Suffering the Clap: how should audiences behave ?

Call me what you will, but I believe there’s an inherent snobbery about how concert audiences are expected to behave.

In the sacred cathedral that has become the Modern Concert Hall, audience members are expected to adopt an almost religious state of silent obeisance before The Music: they must enter the hall with trepidation and awe, with veneration in their hearts, and are expected to listen in a state almost bordering on ecstasy. Not until the end are they permitted to move a muscle, at which point they are then permitted to clap politely – nay,enthusiastically (although not too much of course) – and, if at a jazz gig or a promenade-type concert, they are occasionally allowed to whoop.

Now don’t get me wrong: I understand that listening to music is a deeply personal experience, and I can get as annoyed as anyone by inconsiderate or rude behaviour from someone in the same audience as myself. But if someone has been so moved by a piece that they feel the need to express this, why shouldn’t they ? I have a fantastic live recording of a performance of Walton’s First Symphony by the National Orchestra of Wales at the Albert Hall; for anyone who doesn’t know this piece, the first movement is of such epic proportions (it’s about fifteen minutes long) that it seems like a whole work in itself. It has pounding rhythms, stirring melodies, and a relentless energy that drives the music to a tremendous climax in a fierce final gesture, punctuated by timpani. In the recording, a smattering of enthusiastic applause breaks out spontaneously at the movement’s conclusion amongst some of the audience who just can’t help themselves: the music is so rousing, it just demands a response.

Yet the Apostles of the Sacred Mysteries of the Concert Hall frown upon those who don’t know any better than to actually clap between individual movements, rather than waiting until the piece is finished.  The slight rustling of a programme attracts fierce stares.

But perhaps it’s a cultural thing: after all, the etiquette of modern concert audiences is relatively recent. Until the end of the nineteenth century, audience behaviour was completely different; people went to be seen as much as to see the concert: it was a social occasion at which they talked, ate, and drank during a performance. Modern rules were laid down, according to Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, by the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, who instilled in audiences the ideas of complete, attentive silence and no applause until the end of a piece.

And some semblance of the old culture still survives: Italian opera-goers give standing ovations (or vehement boos) after a particular singer has given a great (or disastrous) rendition of an aria. In the middle of an opera. It’s an accepted, even expected, part of the performance experience. Conductors will pause at the end of arias where they know this will happen, even if the music is supposed to carry straight on. The audience are expected to voice their reaction during a piece.

As long as their response isn’t disruptive, I don’t mind if someone is so moved by their experience that they applaud between movements. People go to concerts to be moved, to be emotionally engaged.

How do you think audiences should behave ?

4 thoughts on “Suffering the Clap: how should audiences behave ?”

  1. As so often- a very valid question, and very good points raised by you.

    However, the problem lies in your innocent concluding statement:
    “As long as their response isn’t disruptive, I don’t mind if someone is so moved by their experience that they applaud between movements.”

    Well, one person’s expression of being moved is the other’s disruption, isn’t it.
    If one quietly wants to enjoy the reverberation (both physical and emotional) of a certain piece, even the most innocent and joyful clapping can break the spell.
    Same goes for fellow concert attendees that consider the ultimate accompaniment to a Mozart concert an assortment of chocolate bars and individually wrapped hard candies.

    I do appreciate their sugar cravings, but ultimately the endless crackling and rustling are nuisance to my enjoyment of the concert.

    On the other hand, I guess the most sensitive of us would be best served by quietly enjoying the concert recording at home, far from any disturbing influences that the real world throws at us.

  2. I agree with you about snack-junkies getting their sugar-fix: that’s not a response to a performance, that’s just selfishness.

    But it would be a shame to think that people would be forced to listen to recordings in the privacy of their home to avoid them: a recording is no match for the experience of hearing music live.

    Respect, I think, is the key: both for the listening experience of those around you, as well as for the uninhibited reaction of others in the audience who are moved to an involuntary response.

  3. Daniel & Hannah both make good points…..

    I find myself increasingly upset at concerts at behaviour that detracts from my enjoyment…. Constant sweet wrappers and talking can often be really intrusive.

    As for not clapping between movements….. erm tough one….. We shouldn’t be so buttoned up – anal – English call it what you will, but equally it’s a CONVENTION we have had for a long time. There’s some belting moments in the Bach b minor mass (I speak as a professional trumpeter) but we wouldn’t dream of clapping after a particularly good kyrie?

  4. Not clapping between movements has become a convention, I agree:but perhaps we can liberate ourselves from it occasionally and allow ourselves some freedom to respond to music.

    Clapping in the ‘B Minor Mass,’ however, WOULD be strange: but then, it would originally have been part of a service and so interrupted by other things!

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