To Clap, or Not to Clap?

Should we applaud between movements?

At the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday night, Nicola Benedetti played the Sibelius violin concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The auditorium, including the choir stalls, was full, with people standing in the passage ways. Ms Benedetti exerts a power over the West of Scotland classical music public, currently enjoyed by no other exponent. The performance was magnificent, and well received. And yes, there was applause between the three movements. I don’t think Ms Benedetti minded; she had a chance to retune the Strad.

Until comparatively recently the musical cognoscenti used to frown on applause between movements. It was thought to break the musical spell. People thought of it as a sign of philistinism. They might look down their noses at the people who clapped. They might have sniffed and said, “So Classic FM.” They might have looked around the packed auditorium and noticed that the constituency was not quite as grey-haired and middle-class as normal. They might even have considered that some of Ms Benedetti’s popularity rested on the fact that she is, as Ms Austen might put it, “personable”. Maybe the fact that she is an extraordinarily gifted and musical violinist, with a rare ability to avoid cliché and explore the music’s inner meaning, is neither here nor there. Anyway, I recall Ms Benedetti herself once said, “I’m not going to apologise for the way I look.”

But the conservative view on clapping between movements has become outmoded. It’s now seen as being rather stylish. Indeed, at the BBC London Proms, it is almost de rigueur. I became particularly aware of this when I heard a Proms performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. People always applaud at the end of the third movement, a rousing Scherzo. Of course the last movement of the Pathétique is a heart-rending Adagio. Most conductors manage this by silencing the audience with a backward gesture of the hand and proceeding directly into the Adagio, but at the Proms I noticed the conductor allowed the applause to be sustained, and to die out naturally, and only then did he embark on the final movement. Good plan, I thought. It is the most natural thing in the word to applaud at the end of the Scherzo. We are only returning to the mores of a previous era. After all, in Haydn’s time, the audience would stand up and applaud during movements, with delight at some captivating new harmonic invention. Now I can’t see that happening during a contemporary première, any time soon.

I gather that some people are afraid of applause. Apparently it can cause “trauma”. There is a move afoot to supersede applause with a silent gesture of the hands and arms, known as “jazz-waving”. This strikes me as infinitely more sinister and bizarre than any amount of hearty applause.

For my part, I’m quite relaxed about clapping. If it seems that spontaneous applause is merited, go for it. I’m far more irritated by incontinent coughing (particularly bad on Saturday night – but then, weather-wise it was a foul evening) and by people examining their illuminated mobile phones, even supposing they are muted. (Phasors on stun, as James T. Kirk would say.)

There is however one place in music where clapping really has to be eschewed and despised, and that also occurs in Tchaikovsky. The Fifth Symphony. It is at the dominant seventh chord just prior to the silence preceding the last movement’s final iteration of its grand theme. If you think that’s the end of the piece, well, you just haven’t been listening.

The subject of jazz-waving as a means of averting PTSD came up at a party in Aberdeen on Sunday night and a young lady pulled a face and said, “Snowflake generation.” Then, in an apparent non-sequitur, “All these women who say they’re traumatised because some guy put a hand on their knee twenty five years ago, they need to get over it.” It crossed my mind to remark that the day a gentleman desists from placing a hand on a young lady’s knee will signal the imminent extinction of the human race, but then I thought – gender politics, don’t go there. I settled for, “Now you may very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”


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