Tim Page: On premature audience ejaculations

Several maestros have now made the point on Slipped Disc and elsewhere that audiences ought to be allowed to express their reactions in between movements of a musical work.

Among them are Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leonard Slatkin, Mark Elder and Daniel Barenboim.

It may be time to abolish the mid-movement taboo- with certain qualifications.

Our friend Tim Page has been reminded of a piece he wrote almost 30 years ago in the New York Times, imploring concert audiences not to erupt too soon. We reprint it below with his permission, and one emboldened phrase.

 

audience applause

EARLIER this season, I sat with a rapt audience at Carnegie Hall, listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. Written during the composer’s final illness, the symphony provides one of the most difficult, haunting yet ultimately rewarding musical experiences in the repertory. When the final notes of the closing Adagio dissipate into air, the silence should be as eloquent as the sounds have been – a charged residue, if you like; a silence that is a musical statement in itself, transfigured by what has gone before. At Carnegie, Mahler’s silence, so hard won, lasted barely a second. Somebody shouted ”Bravo!,” the audience responded reflexively, and one left the hall frustrated, rudely shaken from an engrossing dream.

Premature applause is one of the most disturbing elements of our musical life. I have long despaired of hearing the final notes of the first act of ”Der Rosenkavalier” in an opera house. It is a wonderfully poignant moment, and it is inevitably interrupted. The Marschallin sits at her mirror, worrying about her lover, feeling mortal. The curtain slowly starts to fall, and the exquisite cadence Strauss created to accompany its drop is suddenly lost in applause. Ironically, the better the performance has been, the more quickly it is likely to be disrupted.

Will I ever attend a performance of Schubert’s ”Trout” Quintet in which the playful false ending in the last movement isn’t broken by ill-timed cheering? The fans vie to shriek the first ”Brava!” at diva concerts, and a recent performance of Debussy’s ”Clair de Lune,” was marred by clapping the moment the final note was played – the musical equivalent of a photo finish.

Music is not a sporting event but, at its best, a taste of the sublime; the most abstract of the arts, it is, paradoxically, the most human. Jean Sibelius asked that his Symphony No. 4 be followed by no applause whatsoever, and that the audience leave in thoughtful dignity. Glenn Gould once titled an article ”Let’s Ban Applause!” Most of us would not go this far, but applause can be ruinous unless it is carefully considered.

Applause between movements or sections of a song cycle is bad enough (I recently attended a rendition of Schumann’s ”Frauenliebe und Leben” in which every single song was bravoed, handily sapping the score’s collective power), although a polite note in the program guide or a shake of the head from the artist will usually discourage such transgressions. But what can one spectator do to still premature applause without seeming to shush, hector and hamper one’s neighbors, who have, after all, paid for their tickets and are legitimately entitled to express their pleasure?

A plea: hold the applause until the music has completely died away. Wait for that relaxation of a conductor’s shoulders, the drop of a pianist’s hands or the easy grin that releases singer from song cycle. And then applaud as long and loudly as you wish. Your enthusiasm will then complement the music, rather than diminish it.

(c) Tim Page, May 1986

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  • Agree with every word. Of course, mobile phones were not around then. These are now the equivalent of comfort blankets, to be fiddled with whenever the music gets a bit boring. They are handy for checking tweets and emails, reading opera synopses, following complete Bach Passions and Wagner operas and, of course, texting friends – all while the music is going on.
    As far as opera goes, it’s not worth getting upset about. The people with the money keep it going and they are the ones who often treat it like a Broadway musical. Is it my imagination or are Met audiences better behaved now? They used to clap anything – ‘star’ singers arriving on stage for their first entrance, the curtain starting to close (fatal in Rosenkavalier), the curtain opening on a Zeffiŕelli set (Bohème Act2), elephants in Aida,etc,

  • How about the Dmitri Hvorostovski recital a few years ago where, despite an announcement stating that the artist requested no applause during the song cycle, the groupies had to show their feelings?

    You get in the theatre : the spectator who has to bellow, rather than laugh, who has to stand up to applaud, even if those behind want to stay seated, who wants to take a photo, and so on.

    Actually, it’s narcissistic – all about me, how smart I am to appreciate it all and never mind everyone else

  • To jump in with the first bravo, or better yet a bravi to illustrate the erudition of your linguistic abilities, is now de rigueur — more-or-less in the same way Americans give even a flea circus a standing ovation. Appreciation for classical music is an expression of status. If applauding between movements becomes the norm, the floodgates of cultural superiority will be opened…

    • In the Seventies when Radio 3 wasn’t so down-market and presenters were individuals with a mind of their own, Tom Crow used to say when someone had spoiled the magic note at the end of a work or had earlier interrupted between movements, the Resident Cretin is here again.
      For me it even spoils the triumphal conclusion of The 3rd movement of The Pathetique. Surely if anything ever should, this should segue into the seering first notes of the last movement making us reflect just how transient life is.

  • Right onTim. But what about all the ruckus that occurs after an aria in an opera? Not only is the music interrupted, but the story line itself. No one would dare applaud after a Shakespeare soliloquy so why do it in Verdi’s Othello?

    • I have always thought so, but I have been in opera so know directors and conductors coach sopranos in particular to be doing a particular thing “so as not to spoil your applause.” it annoys the hell out of me in ballet, too, where it is even more scene-breaking. From being around practitioners, I can only think that their fragile little egos just could not go on without the positive reinforcement that comes from (seemingly) spontaneous applause.

    • I think that structurally, number operas, are different from most multi movement abstract works. They contain numbered set pieces like arias and ensembles that were specifically designed for extraction, or to stop the show, to use the term that describes their function. This format probably defines the majority of the opera repertoire. I think the applause after popular numbers even has a theatrical function, a kind of Brechtian alienation effect that allows the audience to step outside the drama and reflect for a moment. After Wagner, number operas fell out of favor, but works like Wozzeck and The Rakes Progress still used the format. In operettas and musicals, the number concept remains alive and well – as does the intention of composers to create show stoppers. So in that sense, the comparison with abstract music is a bit confusing. I can’t think of a single multi movement abstract work where an inner movement was to be a show stopper, and for structural reasons that must be obvious.

    • Wasn’t it common practice to applaud after arias, and sometimes even let them be repeated, in e.g. Mozart’s time? I think what we are talking about here is an obvious change in the relationship between the artists and the audience, as well as the music.

  • Puccini’s exquisite music ending Butterfly’s first act is almost always drowned out by premature applause at the end of the act’s duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly. What a travesty!

  • I have always thought the solution for this annoying habit, at least in the opera houses, is DON’T LOWER THE CURTAIN UNTIL THE MUSIC STOPS!

    A lowering curtain is a visual message screaming ‘It’s Over Now’

    And audiences dying to pee and stretch their legs can jump to their feet yelling bravo making it possible for the desperate to scoot down the row and up the aisle to the bathroom or the bar.

  • One is reminded of audiences, above all in the USA, who regularly destroy the end of Act I of La Bohème by clapping Che gelida manina, Si, mi chiamano Mimi and O suave fanciulla and thus totally destroy one of the greatest love scenes of all opera. This abominable behaviour has now reached London and Milan……. and there’s no coming back as audiences are largely too ignorant to know better.

  • …on the other hand, we had a performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto here recently; the performers interacted very visibly in a lively reading of the first movement that bounced to its conclusion in a way that invited applause. In this case it was exactly the right thing to do, and I joined in as well.

  • Once, way back when, at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, when premature applause broke out a loud male voice in the balcony shouted: “NOT YET!’ and then when the last notes died away: “NOW!”

  • This issue is an old one, and, seems to me, one that has been beaten about too much. Any audience, like any crowd or mob, becomes a newly built beast, operating in a way as a group we can’t quite fathom. Individuality is willingly lost in the process. Mob rule, if you will, takes over. Toss in the fact that many concert (or opera) patrons are new to this strange new world, and we now have an organism that is beyond control. But then, can you blame beginner opera-goers for applauding prematurely at the end of “Rosenkavalier”? Or symphony-goers doing the same near the end of the Hoedown in “Rodeo”? I recall a Russian conductor angrily waving away applause at the end of the “Pathetique’s” explosive penultimate movement, so he could immediately launch into the tragic finale. C’mon, let us express ourselves. 19th-Century audiences routinely did so, not just at the end of a movement they enjoyed, but also at a particular musical idea in the midst of a piece they liked! Jazz solos get instant recognition. Why is that OK? Let’s worry about other things.

  • An interesting thing about Tim’s commentary is the fact that, historically, 18th and 19th century concert audiences didn’t treat the concert hall with such an air of reverence: People played cards, gossiped, socialized and drank throughout classical recitals. Performers like Liszt and Chopin gabbed with the audience and treated it more like a rock concert than a church service. Clapping between a movement or as the piece ended was pretty commonplace, based on most historical evidence.

    The whole post-Wagnerian concert etiquette has been entirely self-imposed and has done a lot to keep younger audiences away.

  • Some Paris managers have noted the occasional between-movement applause at the new Philharmonie in Paris – something you would never hear at the Salle Pleyel. They suggest that this means the new hall is attracting new audiences. Of course, no commenter here would want that.

  • It depends on the piece, I think. The rapt silence at the end of a Mahler symphony is an extension of the work, and absolutely necessary.

    Nevertheless, as an occasional pit musician I would hate to play in a performance of (say) a G&S operetta where everyone waited to the end to applaud politely …

  • I am as irritated by misplaced premature applause as anyone. However, I have noticed and am completely open to the thrill of spontaneity. During a recent concert by a visiting Japanese orchestra at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, there were audience member not part of the usual concertgoer, possibly recent immigrants. Perhaps unfamiliar to Concertgebouw practices or maybe even concert-going, there was spontaneous applause between movements, accompanied by disapproving glances from the regulars. I thought to myself how nice it was to hear someone experiencing that thrill and excitement we all did once…

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