The issue of the appropriate time to clap during classical music concerts has reared its ugly head again. I don’t mean that the issue itself is unsightly, but that many people would just like the discussion to go away, forever. Case in point: the chief executive of the Brooklyn Philharmonic recently proclaimed that “audience members should be able to laugh, to clap in midperformance and to whoop with joy, if so moved. That would make classical music less boring and less awful.” The reaction to his comments ranged from enthusiastic support to angry denunciations to suggestions that he doesn’t know the joy of an attentively quiet audience.
It’s well known that at one time the current line between popular entertainment and classical music didn’t exist, at least not as sharply as it does now. Mozart loved it when audiences clapped during his symphonies. In fact, he once played a trick on them by introducing a new theme into a piece just at the moment when they expected to applaud the return of the main melody. He shared his delight in a letter to his father.
Now, of course, it is forbidden to clap until all the movements in a composition are played in their entirety. Clapping at the wrong time will bring heaps of scorn upon you from your fellow audience members. I remember a college professor telling my class about a performance of Mozart’s ‘Musical Joke’ which he attended. Now, this is a piece that Mozart specifically intended to be funny, even writing tons of wrong notes in the French Horn parts, etc. When my professor burst out laughing at a funny spot in the music, the lady in front of him turned around and harshly ‘shushed’ him. The scowl on her face said “Don’t you dare ruin my Mozart experience!”
So what’s the big deal about clapping during a piece, like we do at rock and jazz concerts? Wouldn’t it be great to express your joy and encourage the musicians to play with passion and enthusiasm? Well, to me it comes down to the fact that you can’t legislate common sense. When is it appropriate to clap, and when is it intrusive? Jazz musicians love it when the audience claps after a rousing solo, but find that it breaks the mood during, say, the transition from a delicate piano solo to a quiet bass melody.
The issue seems to be a matter of which way to err: in the direction of stiff protocol or in the direction of potential chaos.
Did the audiences in Mozart’s day know that it was great to clap during a fast, lively Allegro, but that it would be disruptive to make noise during a tender Adagio? My guess is that, like with current jazz performances, it sometimes worked and it sometimes didn’t. The current classical music scene desperately needs to liven things up in order to attract a younger audience. Experience has shown that it’s impossible to legislate common sense, but maybe we can encourage it.
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