BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 09:34 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 10:34 UK

To clap or not to clap?

Hands clapping

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

It's the first week of the BBC Proms, an annual summer season of orchestral concerts in London, and many people will be having an introduction to classical music. But there's a whole lot of etiquette to be learned.

There are few things more acutely embarrassing than realising you are the only person making a noise in a crowded room.

But the world of classical music regularly presents just such a horrific scenario to the uninitiated attendee.

It's not pop music, it's not about waving your lighter around - there is no physical participation for the audience
Jonathan Lennie

At a rock concert it is considered acceptable to applaud like a maniac, whoop, holler, punch the air, and even shout "rock 'n' roll" at the end of every song, should you see fit.

But this is not the case in the world of classical music. You will find aficionados who sneer at "those people who clap after every movement".

And the Time Out listing magazine's classical editor Jonathan Lennie has caused a minor kerfuffle in this rarefied world by going one step further and criticising those people who clap the microsecond a concert is over.

It is a phenomenon that was satirised in the 2005 short film The Clap. An obsessive classical music fan recalls the lengths he used to go to, studying scores and previous performances, to identify the precise millisecond the concert was over, so he could be the first to clap. Like a maniac.

The protagonist's real-life counterparts are apparently a regular and annoying phenomenon.

In an open letter to the "Loud Clapping Man Who Sits Behind Me At Concerts", Lennie wrote: "Having sat through a long and profound work, why do you have to start making a racket as soon as you perceive it to be over?"

Anne-Sophie Mutter
They want your applause. In the right places

He insists that for some sombre pieces, a period of dignified silence after the last note is played is essential to appreciation.

"The last note isn't the end of the music, the silence completes the music. In Beethoven's 9th, a massive choral outpouring, you can't help but clap, but in other works like Mahler 9 these are the final symphonies, the end of the life. They end in silence."

Take Schubert's bleak song cycle Winterreise. You should apparently not be yelling "bravo" between the songs, or going bananas at the end. Lennie has some advice on what you should do.

"[Leave] a few seconds to let the music die away and a moment to recognise what Schubert has achieved in setting out this existential bleakness. And then applaud the performer."

People don't normally clap between movements
If everybody else is clapping, you probably can
Switch off mobile phone
No food in the auditorium
Avoid hacking cough during quiet bits

Lennie emphasises that he was not referring to the Proms audience - who are very knowledgeable - when he wrote his open letter.

But he has identified a problem in the wider world that is having a malign influence on the classical music world.

"Everybody seems to be texting and tweeting and nobody seems to spend any time in contemplation. It's not pop music. It's not about waving your lighter around. There is no physical participation for the audience. It is a quiet involvement. One or two people clapping can spoil it for everyone."

He does acknowledge that there are occasions when you can clap whenever you want.

"Clapping in between the movements was common in Beethoven's day - it isn't a religious service."

Immediate appreciation

And how do the performers feel about people not clapping, either between movements or at the end?

Georgia Browne, a historical flute specialist who has played with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, concedes that there are certain serious pieces where salvos of ill-timed applause are inappropriate.

An orchestra
Some people find classical concerts a little intimidating

"[But] as a performer I'm in favour of an audience showing their appreciation immediately. It's quite delightful to have that."

And, she suggests, the whole taboo about clapping in between the movements is a recent development.

"I'm a specialist in 18th and 19th Century music. It was customary to not only applaud but to stop and do other things between movements in concerts.

"At the premieres of Haydn and Beethoven they would do two movements and then have a ballet or a singer. Often they would have refreshments. And they didn't listen to everything in complete silence."

Martin Cullingford, deputy editor of Gramophone magazine, also admits things have changed.

"Up until the beginning of the 20th Century applause between movements was normal. Mozart certainly appreciated it. That changed - now it's not the thing that's expected to happen. When people do it's always slightly embarrassing."

The Proms is the gateway for many to a new world

There are of course times when it is OK to go mad at the end of a movement.

"[In] the Rachmaninov second piano concerto, there is such a flash it feels unnatural not to clap," says Cullingford.

"The best advice is not to clap unless there is spontaneous uproarious applause, in which case it is safe to do so."

Apart from clapping, classical music newcomers may worry over what to wear. Do people wear black tie?

"The last thing you want to do is to reinforce this totally wrong view that there are strict rules if you are attending a classical concert," says Cullingford.

"In Covent Garden [the Royal Opera House in London] you would find people [in the audience] were dressing quite formally. But you hardly ever see people in evening wear. At the Royal Festival Hall [on London's South Bank] it's more relaxed - people wearing jeans."

Igor Stravinsky clapping
The premiere of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring saw a riot, but not over clapping

In concert halls outside London, it also might be common to see some people dressed formally, says Ms Browne.

But for all the controversy about clapping and the confusion that some novices might have over what to wear, there is one faux pas of epic proportions - the rogue mobile. If Schubert's Winterreise can be spoiled by inappropriate clapping, think what happens if your phone starts playing the Crazy Frog tune in a quiet bit.

"That's happened plenty of times. It is a direct insult," says Ms Browne.

And trailing in a close second is people who have chosen to attend despite having a hacking and uncontrollable cough. Or people whose garrulousness cannot be tamed even for a couple of hours.

"You need to have a foundation of silence. Coughing in quiet bits is just so rough. And talking during the playing, that's just not on."

In short, going to a concert is a bit like going to the cinema. An ordinary experience, but with some basic etiquette rules. And the uninitiated should always keep in mind that the aficionados are apparently very keen to make them very welcome.

As long as their mobile is off.

Send us your comments using the form below.

Just the sort of pomposity that puts me off clasical music.
Tim, Bath, UK

Surely the Proms is all about bringing us common folk and classical music together and removing the stuffiness from violins, oboes and dinner-suited conductors. In Western culture it is the norm to applaud something we think is good, sadly even to the extent of clapping a charter airline pilot when he lands us in foreign parts. This of course may be due to the relief of stress at landing. Why not at the end of a piece of music when the tension of a very good music performance is relieved?
burysafetybloke, Bury

As a musician, I am keen to see more people attend performances. The best rule of thumb for the novice concert goer as to when to clap is as follows: you will see the conductor still has his/her arms up and the players are still after the last note. Wait until the conductor and the players have moved from this pose, then start clapping.
Rachel, Harpenden

Oh, come on. Actually answering and talking / texting on a phone would be a direct insult. Merely letting it ring is an embarrassing oversight. Talking during the performance, well, those people should just be forcibly removed. It's annoying enough at rock concerts. All the other vague etiquette rules are just there to make it difficult to enter the club.
Rob Watkins, Brighton, UK

A bit like going to the cinema, hey? Well last time I went to the cinema I had to suffer idiots kicking the back of my seat every 2 minutes; the permanent rustle of sweet wrappers (so much so you could barely hear the quieter speech); an almost constant whispering; and a few numpties who seemed to think it was ok to stand in front of the screen periodically...So, "basic etiquette rules" seem to be out of the window then?
Sara AJ, Colne; Lancashire

People in the boxes of the Royal Opera House wear puffa jackets and jeans, you can see right in from the impaired view discount seating up in the gods.
Jo, Cambridge, UK

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