Classical Connections: Clapped Out


I’m sure you’ve been to one of those concerts where someone starts clapping at an inappropriate moment, causing acute embarrassment to themselves and a general feeling of discomfort among everyone else.  One of the Golden Rules of classical music concerts is that one doesn’t clap between movements.  One simply doesn’t, my dear.

Of course, it wasn’t always thus.  “Up until the beginning of the twentieth century”, writes the American music critic Alex Ross, “Applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one.”

The Tuileries Palace, Paris c. 1778.The Tuileries Palace, Paris c. 1778.

At the first performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto in 1858 the composer knew things were not going well because there was no applause after the first movement.  Hissing, but no applause.  On the other hand (if you’ll excuse the irresistible pun), Mendelssohn explicitly asked that his Third Symphony be played without a break to avoid “the usual lengthy interruptions”.  It’s thought that the practice of keeping quiet between movements may have originated in Germany during the late nineteenth century.

I remember once hearing a thrilling performance of a Beethoven piano concerto in which the dramatic end of the first movement surely must have been composed to elicit an audience reaction.  I cannot have been the only one who wanted to release my excitement and applaud or even cheer the soloist.  But of course, nothing of the sort happened apart from the usual coughing and shuffling in an awkward self-imposed silence.  In Beethoven’s time there would probably have been a standing ovation.

It’s easy to understand how newcomers to classical music or those who don’t know The Golden Rule will break into spontaneous applause at such moments.  Perhaps it’s time to change the way we think about concerts.  Even so, to rebuke people for showing their appreciation is sheer bad manners.  At a local concert last year during the performance of a Bach concerto, there was a tentative ripple of polite applause from the back of the hall at the end of the first movement.  One of the concert promoters leapt from his seat and gestured wildly at the offenders, thus making himself more of a downright nuisance than those he was foolishly and misguidedly reprimanding.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony No 31 in D major “Paris”. Danish National Chamber Orchestra cond. Adam Fischer (Duration: 16:41; Video: 720p HD)

The 22-year-old Mozart had a dismal time when he was job-hunting in Paris, but at least the experience brought us this symphony, which was given its first public performance at the Tuileries Palace in 1778.  In a letter to his father, Mozart enthusiastically relates how the Parisian audience burst into applause at particularly exciting moments during the first movement.  The letter clearly reveals that Mozart was composing for a specific type of audience and was even tailoring his music to elicit reactions.  Of course, he wasn’t the first composer – or the last – to do so.

The symphony is scored for a large orchestra which included comparative newcomers, a pair of clarinets.  Mozart had first heard them in Mannheim and was enthusiastic about using the instruments in his Paris symphony.  The enthusiasm shows.  Mozart uses many colourful orchestral effects which clearly went down well with the Parisians and it’s interesting to speculate at which moment the noisy but appreciative audience might have applauded.  Even today this remains one of Mozart’s most popular symphonies.  But try applauding during the first movement as they did in Paris and you’ll probably be hauled out of the concert hall by armed guards.

Steve Reich (b. 1936): Clapping Music (1972).  Performed by composition students at the College of Music, University of Colorado at Boulder (Duration: 04:54; Video: 480p)

In this piece it’s the performers, rather than the audience, who do the clapping.  Steve Reich is one of the pioneers of minimalism and he’s had a huge influence on contemporary music.  Clapping Music was originally written for two performers and it consists of just twelve measures (bars) each of which is played eight times.  One performer claps a single rhythm throughout the piece.  In the first measure, the second performer claps the same rhythm (eight times of course) but in the next measure the rhythm shifts by one eighth note to the right.  This process continues throughout the piece until the thirteenth measure when the second performer is inevitably clapping the same rhythm as the first, drawing the piece to its logical and inescapable close.  It’s elegantly simple but strangely mesmerizing as the rhythmic patterns shift out of phase with each other.

Although originally written for two performers, Clapping Music is invariably performed by a group, which to my mind makes for a much more satisfying sound.  If you want to brush up your music-reading skills you can download the printed score and clap along with the performers.