Nearly a month into this year’s Proms and the debate about clapping between movements has reached nigh on fever pitch, and is showing no sign of subsiding.
Rather like Brexit, there’s no middle ground in this debate: opinions are thoroughly polarised into two camps – those who don’t object to applause between movements and those who do.
This habit of applause between movements seems largely confined to Prom concerts: you’d never get it at the sacred shoebox of the Wigmore Hall, for example. Some would point to the fact that the Wigmore audience is “better educated”, or “more intelligent”, or “well behaved”. This implies that the Proms audience is ignorant, badly behaved, or just plain rude.
In a way, 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 the Proms tends to be rather more relaxed, though often no less reverential, and the audience demographic far broader. 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 there’s a whole host of other people who enjoy the Proms experience. The etiquette 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.
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 (there’s the reverence thing again….). This view persists today, particularly amongst the most trenchant anti-clapping faction of concert-goers.
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 (indeed, at early Prom concerts, patrons were requested “not to strike matches” during quiet passages in the music). 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 guttural throat-clearing or noisy unwrapping of cough sweets (far more intrusive in my opinion than the sound of clapping), and applause is reserved for the end of the work being performed. In the last 100 years, we have settled into this relatively recent habit of remaining silent during a performance, but maybe it is time for these habits to be reviewed and “modernised” a little?
Personally, I don’t have an issue with applause between movements. At the Proms I regard it as a sign of spontaneous appreciation and a sense that people feel relaxed in the atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall. I don’t join in myself, nor do I squirm inwardly while thinking “blooming ignorant oafs!”. I’d never mention applause between movements in a review I’d written of a concert and I certainly wouldn’t describe the offenders as “selfish”, “ignorant” or a “Saturday-night tourist crowd”.
“this selfish group never left any of the silences alone”
“Encouraging this plays into the Classic FM-isation of music”
Sadly, such snobby attitudes towards those who applaud between movements only serves to reinforce the long-held and now very firmly entrenched notion that classical music is elitist and accessible to the few, not the many. And to link such people with a classical music radio station other than hallowed BBC Radio 3 is, in my opinion, offensive and patronising.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that Classic FM enjoys an audience amongst the under-35 age group of c1.2m (figures as at August 2017), and I like to think that these listeners also attend the Proms. After all, we’re supposed to be encouraging a younger audience to engage with classical music. Reminding them of the stuffy snobbish “etiquette” exercised by some at such concerts is not helping attract new audiences: many classical music ingenues (my husband included) have strong pre-conceived ideas about the habits and rituals surrounding classical music, the most frequently-mentioned being “I wouldn’t know when to clap”.
So please stop sneering at the clappers and consider instead of how to allow people to enjoy classical music in ways which make them feel comfortable, excited, engaged and eager to return for more.
I will end with a quote from David Pickard, Director of the BBC Proms, on the subject of applause between movements:
“I think that it is a wonderful sign of excitement and respect from the audience.”