Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Applause and silence

Alex Ross, The New Yorker's music critic, delivering The Royal Philharmonic Lecture 2010 on March 8 at London's Wigmore Hall, addressed an aspect of classical concert etiquette that non-initiates find puzzling and unnatural: The view that applauding between movements of a concerto, symphony or other multi-movement work is uncivilized behavior.

The text of his talk (without the audio samples that were part of it) can be downloaded here:


In Mozart's time, Ross observed, it was not uncommon for audiences to applaud brilliant or exciting passages during the music, "in line with what you find today in jazz clubs." Applause between movements remained common practice well into the 20th century, despite efforts of some composers and performers (especially conductors of authoritarian bent) to suppress the practice.

The "No-Applause Rule," as Ross terms it, really took hold when recordings and broadcasts domesticated the experience of listening to star performers and orchestras. Listening alone at home changed the way people listened in public groupings: "[C]oncerts became less collective in spirit, less social in tone; instead, individuals increasingly gathered in one place to have essentially solitary, inward experiences. Where listeners once spoke of being swept away by music, to the point of gesturing or crying out loud, they now spoke of music sweeping over them, like an impressive weather system over which they had little control."

Ross advocates relaxation of the No-Applause Rule, although not in all performances (he cites Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" as an example of music best heard in collective silence). He generally supports re-socialization of the concert experience, with more give-and-take between performers and audiences, and ditching "Edwardian" artifacts such as dress codes.

I agree on dress codes – but can something be done about people with big hair sitting in front of me? As to applause, I have reservations.

Clapping can be as artificial as refraining from it – it's jazz-club etiquette to applaud solos whether or not they really deserve it; opera audiences similarly feel obliged to applaud after big arias, even when they're indifferently or poorly sung. I think most people who take music seriously agree that standing ovations have become far too commonplace. Failure to turn off cellphones and beepers is rude behavior, which regrettably goes unpunished. I doubt that many classical listeners would want to replicate the concert experience of the 18th and early 19th centuries, when audiences felt free to chat or walk around during performances.

Old-time concert etiquette may seem unnatural, but it preserves a sanctuary that we're in danger of losing. Few homes are silent spaces – even listening under headphones at 3 a.m., you're likely to have the spell broken by revving engines, sirens, barking dogs or whatever. And public spaces today are not just noisy, but oversaturated with many layers of noise.

The classical concert is the one of the few environments left – maybe the only one – in which we're able to listen to music in quiet concentration. If preserving that is elitist, then let's hear it for elitism.

POSTSCRIPT: A reader deplores the rise of slob-wear – jeans and T-shirts, sneakers, etc. – at public gatherings, including some classical-music events. Few people seem to have found a happy medium between dressing for a funeral and dressing for yard work. The reason, I suspect, is that "business-casual" attire, especially for men, is still a fairly exotic concept in these parts; so people who don't dress up tend to dress way down. (Helpful hint: I got over the constricting feeling of wearing neckties by buying shirts a half-size too large in the neck.)