We go to concerts for a variety of reasons: to be moved emotionally, to be entertained, and as a social event. There was a time, prior to the nineteenth century, when engaging with what is generally called “classical music” was a very convivial and highly social affair. Food and drink was consumed and people talked during performances – and even clapped between movements. In the formalisation of classical concerts, which occurred towards the latter part of the nineteenth century and still haunts some classical music venues today, we have rather lost sight of the more convivial aspects of concert-going, so concerned are we to conform to an unspoken concert etiquette.

I’ve been going to classical music concerts since I was a young child and I quickly learnt all about the etiquette of such occasions: for example, my mother would tell me not to yawn “in case the musicians see you and think you are bored!“, and I loved all the little rituals of concert-going – purchasing a programme beforehand, interval ice-cream eaten from a tub with a tiny wooden shovel, the plush decor of the concert hall, the special clothes the musicians wore, and many other details large and small of “the concert” as a special event and a memorable experience. Because concert-going was such a big part of my musical development as a child, I never questioned the etiquette or formality of the occasion, merely accepted it as part of the whole experience of classical music. As I’ve got older, I have become far less concerned about silly customs such as not applauding between movements, believing that if we want to encourage people to come and experience classical music, we need to make them feel comfortable in the concert hall, immune from the hard stares or loud “shushing” of people who want to sit in rigid silence throughout the performance.

Concert-going has always been a social affair, but until fairly recently the areas of the concert venue where socialising could take place were rather limited or not particularly attractive: a small overcrowded bar area and nowhere to sit is hardly welcoming. Fortunately, venues now recognise that socialising before, during and even after a concert is important for concert-goers and have responded by providing pleasant social areas where people can gather to chat and enjoy a pre-concert or interval drink and food. (London’s Royal Festival Hall, for example, has spacious social areas and large airy balconies over look the river.) And from a practical point of view, venues make money from F&Bs (“food and beverages): a single glass of house white at a leading London venue can cost as much as a decent bottle of Sauvignon in Tesco!

The social aspect of concert-going begins before one even arrives at the venue. There is the booking of tickets, organising dates with friends and perhaps getting a party of people together. The anticipation of the event can be very potent, especially if one is going to hear an artist or ensemble one particularly admires – and at a more basic level, going to a concert is a night out!

Before the concert, one might meet friends for supper or drinks. This can be an issue given the start times of concerts in the UK (usually 7.30pm), which means one has to eat around 6pm (rather too early for most adults). The British pianist Stephen Hough has written on the subject of concert start times and length and has suggested shorter, earlier concerts to give people a chance to eat afterwards, or concerts without intervals.

Meeting friends for pre-concert drinks gives one the chance to discuss and anticipate the programme, express one’s curiosity about the artist/s or excitement about hearing him/her/them again. Then the audience bell sounds and we are summoned to the auditorium to take our seats. The house lights dim, our signal to fall silent in anticipation of the performer’s arrival, and the adventure of the live performance begins.

I agree with Stephen Hough that intervals can be rather frustrating: one can spend most of the interval queuing for a drink at the bar (savvy concert-goers pre-order their interval drinks and some venues even have automatic ordering via a smartphone app) or for the ladies’ loo. Sometimes an interval can feel like an interruption to the flow of the performance, but we accept it as part of the concert format – and of course performers need to have a break too.

The social aspect of concerts is very important and should be encouraged and supported by the venues: classical music is something really wonderful to share! Concert-going is also about sharing passion with others: taking a friend who has not sampled a classical concert before can be a wonderfully enriching experience, but I am mindful of the fact that while I may feel very much at home at a classical music venue, my companion may not because of the real or imagined formality and special etiquette of the event, and so I feel it is important to make my companion feel as comfortable and welcome as possible. Fundamentally, it reminds us that the music was written to be shared with others.

 

 

Every year, around the time of the start of the BBC Proms, that wonderful 2-month long festival of music, the thorny issue of when to applaud rears its head. In fact, the debate over the appropriateness of applause is ongoing, but it seems to become more vociferous during the Proms season. And why? Because at Proms concerts clapping may be audible between movements! This year there seems to be more applause between movements than ever before – and more entrenched  and noisy views expressing an extreme dislike of this practice……

In a way, the Prom concerts are not like other classical music concerts in the UK. Originally conceived by Robert Newman and Henry Wood to introduce classical music to a wider audience, the atmosphere at Prom concerts tends to be rather more relaxed, though often no less reverent, and the audience demographic far broader than at, say, London’s pre-eminent chamber music venue, the Wigmore Hall. The Proms attracts the classical music newbie and the committed classical music geek, who goes to every single concert in the season, and in between a whole host of other people who enjoy the Proms experience. The etiquette of the classical concert is less rigid at the Proms – it’s much more “come as you are and enjoy yourself”, but in spite of this, the issue of applause remains a tricky one.

“I’ve never experienced anything more embarrassing. After the first movement the hall was silent.”

– Herman Levi, on conducting Brahms’ second symphony, 1878

The custom of not applauding between movements of a symphony or concerto or other multi-movement work developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Both Mendelssohn and Schumann made attempts to prevent audiences from applauding between movements. Mendelssohn asked that his ‘Scottish’ Symphony, premiered in 1842, should be played without a break to avoid “the usual lengthy interruptions” and Schumann took charge of the matter in a similar way in his piano and cello concerti as well as his Fourth Symphony, but it was Richard Wagner who really instigated the custom as we know it today during the premiere of his opera ‘Parsifal’. By the turn of the twentieth century the concert hall had become the hallowed place it is today, and the conductor Leopold Stokowski even went so far as to suggest clapping be banned altogether lest it interrupt the “divinity” of a performance. Now if one dares to applaud between movements one may be met with angry hisses of opprobrium, shushing, tutting or very stern looks.

Music evokes emotions and people should be able to express them freely – with respect to the performers of course

– Kirill Karabits, conductor

Some concert-goers regard applauding between movements as ignorant or boorish behaviour, an indication that you do not know the music properly (while the aforementioned concert-goers clearly do!). For some it is downright sacrilegious. Others regard it as disrespectful to the performers or disruptive because it can interrupt the flow of the performance. The curious thing is that this attitude would have been totally alien to Mozart or Beethoven, Brahms or Grieg. In an earlier age, concerts were noisy affairs, the music played to the accompaniment of people talking and laughing, eating and drinking, and wandering in and out of the venue. Applause was given freely and spontaneously, indicating appreciation and enthusiasm for the performers and the music. There was numerous applause during the premiere of Grieg’s piano concerto, while Brahms concluded his first piano concerto was a flop because there was so little audience response (except for the hissing, that is). Today the pauses between movements are often filled with the sound of people coughing or unwrapping cough sweets, and applause is reserved for the end of the work being performed.

For the ingenue concert goer, knowing when to applaud can be stressful. I attended an all-Brahms Prom a couple of years ago, conducted by Marin Alsop, and shared a box with a family who were attending the Proms for the very first time. We got chatting and after some pleasantries about the programme and the performers (the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), one of the party said “We’re really worried about clapping in the wrong place!”. I assured him that it didn’t matter at the Proms, and that he could clap when I did if that helped. I thought it was rather sad that these people, who really enjoyed the concert, felt so anxious about something so trivial, and it is this anxiety about how to behave, and specifically when to applaud, which inhibits some people from attending classical music concerts.

applause_sign

The current director of the Proms, David Pickard, declares that he “loves” hearing spontaneous applause at concerts, while some die-hard concert goers are horrified by his attitude, regarding such behaviour as “barbarous” on the part of other audience members. The curious thing is that at opera no one gets upset if you applaud after a particularly beautiful aria or chorus set piece, and it is almost de rigeur to do so. Ditto in jazz concerts, after some sparkling improvisation or a fine solo by one of the musicians. And conductors and musicians can of course control when applause occurs through their body language: a conductor may keep the baton raised aloft for a period of time after the last notes have faded away, or a pianist may keep his or her hands “in play” over the keyboard, defying anyone to break the spell with premature applause.

In addition to the issue of when to applaud, there is also the how of applauding. Some people seem desperate to applaud almost before the final notes have sounded (this is common at Prom concerts) and it does lead one to wonder whether this is in fact a form of attention-seeking, a “look at me! I know this piece so well I know exactly when to applaud!”. For some this can be really intrusive, especially at the end of the very intense or profound work. Sometimes, as if collectively impelled by an unseen force (in fact, the power of the music), there is a period of silence after the music has ended, and a sense of the audience holding its collective breath, savouring what has gone before. And occasionally (especially in contemporary repertoire in my experience), no one is really sure when to applaud and the impulse to clap is led by a discreet member of venue staff.

I am more bothered by those rare times when people feel the need to rush in to applaud at the final note of a piece without regard for the mood if it is a quiet ending

– Marin Alsop, conductor

applause-chart

At the Proms this year, it seems that the “applaud between movements” faction is gaining more currency. I attended a Prom performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Mahler’s tenth symphony and there was applause – spontaneous and appreciative (to my mind) – between every single movement of both works (though as some wag suggested since both works were unfinished, perhaps members of the audience applauded because they didn’t know when the work had ended!), and other Prommers have mentioned there is noticeably more applause between movements this year. For some this is not an issue, but for others it clearly is a problem. Whatever your view, the most important thing is to show appropriate appreciation for the musical performance and those who created it, rather than worrying what the person sitting next to you might be thinking about your concert etiquette! The music, after all, belongs to us, the audience, the listeners – not to the snobs and critics.

Why not go the whole hog and bring back smoking, talking, eating and all the other disruptions that progress has excised – MR via Twitter

I think it will become noteworthy when there isn’t applause between movements at the Proms – HJ via Facebook

If given a choice between people coughing like bastards, the rustling of sweet papers, mobile phones beeping, and talking (!) during quiet movements (when did that become a thing?) or a rapturous applause in appreciation of the music I choose applause… every time – DO via Facebook

 

 

https://open.spotify.com/track/5Rty8OPVOnqIpJN8ZD1cpy

 

https://open.spotify.com/track/6U70qJA6gRi8ZrH1Bm7e8k

 

 

“The only disappointment of the evening was that, on leaving the hall, the sounds of Elgar were immediately assailed by other events elsewhere in the building. The Southbank management should show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience”

This is a quote from a review in The Guardian of a performance of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall last weekend. It’s true that the foyer and “ballroom” area of the RFH were busy and noisy as we left the building after a deeply arresting two hours of very moving and profound music. Outside the venue, it was even noisier: this was a Saturday night in the Big Smoke after all. Pavement cafes spilled people, drinking, chatting, laughing; there were kids busking in the railway arches on the way to Waterloo station; and all around us were the sounds of a vibrant city enjoying itself. Yes, it did feel a little jarring to be plunged into a city having a night on the town after such an absorbing musical experience, but for me this is one of the great pleasures of concert-going in London – and it’s also a good reminder that London is an eclectic and culturally diverse city.

Back to the Royal Festival Hall for a moment and it’s important to consider what this building is actually for. True, it is largely associated with classical music, but that it only a part of what it does, and currently the Summertime festival is in full flow offering a range of activities from song and dance to workshops and talks. The foyer area and café are open all day for people to drop in, socialise or join in one of the many activities within the venue. There are spaces for meetings, lectures and exhibitions, a fine dining restaurant, a library and a gift shop. There’s a very pragmatic reason for this: the venue draws important revenue from food and beverage services and other add-ons (ticket sales alone cannot and do not cover the huge running costs of such a building).

To suggest that the RFH should “show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience” does several things, in my opinion. First, it reiterates the already very entrenched view that classical music is exclusive and special, the preserve of the few not the many, its gilded cage polished with regular doses of reverence. Why should the place in which this “special” music takes place be kept so sacred…..? Let’s not forget that people leaving church in the “olden days” would have been assailed by the noises and smells of life outside its hallowed walls – beggars, peddlers, whores and more.

Better if all concert halls/opera houses were built in parks, away from city throng. Wagner had the right idea

– MR via Facebook

Secondly, it ignores the fact that arts venues like the RFH, the Barbican et al have to function on several levels, offering a diverse range of concerts, events, lectures and other activities, and that they do not exist simply to serve classical music audiences. What we experienced on leaving the RFH after the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ was the reality of concert-going in an arts complex in a big city. If you want to savour the experience of the music a little longer, remain in your seat in the auditorium.

For me, the experience of live music – and if you read this blog regularly you will know that I absolutely love live music – is not just the music itself but the “complete experience”: traveling to the venue, meeting friends, having drinks and socialising beforehand, and, once inside the auditorium, the accompanying sounds of a living, breathing audience listening, engaging and responding to what they are hearing. Afterwards, the walk back to the station with friends, stepping out into that vast, noisy ecosystem of the living city, is also part of the live concert experience for me. Admittedly the late train home, replete with its swaying drunks, leering blokes, snogging couples and people eating smelly food can take the shine off the evening, but on balance the whole package is an experience which I cherish and enjoy. When I’ve heard something as profound as the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ or Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’, or indeed any other performance which has moved me, I carry the memory of the music away with me. Yes, the noise of the street can jar, but it can’t really touch the music which continues to resonate in the memory for a long time afterwards.


The Dream of Gerontius – review in The Guardian