A little story about the applause in classical music

The delicate question of clapping during the concerts of classical music is still a source of debate and irritation. The art of clapping one's hands is not natural: over the centuries, the audience has changed and so did its behavior.

A little story about the applause in classical music
Un "théâtre à l'italienne" parisien ©Corbis

It is your first concert of classical music. Nervous and impatient, you sit down and wait to listen to the 41st symphony of Mozart. After ten minutes or so, you hear the orchestra roar, ready to finish with success its ascension towards the hight pitched notes. The conductor holds the last note, his baton in the air before letting his arm fall down, along his body. He turns the page of the score.

There is a heavy silence in the room. A few rows away, the faces are focused, the hands are resting gently on the knees. The audience tries not to commit the dreadful error of clapping the first movement.

But, where does this precise code of classical music dictating that the audience not clap when they feel like it come from? Why do venues encourage silence, so much so that they sometimes distribute sweets to prevent coughing fits?

“They clap for Gluck”

Silence is golden... But it wasn't so precious a few centuries ago. The concerts of the baroque era looked nothing like what we experience today. Bach presented his works either in churches or in homes where people met to eat, drink, spend a little time between friends, catch the latest rumours, and incidentally, listen to music.

The same behavior could also be observed during the time of Mozart, when people could clap whenever they felt like it. During a stay in Paris, the composer wrote to his father in a letter taken from the Discours musical by the conductor NikolausHarnoncourt: "Right in the middle of the first Allegro, there is a part I was sure was going to please: all the audience was transported... and there was a huge applause... As I knew perfectly while writing it the effect it would have, I put it a second time, at the end..."

Not only were claps welcome, but they were even provoked by the composers themselves. It is true the Parisian audience in the 18th century was known to make a lot a noise during the concerts. Even in the most sacred of places, the crowd wanted to cheer the works with shouts and claps.

In his academic work Applaudissements et Grande Musique, Jérôme-Henri Cailleux recalls the words of the writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier in Tableau de Paris published in 1782 :

"They clap for Gluck and make more noise than all the instruments of the orchestra, so much that we can't hear anymore. [...] Sometimes, those clapping hands reach frenzy; for some time, they were accompanied by the words bravo, bravissimo. We also beat with our feet and canes; a dreadful deafening racket, that cruelly shocks the sensitive and reasonable soul who sometimes is the subject of that cheering".

This testimony shows the lengths to which the French public, especially in Paris, were ready to go in order to show its enthusiasm or its disappointment regarding the presented works. A behaviour that appeared out of place at the time in comparison to the audiences in the other European countries that remained calm and collected during the concerts.

Paris, champion of applause

From 1830, the concert structure evolved. So did the music. Thus, the "great French opera" was born on the Parisian stages, such as the Académie Royale de Musique (later becoming the Opéra de Paris) or the Opéra-comique.

The 19th century saw the birth of the Romantic music. The composers were no longer seeking to entertain the crowd, as their predecessors did, but rather to move people. Schumann wrote in 1835: "For many years, I dreamed of organising concerts for the deaf and the mute. That way, we could learn from them how to behave properly during a concert, especially when the music is beautiful". 

The romantic composers conceived their compositions as a sole work. Mendelssohn for example wished his Third Symphony to be played without any pause to avoid the "usual long interruptions". The same pauses during which the audiences of Mozart and Gluck would clap and shout to cheer the orchestra and the composer.

These new ways of composing and listening to music brought with them confusion. Do the people have to let the music guide them? Must one clap the opera arias or not? What about the masterful endings?

To help the public, the Parisian venues invented the "clappers". These people were required to clap only when appropriate so as to let the audience know what they had to do with their hands. This usual custom of the 19th century was quite disputed. At the time, opera houses were visited by a bourgeois audience. The clappers, though essential for the frequent non music-loving spectators, were looked upon unfavorably: they were often poorly dressed and therefore, easily spotted among the pretty dresses and the top hats.

Also called "Romans" because they were placed like a troop of legionaries on the stalls, the clappers were indirectly managed by the opera conducting. They knew when to clap, and even more importantly, when no to clap. A technique widely used to make a singer understand when he is not welcome on stage: if people don't clap, they don't like you.

End clap

In 1913, opera houses put an end to the role of the clapper, after having transformed the position into a permanent job. The 20th century became the period of music lovers, and music lovers did not need to be told when to clap. They know when to clap, when to whistle or when to leave the room...

The arrival of the music lover matches the creation in 1881 of the Société des Nouveaux Concerts by conductor Charles Lamoureux. The orchestra performed the music of its time, and more particularly the music of Richard Wagner, key figure in the history of applause.

Yet again, audience appreciation followed the music. Richard Wagner developed a new vision of opera. His work was not a way to entertain but a sacred drama that required respect in order to be appreciated. Thus, at his Bayreuth Festival Theatre, Wagner imposed silence for the first time in the history of music.

"I've already said it is strictly forbidden to clap during the representation, we could count the breaths. I advise the spectator with a cold against coming into the Bayreuth temple, they would be torn into pieces. The silence is bigger than in a church, not one word can be uttered, not even in a whisper, to one's neighbor to the right, without being strongly shushed by the one on the left; it would be a profanation of the religious center of which Wagner is the pontiff sovereign". Denis Magnus, critic in Gil Blas, 6 August 1882. 

Wagner built a new spectacle: the audience was plunged into darkness. Far from the society opera where people came to be seen. At the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, the orchestra was hidden so the spectators would not be distracted by the musicians or the conductor. And silence was required.

Not used to these new concert codes, the crowd was lost... So was Wagner. The academic Jérôme-Henri Cailleux recalls the critique written by Léon Leroy for the journal Le Figaro, who attended in July 1882 the premiere of Parsifal in Bayreuth in the presence of the composer. At the end of the first act, the audience clapped with enthusiasm. The journalist wrote:

"After the second act, there was a new burst of unanimous applause in the venue. Wagner stood up from the seat he had in the gallery called "the sovereigns" and ordered the audience not to clap. The clapping stopped as if my magic. After the third act, the audience, respectful of the master's wishes, stayed silent. Then Wagner, with all the logic that characterizes him when it is not about music, stood up, raging with anger, and ordered the audience to clap the actors. The venue crumbled under the applause".

Around 1900, Mahler followed in the music master's footsteps and asked the latecomers to wait for the interlude to enter the room, and that the arias shouldn't be applauded. Some witnessed the composer turning his head at the slightest whisper and giving dirty looks to the author of the crime.

Even Mozart doesn't get as many claps as before 

If Mahler and Wagner are the precursors of these "music temples" where shouts of joy and unexpected applause are forbidden, an unexplainable change occurred in the concert venues after 1945 .

At the time, the clapping between movements of symphonies or concertos stopped. Only at the opera, where loud expressions were allowed after big arias, retained the spirit of the 18 and 19th centuries.

Jérôme-Henri Cailleux offers an hypothesis to explain this drastic behavioral change: the arrival of radio. For the first time, the music lovers could listen to a work in its entirety. The symphony was not disturbed by claps at every movement. They listened from the first to the last movement, without any interruption.

Records also allowed a more intimate and silent listening of the music. Music lovers became real professionals and transformed music into a sacred art that required to be listened to in silence.

An anecdote from 1974 proves that this turn was irreversible and concerned all kinds of music. The Requiem by Mozart was played in the Saint-Roch church by conductor Sergiu Celibidache. A critic from Le Monde, Jacques Longchampt, wrote: "The audience is told no to clap, and has to observe a minute of silence between each piece, and why? For an execution that is slow, interminable, carefully frosty..."

At the conductor's request, the crowd had to remain silent. The ancient composers are performed by musicians who did not know the golden age of a loud and living audience, who fully expressed their emotions during the concerts. Therefore, in the second half of the 20th century numerous artists, like the soloist or the conductors, contributed to the death of the apples during the works or between movements. They wished to maintain a silence in order to the respect of music, and for their own focus. 

Is the new generation ready to clap?

With the newer generation, this law of silence is often questioned today, in favour of new forms of the classical concert, more free and less uptight. On 28 January 2016, the premiere for young people of Il Trovatore by Verdi was given at the Opéra Bastille. As they sometimes do for premieres at the Opéra de Paris, the crowd was made up of people no older than 28. For the majority of such an audience, this was their first time at the opera, unaware of the rules of classical music.

Not to upset anyone, the claps were shy at the beginning of the performance. Until a beautiful aria sung by Anna Netrebko came along... One "bravo" rings in the crowd and launches a burst of applause in the audience. Until the end of the opera, bravos and claps came at every virtuosic aria of the Verdi's work.

This new audience, unfamiliar with classical music and its codes, is only driven by instinct, its heart and above all, the music. Never mind the rules, the production was highly acclaimed and the audience was delighted to be able to share its joy without any restraint or rules.