A Helping Hand for Classical Concertgoers

It’s important that audience members know exactly when to applaud during performances.

Tomer Appelbaum

It’s hard to imagine a greater embarrassment. A man is sitting at a classical concert, enjoying the music and performers. When the music comes to an end, he spontaneously applauds – only to find, a fraction of a second later, that he has been horribly mistaken: He has been the only one in the entire auditorium clapping!

His hands remain suspended in midair as he feels all the stares, some in anger and others amused by his plight. Even the performers gesture in an effort to shut him up. The transgressor begins to blush, understanding that he is not a man of culture and his venture to the concert hall has fallen flat; next time, he should know his place. Except, you won’t see him at another concert.

To applaud or not to applaud? This ritual aspect of classical concerts deters a lot of potential audience members. The issue was evident just last week at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, when a crowd gathered for a vocal-piano recital as part of the Felicja Blumental International Music Festival. The program consisted of short works, all by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, featuring art songs for soprano and piano, as well as sections for piano alone. Both the printed program and the names of the art songs projected on a screen during the concert indicated that the works would be performed in small groups, each grouped into sections of several songs or piano selections. This raised the question of when to applaud: at the end of each song, or after a cycle of several songs has been performed? At the interval? Or perhaps only when the vocalist ascends and descends the stage?

That may have been the question, but there was no consensus among audience members as to the answer, which drove the pair of Finnish performers crazy (although they comported themselves with extreme politeness). Sometimes applause broke out in the middle of a cycle of songs, forcing the performers to break and acknowledge the clapping with a bow. Sometimes the clapping was soft enough to lack significant volume, and that apparently did not justify a halt in proceedings.

Rules of the game

At one point, after the second of three short sections, the pianist – in full concentration – intended to continue, his hand raised to strike the keyboard, when one audience member perhaps believed that the absence of applause had hurt the pianist’s feelings. He dragged his fellow audience members along and broke the pianist’s concentration, who then shot up from his seat for a bow.

So what is the correct answer? If one is to know how to respond, it’s worth knowing classical music’s ritual rules, of which applause is just one element. People are incapable of processing musical information from two sources at the same time – let alone more than two – so listening to music requires shutting out any other sound, including conversation and, most definitely, coughing, throat-clearing or even whispering. Such conduct will cause those around the offender to cast a hostile glare, or, even worse, deliver an angry nod.

Silence, of course, implies not only the absence of noise, but also of movement. Try listening to music – really experiencing it at every level – while the guy in front of you on the right is caressing his girlfriend’s hair at a different rhythm to the music (or worse, to the same beat). And then your neighbor to the left is tapping his knee with his finger to get into the music, while a woman to the right is gently sweeping the fan she’s holding. All are relatively restrained and silent, but their presence makes it impossible to truly hear the music.

On more than one occasion, I have found myself leaning my head to try to avoid the caresser on the right, or scoot up in my seat to avoid the sight of the guy drumming his knee on the left, or practice my yogic breathing to overcome the fanning. What despair.

An important part of the ritual – and the key to the question of knowing when to applaud – is understanding the structure of classical compositions in general, and specifically those at the relevant concert. Symphonies, concertos, suites and song cycles are works with a number of movements: musical sections with a beginning, middle and end. A “composition” is a collection of these sections that constitute a whole. And like the chapters of a book, the end of the chapter is not the very end. The work is only over at the end of the very last movement, and it is only then that the divide between the stage and audience comes down and mutual expressions of gratitude are exchanged.

Appreciation is expressed through applause and bows. Those adhering to the letter of concert etiquette will yell “bravo” for a male performer, “brava” for a woman and “bravi” for the entire orchestra, in accordance with proper Italian grammar. Currently, the tendency among some musicians is to neglect the concert conventions that have developed over the past 150-200 years, which dictate that you only applaud at the end of a complete work. True, applause in the middle of a composition, including after every song, does harm the musical unity of the piece and concentration of the performers. But on the other hand, the chasm separating the stage and audience is deep and wide, even absent this issue, and if it can be bridged through spontaneity, then why not? If the audience wants to applaud, so be it. They should be able to do so whenever they feel the need, say those espousing this point of view – letting one’s hair down a bit and violating old convention won’t do any harm.

And really, what could come more from the heart than applause at the end of a stirring performance? But classical music is different from other kinds of music. It is not immediately digestible. For many people, intuition is not enough to understand it and derive pleasure from it. That’s both its virtue and deficiency. It’s not entertainment, and as a result one must face it prepared. The benefits are that much greater as a result.