As someone with one foot in the jazz tradition and the other in the classical I find it interesting how the etiquette for the audience is different.  During a jazz performance it is considered appropriate for the audience to signal their approval of a soloist by applauding or cheering in the middle of a piece, or even just after a particularly nice moment.  In contrast, during a classical performance it is customary for the audience to hold their applause until the very end of the piece.  Applauding between movements will get you a dirty look and maybe even a reprimand.

But historically, this was not always so.  Alex Ross, of the Royal Philharmonic Society, recently gave a lecture about the history of applause.

When the average person hears this [EXAMPLE: End of third movement of Pathétique] his or her immediate instinct is to applaud. The music itself seems to demand it, even beg for it. The word “applause” comes from the instruction “Plaudite,” which appears at the end of Roman comedies, instructing the audience to clap. Chords such as these are the musical equivalent of “Plaudite.” They almost mimic the action of putting one’s hands together, the orchestra being unified in a series of quick, percussive sounds.

Historically classical audiences didn’t always exhibit the restraint that is expected today. Ross points out in his lecture that during Mozart’s day it was appropriate for an audience to spontaneously burst into applause not just between movements, but in the middle of the the piece.  It wasn’t until the Romantic period (usually regarded as beginning in the second half of the 18th century) that this custom began to change.

One classical music medium that has resisted this sort of etiquette has been opera.  With the exception of composers such as Wagner, where the music usually continues with no pauses throughout the entire act, audiences will tend to applaud for a soloist following the aria.

Ross makes a good point about audience members who choose to shush those who applaud “inappropriately.”

Even worse, in my opinion, is the hushing of attempted applause. People who applaud in the “wrong place”— usually the right place, in terms of the composer’s intentions—are presumably not in the habit of attending concerts regularly. They may well be attending for the first time. Having been hissed at, they may never attend again. And let’s remember that shushing is itself noise. I often hear “Shhhh!” from another part of the hall without having heard whatever minor disturbance elicited it. In an ironic twist, these self-appointed prefects of the parterre—or gods of the gods—have made themselves more of a nuisance than those whom they are righteously reprimanding. There is something dismaying about this narrow-eyed watchfulness on the part of connoisseurs and this fearfulness on the part of neophytes.

One of the classes I teach is UNCA’s Applied Recital, during which our students perform for each other.  Because many of our students are focusing on jazz performance, we almost always have classical soloists performing on the same recital as jazz soloists.  It’s interesting how sometimes during the recital the student audience gets “locked” into the classical recital etiquette and won’t applaud following a jazz soloist.  Sometimes the reverse happens and the student audience will spontaneously burst into applause between movements or even in the middle of the piece.

Ross’s entire lecture, available for download here, is a fascinating look at the history of applause.

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