The orchestra’s formal dress, the way it tunes. How the conductor bows, and all that walking on and off the stage.
The typical classical music concert can seem full of arcane rituals that set it apart from everyday life. Many of these traditions might spark the curiosity of the uninitiated. But as another concert season begins and many institutions dream of attracting new listeners, it’s worth revisiting one chapter in the concert-going etiquette book that routinely brings the most anxiety for newcomers: those rules of applause.
When to do it. When not to do it. How to avoid being that person who gets peremptorily shushed and imagines a hall of 2,000 people glaring at them.
A colleague who recently began attending concerts after a long break and has been seeing them through fresh eyes recently asked me a simple question: Why do these applause rules exist? Why is a cathedral silence the expected norm? And in particular: Why is there such a fierce injunction against applauding between movements?
Ask a self-appointed defender of these norms, and the rote answer may be: It has always been this way. The defender of the rules would be wrong: It has decidedly not always been this way. But don’t take it from me.
“What vexed me most of all,” complained Mozart to his father during a trip to Paris, “was that Madame and all her gentlemen never interrupted their drawing for a moment, but went on intently, so that I had to play to the chairs, tables and walls.”
This 18th-century audience, in short, couldn’t be bothered even to fake an attentive silence when Mozart himself was at the keyboard. And while he may have been annoyed, he could not have been surprised. French aristocrats of the Old Regime hired entire orchestras to accompany their dinner gatherings. Mozart composed a full work, the “Paris” Symphony, designed to toy with audience responses and solicit mid-movement applause. At the Opéra in Paris, the king formally forbade all interruptions, but even after his decree was enforced by the presence of musket-bearing guards, it did no good.
As Boston University professor James Johnson has described in his classic study “Listening in Paris,” music was long considered “an agreeable ornament to a magnificent spectacle,” a pleasant backdrop for socializing. Voltaire called the Opéra a “public rendezvous,” and it was indeed a place where bejeweled elite could see and be seen. The men-only parterre, on the floor level of the theater, was the rowdiest area, where dogs might wander free and drunken spectators might hum or sing along — that is, when not making merry, whistling at the singers, or settling disputes with fisticuffs. In the more genteel opera boxes, viewers relished the chance to gossip, flirt, and converse at full volume, though occasionally the sounds wafting from the stage got in the way, causing one opera-goer to complain of “the sacrifice of pleasure that a pretty piece of music can cause.”
All of these freer, unsublimated habits of listening began to gradually shift in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as music came into its own as an independent art, freed from the shackles of court and church. Beethoven was one of the first composers to experience that freedom, and the responses to his music would change not just how audiences listened but what they heard. An art form associated with decorous entertainment and sensual pleasure suddenly became the purveyor of deeper spiritual truths, a shift reinforced by writers of the time. E.T.A. Hoffmann, for instance, wrote of Beethoven’s music as speaking “in god-like language of the sublime wonders of that faraway romantic land in which we live perishing in inexpressible yearning.” Perhaps, by extension, it was time to rethink that bit about brawling in the parterre.
Newly solemn models of concert-hall comportment soon rose up as a means of receiving these deeper messages. W. H. Wackenroder, another early German romanticist, depicted an ideal concert-goer as listening “with precisely the same reverence as if [one] had been in church — just as still and motionless.” Most German composers did not complain. Robert Schumann suggested his audience members “should be turned to stone pagodas.”
But if music in the 19th century began to speak more directly to the soul, it did not necessarily follow that pristine silence was the only response. While Germans burrowed inward in search of spiritual depth, the French, for instance, tended to receive music’s new expressive potency with a certain, shall we say, joie de vivre.
“After the fourth measure of the entrance of the finale,” wrote the composer Hector Berlioz in an 1835 review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “it has happened, not once, but at every performance of this symphony in France, that the whole audience has stood up as one body and covered the thundering orchestras with its cries. . . . In the front boxes, many a delicate young face looks down to stifle convulsive sobs; some young men break into laughter, while others tear their hair or go through a thousand wild contortions.”
Today’s champions of concert hall quiet as a timeless virtue seem to have missed these earlier chapters. Yet something else of note was occurring as listening habits evolved over the course of the 19th century: The music of the present was becoming the music of the past. The repertoire performed by most orchestras shifted from being made up mostly of works by living or recently deceased composers to consisting mostly of works by an emerging canon of older historic composers.
And with the original creators no longer around to imbue a sense of their music as a flexible living document, the task now facing conductors and performers became a kind of pristine realization of the composer’s original artistic vision. Or what they thought that vision must have been.
This was the so-called werktreue ideal, and as the philosopher Lydia Goehr has argued, it helped transform concert halls into rarefied environments apart from the world, akin to museums where one might stare at the great art of the past through glass that was, when conditions were ideal, completely transparent. Any noise in the hall, any intrusions from the outside world, any disruptions in between the movements of a complete organic work, disturbed its unity, clouded the vision of the composer, smudged the glass between us and the work of art.
This way of thinking still deeply informs classical music culture today — it is one central aspect of what we might call the genealogy of silence. Others who have pondered these questions point to the early 20th-century advent of recording technologies. Listening to records is a passive experience; there is no one to applaud.
Yet from the beginning of the trend toward reverential listening, there have been skeptics. “What will result from this scrupulous silence and continuous attention?” Stendahl wondered. He answered his own question with a prediction: “That fewer people will enjoy themselves.”
Some piano virtuosos of the older vintage, weaned on recitals full of warm real-time interaction with their listeners, would certainly agree — and they would count themselves among the deprived. These artists, chronicled by Kenneth Hamilton in his charming book “After the Golden Age,” thought of the new concert-hall silence as a kind of sterile chill descending on the music. “If there is no applause the artist infers unconsciously that the audience is cold and uninterested,” wrote the legendary pianist Moriz Rosenthal. “Moreover, he cannot know which of the movements were best or least liked.”
Johnson, the BU professor, also wisely notes that from the outset there was something exclusionary in the new silence of the early 19th century. Bourgeois codes of conduct emphasized politeness as a key to a cultivated sensibility. And by insisting on others’ conforming to this code of etiquette, one reinforced one’s own high standing. “Policing manners thus became an act of self-reassurance,” he writes. “It confirmed one’s social identity.” Johnson cites one press report of a violin recital in 1823 at which “one-half of the hall acted as police, so to speak, and demanded silence.”
The spiritual descendants of that silence police force are of course still with us today, sprinkled through the crowd at most concerts as if undercover, lying in wait to (without irony) loudly shush anyone who claps in the wrong place.
Their adamance is understandable. The quiet of a concert hall makes it a kind of refuge, a quality I deeply appreciate, and I can’t tell you how many concerts I’ve attended where a beautifully delicate passage in the music is ruined by a dropped program book or a ringing cellphone. I especially prize silences at the very end of a work — that magical moment when a conductor holds the silence as 2,000 people hold their breath, and the sound fades into its own ghostly resonance. Where else in a noisy, distracted culture can you experience such a thing?
At the same time, the practice of vigilante shushing is not a great look for an art form that is increasingly concerned about widening and replenishing its audiences. I am often concerned that newcomers to a classical concert can all too easily mistake the music’s packaging — its rules and rituals — for the thing itself.
Concert hall etiquette aside, it’s also worth thinking about what listening norms implicitly tell us about our own attitudes toward the music. Here, a comparison with attitudes toward nature can help. As the environmental historian William Cronon has argued, when we define wilderness so pristinely that any human presence is seen as corrupting it, we are de facto proposing a conception of nature that has no room for us inside of it.
Likewise, when any hint of human existence — a cough, a cheer, a sigh, a clap — is seen as contaminating the purity of the music, we are essentially defining ourselves as outsiders to music, destined to remain peering in through the glass window, however clear it may be. This is the antithesis of what Thomas Mann once called for: art “on a first-name basis with humanity.”
A well-intended but uninformed listener who applauds into a silent hall will always pick up quickly on their own mistake and should not be shamed. One could even make the case that such enthusiasm is in keeping with the fashion for historically informed styles of performance — playing the music on period instruments in the manner it was played in its own day.
At intermission, the person who was shushed might even inform their shusher that they were only practicing period-style listening! History is in fact on their side.