries, knew very well that their symphonies would be performed with interruptions; they knew there would be applause between the numbers, and they did not mind it.

Elsewhere in his letter, Gabrilowitsch has some caveats, counterexamples, and to-be-sures. Altogether, his is a letter both thoughtful and authoritative.

There is much more to say on this subject—such as that conductors and others should not glare at or rebuke an applauding audience (except when they should)—but perhaps this is enough for one day, or one post.

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