I read a feature article about applause in today’s Chicago Tribune, and the debate (or at least discussion) about whether it is appropriate to applaud between movements of a symphony. The beginning of the article made me laugh, though: “There’s a widely accepted way for concertgoers to behave … between … movement[s]… [t]hey cough.”
The article marvels at how applause in different venues of music are interpreted differently. As is probably well-known, applause at solos in pretty much anything EXCEPT for classical music is common and encouraged. I learnt this firsthand when I was in jazz band in middle school, and I notice on many recorded “live” songs from rock concerts, you hear a lot of cheering and applause throughout the song, not just after solos. The arguments on both sides of the coin are pretty interesting, and I will respond to some of them.
The article says that composers allowed applause between movements of symphonies in older years. That statement implies that each movement of a symphony is essentially a different song. Although I am certainly not a connoisseur (I like that word) of classical music, from the few concerts that I have attended, the different movements of a song are often significantly different. When there is a pause between them, I essentially see it as a new song. Or, in theatre speak, it is a division between scenes, and there is usually applause after the scene is over, especially when there is a blackout and/or curtain. If the concert has several different symphonies, the symphony is the analogue to the act, and the movement is the analogue to the scene.
And in other concert-hall-based productions, like operas, applause after arias is common, and some singers or composers take the applause afterward as a method of appreciation instead of a distraction or negative thing. Granted, opera music is inherently different from symphonic music. Drawing analogies is not always effective, but I might as well make an argument as to why I would find it acceptable. I was at a singing recital for one of my friends last week, and there were short bouts of applause between each song (each set was 1-4 songs from the same composer), with longer applause at the end of each set where she and the piano accompanist left the stage.
The thesis in this article that “audience is boss” is something that resonates with me. With a lot of performances, I find that it is geared toward the audience more than it is the performers. They are the reason for the performers to perform in the first place, whether those performers are symphonists, rock stars, divas, or jazz bands, among others. Plus, the audience effect can easily trickle, so that a small area of the audience applauding may spread on future pauses between movements. I liked the argument that lack of applause between movements seems uppity.
I have noticed some times, however, when the applause indeed seems a little out of place. Some movements have similar musical structure, and therefore going “cold” into the symphony and “blindly” applauding at the end of the movement may interrupt continuity. There are times where silence is intentionally a part of the music, and the break between a movement is a good transition point, or perhaps a “digestion point.” In musical terms, this is often denoted with the terms “caesura,” “tacet,” or “G.P. [grand pause].”
Two examples of these occurred in my middle school band experience. One was the “William Tell Overture,” which has a Grand Pause toward the end of the song, and being the first time that I saw the Grand Pause, didn’t really think about it, but this article made me re-consider that it is indeed an important part of the song. Going a little off topic here, sometimes silence is the most salient part. If that is the case, don’t “disturb the sound of silence!”
The other time was when we played “Aventura” by James Swearingen. In the middle of the song, there is a part where there are a few beats of silence as a transition to a calm part of the song. It is not denoted by a G.P. or caesura mark, but we got to this point and the audience applauded, though we continued according to the music. I have linked the YouTube video here in this blue (or purple, in case you have somehow already seen it) text, and the point that I am referring to is at the 2:17 mark. It seemed a little bit awkward. The end of this article gives a good take-home point that would have prevented this mishap: “It’s safest to hold applause until the conductor has lowered his [/her] arms.” A corollary: Always look up before making an entrance–the world may be in a different place than you!
One of the pro-silence arguments, as aforementioned, is that silence plays a profound role in classical music. In today’s society, we are so inundated in stimuli that silence feels like something incorrect, but we do have to remember that classical music is a different animal, and silence, whether end-of-movement, caesura, grand pause, or some other term of which I do not know contribute to the overall musicality of the song. As a CSO bassist claims in the article, “There are times when it makes musical sense not to interrupt.” However, is the average symphony concertgoer one who knows all of the intricacies of each piece being played?
It’s a tricky problem, because of what seems to be a perception of musical elitism, even when classical music need not be elitist. However, unlike many other types of music that we hear today, the structure of classical music is one that necessitates synthesis through the different movements. The “inappropriate” applause might not be inappropriate, as each person sees the music differently. What may be a piece only coherent with complete silence between movements to one person may be something in which the applause improves coherence to another. My general advice–follow what the audience does and wait for the conductor to signal the end of a piece or movement.
Today’s count and nugget:
Today is the 29th day of MAPLE. (Two left!)
Conventional is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for correct.